For six flurried days from Oct. 19, Tokyo’s ritzy Midtown complex area hosted a flock of excited fashionistas for the ninth biannual Japan Fashion Week.

But this time around, the designers, models and critics must have been feeling some opening-night jitters after a tumultuous year for the designer fashion industry.

Amid the fallout from the global credit crunch, Japan’s fashion world was shocked when the venerable Yohji Yamamoto brand filed for bankruptcy protection just weeks before JFW. Many international luxury brands have also deserted Japan, while lower-end fast-fashion labels such as Uniqlo, H&M and Forever21 have been on a roll as shoppers rein in their spending.

“It’s especially tough for us young designers right now,” said prominent own-name label creator Motonari Ono. “We know we may have to go several seasons at the beginning without any orders, but even this time I couldn’t afford tiered seating so the people in the back row could see the runway better.”

Unlike large brands, such as Yohji, with their huge overheads, JFW participants pluckily insisted they are still making enough to keep going.

“We are a small company with a niche fanbase that buys our products, so we’re doing OK for now,” said Matohu designer Hiroyuki Horihata.

And indeed, running entirely counter to these hard times, the recent JFW lineup was really strong, with 50 brands presenting their spring/summer 2010 collections to nearly 22,000 visitors. Businesswise, too, the number of buyers — many from overseas — shot up from just 19 last year to 125 this time around.

In addition, many of the new faces on the official schedule were brands that had previously shunned the event in lieu of pursuing overseas success (Dress33), or had ignored the schedule to hold shows on their own terms (Dress Camp).

“There’s a way to show in Paris and another way to do it in Tokyo,” said Dress33 designer Toshikazu Iwaya, commenting on his changed approach. “They are both important, and I am glad to show my collection as part of JFW.”

This sentiment, and others expressed by many designers throughout the week, showed a shift in the paradigm from a “Paris-or-bust” way of thinking to a revival of homeland pride.

“I’m showing my collection in Tokyo and I make clothing using the best textiles and technology Japan has to offer me,” said Hiroko Ito of Hisui.

It is no secret to those in the industry that the same advanced fabric-makers Ito referred to are also used in top-tier luxury houses such as Chanel and Gucci — but for a significant difference in price to buyers. This in itself should be a huge draw for consumers, but right now it seems any message on quality is getting lost in an avalanche of fast fashion.

Since the appearance this year of those dirt-cheap chainstores in Tokyo mentioned above, and with many more to come, the unequal price competition they present is continuing to push high-end designers ever closer to the financial brink. Not that this is causing everyone to despair, with Dress33’s Iwaya optimistically declaring during JFW, “I think this fast-fashion thing is just a trend. People will eventually realize the importance of good design . . . I hope.”

Faced with this rocky landscape, many at JFW were arguing that the best option for local brands would be to work to strengthen their core businesses at home while also carefully expanding abroad — specifically in the booming Chinese and other Asian markets. However, direct fashion channels between Japan and China don’t yet really exist.

“We’re thinking of setting something up, but currently all fashion business with China is done through New York and Paris,” said Nobuyuki Ota, president of Issey Miyake Inc., who is also on JFW’s organizing committee.

“We do a lot of business with Asia at those fashion epicenters,” he explained, “and therefore it is imperative that Japan has a strong voice in those markets. This is why we also push our JFW brands to show abroad.”

Faced with the prospect of being eternally stuck in the second tier of world fashion dominated by New York, Paris and Milan, is JFW — as some believe — being forced to pander to the media to secure publicity and attract Japanese corporate sponsorship?

Not so, Ota insisted: “I’m happy with the partnership with (record label Avex). It’s flashy, very otaku (geeky-obsessive).” He explained that “otakudom” was an underlying theme for JFW. “It’s not a bad word anymore. It’s about passion. There are many Japanese designers who have become famous thanks to their otaku tendencies. Rei Kawakubo and Tsumori Chisato, for example. Even Jean Paul Gaultier is an otaku of historical clothing, but he’s been using those elements in his shows for so long that no one thinks twice about it anymore.

“I think Japanese designers should follow that example and just open up and embrace it.”

Putting its money where its mouth is, on Oct. 30 the JFW committee helped Mikiosakabe stage a show in Tokyo’s otaku heartland of Akihabara using girls from the area’s popular “maid cafes” as models.

But it seems marketing only goes so far. Jil Wu from Vogue Taiwan, said: “When I use brands such as Undercover in my magazine it’s because I think the design is good. It has nothing to do with the brand being from Japan.”

Apart from all this, JFW now sits in a precarious spot following a sea change in the political order following the opposition Democratic Party of Japan’s landslide victory in Aug. 30 elections.

“When the DPJ won the election, they froze our budget completely. We had to make our case that the fashion industry supports too many businesses big and small to let it go,” said Akiko Shinoda, JFW’s director of international affairs.

Having made that case for the time being, JFW will continue to run in tandem with the annual Tokyo International Film Festival, the Festival/Tokyo international drama month and other game-, anime-, music- and manga-related events. Together, they comprise the ambitious monthlong Japan Contents International (CoFesta) aimed at spotlighting Japan’s prowess in cutting-edge culture.

But as the self-styled Paulus, editor in chief of London-based fashion magazine Issue One, soberingly put it: “When it comes to fashion, Japan sits very comfortably in the driver’s seat. But they just have yet to turn that key in the ignition and drive.”

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