Man who gave us loose white socks eyes comeback

by Taiga Uranaka

The man behind the “loose socks” fad among schoolgirls had enough of the phenomenon long before it died out.

Akira Tokita, 62, occasionally still spots girls in baggy white socks on the streets, but the creation that made him a celebrity fails to trigger any sentimentality. Tokita’s attention is focused a little higher: skirts.

“Miniskirts have become a trend again,” said Tokita, president of sock maker Browndoll Co. “It’s our ‘show time,’ because it inevitably brings attention to legs.”

Despite being revered in the industry as a man of ideas, crazy or otherwise, Tokita saw his business go under in March due to a lack of hit products and pressure from a price-cutting offensive by larger rivals.

The firm filed for court protection from creditors under the fast-track Civil Rehabilitation Law, with liabilities of 330 million yen.

“I was at a loss, ” he said. “I cannot express the feeling back then. I had devoted my life to socks.”

Seven months on, however, it’s business as usual for Tokita and his company.

Buyers from department stores flocked to a three-day company exhibition last week in Tokyo to see Browndoll’s spring and summer collection, featuring flower-patterned leg accessories.

Tokita has also taken to wearing flamboyantly colored jackets again. In the months immediately following the bankruptcy, he had been wearing dark suits as a show of mourning.

“The point is,” he said, “you should not change anything, no matter how bad the situation is.”

Tokita maintained his employees’ salaries and bonuses even after filing for bankruptcy. The rehabilitation plan has been given the full support of creditors, and the firm is on track to pay back its rescheduled debts by the end of this year.

Tokita established the firm in 1980 after leaving a major nylon company to follow his ambition in women’s leg wares.

He said it was never his intention to create such a social phenomena with the release of loose socks, originally designed with young adults in mind.

The loose socks idea was born in the United States in the early 1990s.

Working women in Los Angeles and New York began wearing comfortable sneakers for their daily commute, switching to regular shoes before entering the office. But the women found that sneakers weren’t very comfortable when worn with sheer hose and so began wearing baggy aerobics socks to go with their sneakers.

But in Japan, the socks appealed to schoolgirls. The fashion took off in Tokyo and quickly spread nationwide.

“Girls loved them,” he said, “because these socks make their legs look slimmer by comparison.”

In the peak year of 1996, the company sold 600,000 pairs.

Tokita’s firm introduced a new style of loose sock every 10 days to respond to demand from its style-conscious customers, who showed impressive creativity when it came to concentrating on minor differentiations from peers.

In their quest for ever-baggier socks, many girls ended up wearing socks that were longer than they were tall, and some resorted to using large recyclable plastic PET bottles to stretch the socks to the limit.

“Just imagine two fat white socks standing on their ends beside a sleeping girl,” he said.

Contrary to popular belief, Browndoll’s record sales of 650 million yen in 2000 were not the result of the loose socks fad, nor was it pushed to the wall because the fad ended.

In 1997, while the fad was still going strong, Browndoll stopped selling loose socks and began looking for the next big thing, hoping to stay ahead of the large companies that were already beginning to flood the market with cheaper products.

The record sales were the result of its hit range of fishnet pantyhose.

Seeing the end of the loose socks craze, the media immediately tied it to the demise of Browndoll. “Gone with the loose socks,” one headline read.

“It’s not true,” Tokita said. “I just wonder why they wrote these stories without confirming the facts with me.”

Clients, like creditors, are on his side. Some major department stores held a “Browndoll fair” in late fall, allocating premium store space for its products — unprecedented treatment for a company of Browndoll’s size.

Tokyo’s Isetan department store, which enjoys an industrywide reputation as a fashion powerhouse, was impressed by Tokita’s flamboyant ideas and his daring management style.

“Anyway, it is (the) No. 1” sock company, said Keiji Iko, a buyer for Isetan’s female apparel section. “Browndoll has the will to make bold decisions and put ideas into actual products.”

Tokita is currently focused on next summer, considered a bad season for the sock industry.

“We have to keep rolling out new products,” he said. “We should not expect one big lucky hit. The loose socks happened to become a boom among schoolgirls, but our core target is young working women.”