The meteoric rise of fast fashion in Japan and around the world has been the major style story of this new century.

Fast-fashion companies continue to dominate high streets across the globe and are fast turning themselves into household names. In Tokyo, Uniqlo, H&M, Topshop, Zara and Forever 21 have scrawled their neon logos across the cityscape and turned upside-down preconceived notions of individual shopping areas catering for specific consumers.

Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district is no longer a purely luxury zone, as cheaper chain brands are now localizing their “luxury-casual” merchandise there as well. Similarly, the youth-fashion warren that is Tokyo’s Harajuku district has also lost its bohemian and alternative allure, transforming itself instead into a mass-consumer playground.

But if you think the market is saturated now, then think again. Not content with muscling their way into Tokyoites’ hearts and minds, these companies have their focus set on other urban centers in Japan. Topshop, owned by British entrepreneur Philip Green, has recently announced plans to open 15 stores within three years in locations as far apart as Nagoya, Fukuoka and Hiroshima. Add this to Forever 21’s hugely ambitious vision to open another 96 stores around the country, and it’s easy to see that the Japanese apparel industry is in the midst of a major upheaval.

Timothy Schepis, a leading consultant in Japan’s fashion and luxury-brand market, says that in addition to economic stimulus and employment growth, “one of the positive points of fast fashion is that it is catering to demand. Uniqlo and Zara have great quality and are also trendy. They have the money to do the production and manufacturing and can produce the output really quickly. They can do the turnaround in weeks and are able to adjust to consumers’ desires for fast fashion.”

Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo and sister label g.u., in particular, has stamped itself into consumer consciousness.

Schepis adds that Tadashi Yanai, Fast Retailing’s charismatic CEO — who is currently Japan’s richest man — is responsible for the company’s good fortune and the changing landscape of Japanese fashion.

“He’s a genius and a brilliant businessman” he says. “He’s built up the mystique of Uniqlo. Everybody shops there. The quality has been strong, which is something surprising in fast fashion. Especially in Japan, if Uniqlo had bad quality, people would stop shopping there.

“He’s adapted to the consumer demand for fashionable and inexpensive clothes that have high quality and which can be worn for several seasons. And he’s done all it very quickly.”

Critics, however, have been quick to point out the negative aspects of fast fashion — such as the catastrophic environmental consequences. For instance, the New York Times, in a recent expose, ran a story about the deliberate destruction of unsold clothing, in New York, by the Sweden-based fashion outfit H&M. Trash divers found mountains of clothing and hangers that had been destroyed and dumped at the back entrance to a store in the city’s 35th street.

Commenting on such revelations in a recent interview with style.com, Cathy Horyn, a leading New York fashion critic, noted that such waste “adds a lot of stress on the planet, a lot of consumption in terms of raw materials. All the treatment of stuff, all these fabrics with different materials to make them stretch, smell good, to make them warm — all of that pressure is very hard on the environment and potentially hard on your body.”

Nonetheless, most fast-fashion retailers, in an attempt to fit a variety of body shapes and cut costs, use synthetic and stretchable fibers such as elestane (lycra) and polyurethane in addition to manufactured fibers such as polyester, which is an oil-based material. This is a practice antithetical to many high-fashion labels, who claim to use high-quality and natural fabrics which are tailored for the body. In contrast, many synthetic fabrics are produced through energy-intensive processes requiring crude oil, which releases potentially dangerous emissions such as hydrogen chloride.

Fast-fashion players have also been criticized for a fundamental lack of innovation, which has left many involved in lawsuits regarding the imitation and flagrant copying of high-fashion merchandise. Forever 21, on top of disputes with, among others, U.S. designer Diane Von Furstenberg, has been involved in a major legal wrangle with minor American label Trovota over alleged imitations of a series of shirts. This kind of allegation, according to insiders, is ultimately damaging for the industry and has serious implications for designers’ intellectual-property rights.

It can also be said that the proliferation of fast fashion has been instrumental in the declining fortunes of the traditional and iconic Japanese department store.

In a recent online survey by Nikkei Inc., 58 percent of consumers said they have reduced their visits to department stores (63 percent of them due to prices) in 2009 compared to 2006. Moreover, 41.8 percent of those surveyed had switched allegiance to Uniqlo, while 22.5 percent are now frequenting shopping malls.

While Tokyo’s department stores are in a state of crisis — with Yurakucho’s Seibu, and Isetan in Kichijoji the latest casualties — recent figures from the Japan Department Store Association add to the general misery by confirming that sales have been falling for 23 consecutive months.

Schepis adds that the typical Japanese consumer is finding solace not in big-city luxury, but in more suburban areas.

“One of the most successful shopping malls is Aeon Laketown in (a dormitory-town area of ) Saitama,” he says. “These discount malls are family focused and inexpensive. The shopping malls which are doing well are the ones in the suburbs. The ones that focus on families are offering more than shops — they have things to do with kids, shows and movies theaters. They still aren’t doing great, but they’re still doing much better than the department stores that have had 15 years to reshape themselves but haven’t.

“Japan’s consumers are shifting quickly from traditional department stores to more suburban shopping centers, where they can park and spend the whole day there. It’s a family day for most people and it’s also more accessible.”

Consumer shopping strategy is also changing, with many happier to match high fashion with fast fashion. Young women are still snapping up luxury handbags, but they’re sporting them with items from Uniqlo or Zara. This compromise will also lead to an upsurge in midlevel brands, with more product-savvy shoppers opting for the middle ground.

Schepis sees brands like Kate Spade, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Furla doing particularly well in the coming years.

However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the power and attraction of fast-fashion leaders such as Uniqlo. In a recent interview, Daisuke Hase, a representative of Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, claims that his colleagues won’t rest easy until they have become the biggest global casualwear company by 2020.

He added: “In reality we are number one in Japan but we are building strong equity in some countries in Asia and have a lot of opportunities in Europe and the United States. We want to strengthen Uniqlo and rapidly grow . . . but we have a long way to go. Having said that, as we call ourselves ‘Fast Retailing,’ we move things very fast. Please keep an eye on us; we will change the world very quickly.”

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