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When Japan’s beleaguered textiles industry belatedly decided to invest in organizing a fashion week to rival the best of Paris, Milan, New York and London — and persuaded the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to back it — they hoped a slick new event would garner valuable worldwide media coverage and help boost exports in the face of competition from China, writes Martin Webb.

The development of Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo (JFW) certainly hasn’t been a smooth ride, given the dyed-in-the-wool hierarchies, feuds and convoluted politics that have for so long stymied the city’s aspirations to become an A-list venue for movers and shakers in the world of fashion. Only now, 18 months after the new-look event was launched, can it claim limited success — but it still remains dogged by controversy.

In a move that has alienated many of Tokyo’s top style-setters, the third JFW was held from Sept. 4-8, putting it before all the other showcases on the season’s global fashion calendar, not after the world’s other main catwalk shows, as it always used to be. That radical change broke a 20-year pattern of only getting down to business long after the rest of the world’s wholesale buyers and fashionista editors had headed home from Paris — the final stop on the style circuit — to finalize budgets and put magazines to bed. As such, the organizers hoped to make an impact at the start of the season, rather than be ignored at the end.

Greatly improved result

JFW spokeswoman Yayoi Suzuki said that by making it more convenient for globe-trotting fashion folk, the new dates produced a greatly improved result — more overseas buyers (up to 50 from 20 last season) and journalists (up to 130 from 90). “We’ve definitely succeeded in raising the profile of the event,” she said, adding: “This should pave the way for better results next season.”

But a more mixed view of the shift in timing comes from Miwa Goroku, editor at Fashion News magazine, which offers the most comprehensive JFW coverage.

“If the question is simply getting the JFW name known on a global scale, it does appear to be a success,” she told The Japan Times. “But the jury is still out as to whether the overseas media is portraying the truly interesting stuff coming out of Tokyo, and the extent to which the event is actually having an effect on sales.”

Besides its new time slot, JFW also got a new venue — abandoning its marquees in Aoyama for the Tokyo International Forum, where many of the 44 brands on the official schedule presented their Spring 2007 catwalk shows this September.

Perversely, though, despite the success of the new time slot, next season’s event will revert to its old position, trailing the Paris collections, in what will surely again become a final nonevent on the world fashion circuit.

Generous sponsor

The venue will be changing again, too. Although not yet confirmed, next season’s shows are due to be staged from March 12-16 on the site of the former headquarters of Toray Industries, one of JFW’s most generous sponsors, in central Tokyo’s decidedly downbeat and unhip Nihonbashi district.

But not all may be lost. Despite the bizarre flip-flops over timing and choice of venue, JFW does appear to have — to the surprise of many — come up with some better ideas to attract media coverage. Shows staged by Sony-Ericsson to launch a new cell phone, and by Uniqlo to promote new lines by Tokyo catwalk hopefuls, were snapped up excitedly in the international press.

This glimmer of global media hope has gone some way to placating participating designers, almost all of whom are focused on generating interest abroad. But JFW still has a long, long way to go before it becomes a magnet for Japan’s finest, who, intent on breaking into overseas markets, instead take their shows to Paris.

So, all in all, with top labels — including mercibeaucoup, DressCamp and Han Ahn Soon — making no secret of their intention to show overseas as soon as their resources allow it, the event already looks set to hemorrhage new talent faster than it can uncover it.

At the mercibeaucoup collection, which visiting Time magazine critic Andrew Tucker and Paul Flynn of i-D magazine rated as their favorite, models with glam-rock face paint literally leapt down the runway in between giant translucent balloon sculptures. The brand, designed by former Frapbois maestro Eri Utsugi and backed by A-Net — the company founded by J-fash pioneer Issey Miyake to promote his proteges — has the financial muscle to have opened six stores in the last two months. Nonetheless, trade insiders believe Utsugi is almost certain to follow A-Net stablemates Zucca and Tsumori Chisato to Paris.

While Utsugi’s cute and quirky designs brim with an originality that could only emerge from Tokyo, the more predictable frills-and-flounces glam of fellow high-flyers DressCamp and Han Ahn Soon is less likely to compare favorably with European peers.

While the former brand goes from strength to strength on the back of tieups with watchmaker Piaget and sportswear brand Champion, Osaka-born Korean designer Han Ahn Soon presented a series of voluminous evening dresses, including a stunning all-gold floor-length number, in her first runway show for three seasons after finding an ambitious new backer. Despite skepticism over their chances of achieving critical acclaim, both labels have publicly declared their intention to shift their shows to Paris at the earliest opportunity.

But it’s not all bad news for JFW. To its credit, the event’s organizers have managed to persuade Yasuhiro Mihara — who scored with a sneakers line for Puma, but who quit Tokyo’s catwalks in 2004 in favor of Milan’s menswear event — to reprise the all-gray collection he presented in Italy in July. Accompanied by tap-dance star Kazunori Kumagai performing live, the show included sharp and slinky looks for ladies, as well as the deconstructed tailoring that has won him many male devotees.

Despite this minor coup, Tokyo’s powers-that-be failed to persuade top-ranked menswear outfit Mister Hollywood to show under their banner. Along with much-hyped womenswear label Green, it paraded the latest creations from its N. Hoolywood line — a series of dressed-down formalwear looks — in the week following the officially sanctioned time frame.

Also doggedly refusing to have anything to do with the suits behind JFW was Limi Feu, the brand headed up by Limi Yamamoto, daughter of dark and deconstructed design paragon Yohji.

Likewise, the venerable fashion houses of Jun Ashida, Yuki Torii and Yukiko Hanai also spurn JFW — but in their cases it’s because of their concern that their aging but high-spending clientele, many of whom are invited guests at their catwalk shows, may be averse to them changing their long-standing timing to suit foreign visitors.

But cozying up to the JFW executive can certainly yield rewards. Regular on-schedule participants Theatre Products and menswear label Iliad were both hooked up with a deal to create “capsule collections” of just a few items for apparel giant Uniqlo, which will retail them at extremely affordable prices through its 730-store nationwide retail network.

Certainly, the injection of cash earned from this collaboration was put to good use at Iliad, whose designer Gentaro Noda was inspired by medieval court costumes to create by far his best collection to date.

But in total contrast, the duo behind Theatre Products paraded an excruciatingly ugly lineup of girly dresses in sickly pastel shades on a paltry five models, who were clearly drafted in on a shoestring budget.

The yawning gap between the quality of those two productions follows an established pattern that is opposite to the global norm: namely, that Tokyo brands catering to style-conscious males achieve more success than those producing apparel for women. Consequently, along with Iliad, brands like Mister Hollywood and John Lawrence Sullivan look set to replicate the success of labels like Number (N)ine, Mihara Yasuhiro and Kiminori Morishita by winning lucrative wholesale orders from major retailers overseas.

While international buyers’ interest in womenswear brands was limited, design duo Mint Designs, who debuted four years ago, finally elicited attention from several top overseas stores with a lineup dominated by huge basket headgear and kitsch prints. Dubai super-boutique Villa Moda, and Singapore’s classy Club 21 store, are both said to be showing an interest in stocking the latest collection, which was arguably the brand’s best to date.

So while several labels whose international debut is long overdue got a favorable outcome from the new time slot, with next season’s JFW returning to its trailing spot on the world’s fashion-shows calendar, as apparel industry daily Senken Shimbun editor Takuro Ogasawara says, the long-term future of their deals remains in doubt.

“More and more designers are realizing that moving to Paris is the best way to reach an international audience,” he says. “There’s a distinct possibility that JFW, and the Tokyo collections as we know them, will cease to exist.”

So much for JFW’s vision — and the hard work put in by so many to turn around Japan’s fortunes in the big wide world of fashion.

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