Fashion Week Tokyo escapes comfort zone

by Misha Janette

Special To The Japan Times

In what was the second season of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo since the German car-maker crucially stepped in as lead sponsor when government funding dried up last year, 37 brands presented their collections for the 2012-13 fall/winter season from March 18 to 23.

So, having been hooked up to life-support courtesy of lead sponsor Mercedes-Benz — along with cosmetics brand Maybelline and express transportation company DHL as sponsors — how did this season’s staging of the twice-yearly Fashion Week Tokyo fare?

On paper, the 50,000 attendees to the shows and the week’s fashion-related events around Tokyo sure made it sound like a party to go down in history. Shows and events were streamed online at official websites, and those brought in an extra whopping 43,000 page views a day — or 302,000 over the week.

But still, it’s impossible to escape the fact that if fashion week and all its hubbub is meant to knock one’s socks off, then in Japan, yours will still be clinging to the feet.

That’s because the invite-only runway shows are but a small portion of the week, with 11 related events running in tandem that help round out the Japanese sentiment toward fashion. And it’s in that area Tokyo remains lacking. Where fans in New York City or Paris will happily try to push their way into industry shows, their Japanese counterparts seem to mutely prefer events catering specifically to them.

A first this year was Tokyo Runway, a Tokyo Girls Collection-like fashion festival held at Yoyogi National Stadium, which pulled in 14,000 people (mostly young women). An appearance by high-fashion supermodel Ai Tominaga delivered the cachet, and a convincing tie-in, as she modeled looks from popular mid-range brands already available on store racks. For the more mature consumer, there was Ginza Runway, also in its first edition, that showed — for 2,000 non-industry attendees — casual store-ready clothing on a 100-meter denim runway.

However, the mainstream runway shows were not without their own pockets of excitement. Front-row seats in Tokyo are usually desolate in terms of celebrity sightings, but this season saw famous fashionistas such as singer ICONIQ, Chiaki Ito of AAA and Miss Universe contestant Maiko Sakai taking prime audience spots at shows including Somarta’s and the one staged by newcomer A Degree Fahrenheit.

On the international front, 15 countries were represented among the media attendees, and buyers from around the globe numbered a healthy 121. As well, there were representatives of more than 100 of the world’s leading media organizations in town during fashion week.

For sure, all eyes were on Tokyo — but in most cases not because of the fashion shows. Rather, the media pack was here as guests of French luxury brand Chanel, which held a series of lavish parties and a couture fashion show to express its support for Japan in the wake of last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Those events surely overshadowed Tokyo Fashion Week, and many insiders were left playing tug-of-war with time between the two. And though the visiting media hardly stepped into the Tokyo shows, it seems the fashion still rubbed off on some.

“There was scarcely a name in the fashion calendar that I — or anyone else — recognized … but that didn’t mean there weren’t great clothes to be found in the imaginative pioneer spirit of (the) collections,” said editor Tim Blanks on the website.

The fact even one such as he knew of so few Japanese designers and brands supports the widely held view that the managing Japan Fashion Week Organization (JFWO) has for too long failed to get Japan’s fashion word out beyond the island’s borders.

Recently, however, JFWO have got select brands to show on-schedule at New York Fashion Week, India Fashion Week and at the massively popular Pitti Uomo trade show staged in Florence, Italy, where, judging from the hugely positive reception, it was clear just how much Japanese fashion is still sought after.

“All three overseas events had far more attendees than we expected. I haven’t seen lines like that to our booths ever before,” said JFWO Director of International Affairs Akiko Shinoda. “Next, I’d like to see us work on something with South Korea.”

Though it’s true that the elite fashion industry is always expecting overnight successes, when it comes to the awareness of and trust in the saleability of new fashion among shop owners, consumers and the international circuit, seeds of innovation are slower to take root.

It could be said, in fact, that neither Rome nor Chanel were built in a day — and it seems we’ve still got a few bricks to lay.

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