THE HOLY GRAIL OF CUTENESS

Fashion world banking on teenage girls’ yearning to grow up

by Setsuko Kamiya

In an effort to capitalize on the Golden Week holiday period, many department stores across the country are targeting preteen and early teen girls with a series of brand-name clothing promotions, fashion shows and makeup classes.

The girls will be faced with an array of brand-name shirts in loud colors such as dark pink, yellow and sky blue, along with quieter-colored frilled skirts akin to those currently in vogue among young women.

The events will illustrate the growing niche market for girls in the 9-15 age bracket. These customers have traditionally been included in the “kids” fashion category.

Boosted by the popularity of teen TV idols and fashion models — along with the cooperation of big-spending mothers — this market is not just enjoying a temporary boom but has potential for continued growth, according to observers.

Publishers and clothing firms catering to early teenage girls says that listening to the customers is the key to success.

“Early teenage girls just want to be stylish and cute in a bit of a grownup way, but they have long been treated the same way as younger children,” said Kazuhide Miyamoto, chief editor of nicola, a fashion magazine put out by Shinchosha Publishing Co.

The magazine was launched as a quarterly in 1997, targeting some 3 million potential readers in the junior high school age bracket, Miyamoto said.

The popularity of nicola, one of the first fashion magazines of its kind, was such that it became a monthly in 2000, increasing its circulation to 210,000.

“We came to realize that many early teens are enthusiastic in fashion and have strong desire of self expression,” said Miyamoto. “But there were few clothes and other items aimed at these girls.”

Yasuyuki Sasaki, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) Ltd., said that Japan, like many other countries, has lacked a young girls’ market.

“It’s as if preteens and early teens are destined to live life in the shadows,” Sasaki said.

Younger children and toddlers are easier targets for many apparel makers, he said, as their mothers make all the purchasing decisions.

Children’s clothes are generally marketed in the catch-all “kids” category, which is meant to cover youngsters up to the age of 16, according to Yuzo Narumiya, president of apparel maker Narumiya International Ltd.

Narumiya, however, said, “Experience told me that kids start developing their own tastes for clothes around the age of 9.”

Early teens tend to change rapidly both physically and mentally, making it difficult for manufacturers to cater to their tastes, he said.

“That’s why I thought we had to get close to the girls and listen and understand what they want.”

Narumiya’s strategy is paying off. The firm’s brands — Daisy Lovers, Angel Blue, pom ponette and mezzo piano, are attracting clients.

The company generated sales of 22.67 billion yen in its 2001 business year, which ended in January, a near 1.5-fold increase on sales of 16.43 billion yen generated in the 1997 business year.

The popularity of teen TV idols has apparently helped boost sales in this sector.

The fashion craze among young girls was ignited in 1998 by Speed, an all-girl pop band that disbanded in March 2000, according to Noriko Shinoda, chief editor of Pichi Lemon, published by Gakken Co.

Speed consisted of four teenage girls whose synchronized singing and dancing proved to be extremely popular among their peers.

“Girls supported the street fashion of Speed members, and the enthusiasm for fashion really took off,” Shinoda said.

First published in 1986, Pichi Lemon shifted its focus from fortune telling and horoscopes to young girls’ fashion in early 1999. It now has a circulation of 250,000.

Currently, the activities of Morning Musume, another popular all-girl band, have a considerable influence on young girls, according to Yoko Watanabe, a spokeswoman for toy maker Takara Co.

Morning Musume is composed of 13 girls, most of whom are teenagers. Takara launched a series of 300 yen makeup items, such as lip stick, aimed at preteen and early teen girls in September. They have since sold 500,000 items.

Watanabe said the firm’s young customers have come to realize that looking cute is just a matter of following a few good tips, having seen Morning Musume members join the group as amateurs and gradually become stars.

“Girls these days have more information on how to be pretty, and they devote their energy to whatever it takes,” she said.

The girls at the center of this marketing frenzy cannot do much, however, without the support of their mothers, who hold the purse strings.

Far cheaper T-shirts than Narumiya brand T-shirts, which retail at 6,900 yen, are commonly available.

Many mothers do not hesitate paying 20,000 yen during one store visit, said Narumiya.

“Girls who want to look cute will pick what they want, and mothers are supportive to fulfill their desires, because they are also used to being stylish themselves.”

Mothers of preteen and early teenage girls are generally in the 35-40 age bracket.

The women of this generation, said Naoko Odaka, a researcher at Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, probably enjoyed reading fashion magazines and buying fashionable clothes during the bubble economy in the late 1980s.

Odaka also pointed out that the relationship between some parents and their children has become more of a friendship equation.

“Parents in the older generation showed authority over their children and the way to spend the money on their kids, but this generation have no authority over their children, nor do they wish to have such authority,” she said.

The decline in the number of children nationwide will constitute a tail wind for the early-teens market, Odaka added.

Izumi Takiguchi, 36, of Higashi-Murayama in western Tokyo, may fit Okada’s analysis. Takiguchi has just one child, 9-year-old Moe.

“I loved designers’ brand clothes myself when I was younger, and I never minded lining up for bargains,” she said.

One Saturday in April, Izumi and Moe were browsing at the preopening of a new Tokyo shop targeting young girls.

Girl is Girl by nicola, located in Harajuku, is a joint project involving nicola magazine and Click Enterprise Inc., a subsidiary of trading house Itochu Corp.

Having officially opened Saturday, it markets existing brand clothes, shoes, underwear, sweets and other goods priced between 30 yen and 8,900 yen.

Some of the products are developed from designs submitted from nicola readers, according to magazine editor Miyamoto.

Izumi said she enjoyed shopping for clothes with her daughter, who has recently began showing an interest in fashion. She said she thought some of the brand clothes were expensive, but would buy them if her daughter looked really cute in them.

Yuka Takahashi and Emi Sasaki, both 14-year-old junior high school students from Adachi Ward, Tokyo, visited the shop as selected customers among nicola readers.

Emi bought a 4,900 yen T-shirt, while Yuka bought a 1,200 yen pouch, both of which were designed for the new shop. They said they have been enthusiastic readers of nicola since they were 12.

A 43-year-old mother who came with her 12-year-old daughter from Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture, said she now enjoys the bright colors and designs that her daughter is fond of.

“I used to think they were too loud, but since my daughter wears them rather than the ones I buy for her, I gradually came to think that it was better for her to wear what she likes,” she said.

The woman said she did not mind the 15,000 yen train fare to Tokyo.