‘Fast fashion’ of South Korea, Singapore arrives

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

In the competitive Japanese “fast fashion” market, two new Asian brands have recently come in to challenge domestic and Western rivals.

South Korea-based Mixxo and Singapore’s Charles & Keith have both launched stores here in the last few months.

Big names in their home countries and beyond but new to Japan, both are confident they can win the hearts of Japanese women by differentiating themselves from their competitors.

Mixxo’s operating company, the Seoul-based Eland, opened its first Japanese outlet in March in the Sogo department store in Yokohama and its second in April in Sendai.

Eland, which runs about 150 brands and 10,000 stores worldwide, launched Mixxo in 2010.

Mainly targeting women in their 20s to 40s, Mixxo said that while its outfits are designed to fit Asian women in general in terms of color and size, it is also producing items exclusively for Japanese customers.

Going out of its way to cater specifically to the Japanese market gives Mixxo a leg up over its fast fashion rivals, including Gap from the United States, Zara of Spain, Sweden’s H&M and Japan’s Uniqlo, the brand says.

Speciality store retailers of private label apparel makers “are playing a main role in creating fashion brands around the world now, and the Japanese market is at the center of that trend,” said Jang Seong Jong, sales manager of Eland Japan Inc., which operates Mixxo in Japan.

“We have studied the Japanese market for the past two to three years and decided that we are now ready to introduce our products and services in Japan,” Jang said in an interview with The Japan Times earlier this month.

Jang said coming up with products and sizes specifically for Japanese customers is important because “people check colors and designs of outfits first and then try them on. But a decision to buy items depends on whether they fit or not.”

Eland has partnered with Seven & I Holdings Co., which runs convenience stores, department stores and shopping malls nationwide.

The shop in the Yokohama Sogo has 500 sq. meters of sales space, the most on that floor, and the atmosphere is much more chic than the casual atmosphere of Uniqlo and H&M.

Prices range from ¥5,990 to ¥12,900 for jackets, ¥2,990 to ¥5,990 for blouses and ¥2,990 to ¥6,990 for skirts and pants.

Eland Japan said it plans to open 20 to 30 stores by 2015 and haul in ¥20 billion in sales. The firm also plans to introduce another brand, Spao, in July.

Singapore-based fast fashion brand Charles & Keith opened its first Japanese flagship store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district on April 6.

The store is located pretty much in the middle of the iconic fashion district, across from the La Foret fashion building and an H&M shop.

“I’m totally excited about the whole thing. Harajuku is one of the most renowned shopping districts in the world,” Fong Shee Beng, executive director of Charles & Keith, said shortly after the grand opening.

Fong said Charles & Keith’s strength is “a good mix” of luxury and affordability.

The 230-sq.-meter shop evokes the mood of a luxury store, while items, mostly shoes and bags, are priced at roughly ¥3,000 to ¥8,000.

To differentiate itself from its rival fast fashion brands, Charles & Keith focuses on footwear and accessories like bags and purses.

“If you talk about Uniqlo, H&M and Zara, they are predominantly apparel. . . . For us, we are footwear and accessory. It’s a bit different,” Fong said.

He added that the Japanese market is huge enough for newcomers to have success, and there are not many players focusing on Charles & Keith’s specialities, so “we are very confident.”

Charles & Keith, which has more than 300 stores worldwide, has already opened two other stores in Japan, one in Yokohama and the other in Osaka. It plans to open 40 in the next three years.

Jun Kagaya, who heads Charles & Keith’s Japanese branch, said the brand has seen steady sales since it debuted here.

“We thought not many people knew our brand, so our plan was to increase sales as we gradually improve the brand recognition,” he said.

The company has gotten off to a great start, especially at the flagship store in Harajuku, where sales have been about 1.5 times higher than expected, though this may just be an opening bubble, Kagaya said.

In Singapore, Charles & Keith’s stores are all located in shopping malls, but the firm decided to open the Harajuku store as a standalone to increase brand recognition, Kagaya said.

Opening more stores like this will be an option if it’s demonstrated the first one can attract customers as much as the Harajuku one, but the firm will be launching new shops mainly in shopping malls and fashion store buildings, he said.

While the two newcomers are confident they can carve out a spot in the Japanese market, some industry observers say it will be a major challenge for them to grow as big as the fashion behemoths like Uniqlo in Japan, which is already seeing fierce competition from fast fashion makers as well as other apparel makers.

Yet because the Japanese fashion market is quite diverse, it is possible for new players to carve out a niche, an analyst who wished to remain anonymous said.