It’s hard to talk about success stories at the moment, especially when in the past couple of weeks Mitsukoshi Ebisu closed up shop, large-scale boutique chain Beams trimmed numerous Tokyo locations from its retail portfolio, and Parco announced that two of its larger stores at Tsudanuma, Chiba Prefecture, and Shintokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, would be phased out over the coming years.
It is easy to play down the significance of these losses as they are all big household names with strong capital and multiple locations. These fashion spaces, however, do a better job than any form of media, including digital media, in bringing newer, smaller and regional fashion brands to a wider audience. They charge a hefty percentage of sales for the pleasure, but given how willing brands are to pay, it goes to show how valuable these kinds of spaces are.
Against this backdrop, it is revealing who is bucking the downward trend. Utility wear brand Workman has been on a rise, actually increasing its total sales over the past fiscal year, and all but maintaining its retail stores sales as well. (There was a drop on direct retail sales by 3.7%, but it’s a small number sure to make other brick-and-mortar stores very jealous.) Its number of total stores shot up from 856 to 902 in the same period, and the brand even made an appearance at Tokyo fashion week last year.
The connection with fashion is an interesting one, primarily because the success of the Workman brand seems to be that it has made more of an effort (even more than Uniqlo) to sell garments instead of fashion. This is not surprising given that the brand originated as one for blue-collar workers. Even as it has ventured into fashion, its pieces are utility-based and brand-specific, a self-contained island of practicality against runways and glossy magazines. Whether they include reversible suits that incorporate advanced air-flow tech for less than ¥5,000, or gilets with fitted fans, the lineup is hard-wearing, very affordable and aggressively anti-fashion.
Workman’s initial growth as a fashion brand may stem from associating itself with a tough masculine image, especially popular among men who “don’t do fashion,” but they have their eye on workwomen, too. Their practical lineup that pairs nicely with the men’s line has been doing well with women in their late-30s to 50s, but their next target is younger women. Appearing on the attendee-less runway of the Tokyo Girls Collection held on Feb. 28, their “tough and kawaii”-themed show and accompanying whimsical branding featuring outfits rather ill-fitted to an honest day’s work showed that, like the aforementioned Uniqlo, they’re willing to play by some fashion rules if it means reaching young women.
Exchange of influence
For all the hype around the digital frontiers to explore via video games, virtual idols and social media influencers to communicate fashion, it is still somewhat surprising that it is mostly larger international brands instead of smaller domestic labels exploring these niche avenues. Case in point, in February, Italian giant Valentino teamed up with Japanese virtual YouTuber Kizuna Ai to promote its resort collection. One of the reasons domestic-oriented brands steer away from these kinds of promotions is that Japanese pop culture has an increasingly global following, making their local customer base harder to target. Make no mistake, Kizuna Ai may be a Japanese creation, but she is a global influencer.
Still, we are starting to see digital media celebrities get the same deals traditional figures have taken for granted. With the help of youth fashion chain Wego, which has a strong track record with taking niche ideas mainstream, including the plus-size hit Punyus, 14-year-old TikTok and YouTube star Hinata launched her first collection on March 12. The Hinamon collection is incredibly cute and very much aimed at her young audience, which is pretty much the point.
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