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Davide Sesia, representative director of Prada Japan Co., is on the prowl.

His target: the next department store lot for lease. His weapons: the Prada luxury brand, double-digit sales growth and smooth Japanese.

“I must first make department store operators comfortable about dealing with a foreigner,” said Sesia, who opened the latest Prada boutique in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in November. “Using Japanese is absolutely essential.”

Luxury brands are locked in a furious battle for every percentage point of market share in Japan. Although championed by youth, who mix Prada bags with more generic fare, Prada is no exception. Japan makes up roughly 23 percent of the group’s worldwide sales.

The placement of a boutique in each department store counts, and Sesia uses every card he has. That includes his language ability, for which he was headhunted from apparel maker Benetton Japan three years ago.

A native of Italy, Sesia studied Japanese prior to receiving a master’s in business administration from an Italian university in 1991. A few months later, he was in Japan, working in retail before becoming chief financial officer at Benetton Japan in 1998.

Sesia’s negotiating tips range from using deliberately vague Japanese phrases to avoiding violent body language.

“You don’t want everyone in the room distracted by your being a foreigner,” he said. After a pause, he smiled. “Of course, you don’t want them to forget, either.”

Thanks in part to his efforts and to Prada’s adoption of a new line of ready-made clothing and shoes tailored to better fit Japanese, Prada Japan’s market share rose several percentage points in 2003, Sesia estimated.

The Japanese language can actually be turned into a weapon, according to the suave negotiator.

Verbs often come at the end of phrases. That gives the speaker extra time to react to indirect facial expressions, and even to reverse the entire meaning of a sentence, he said.

Sesia rarely blinks. Even some of his Japanese staff said Sesia’s large eyes, which he fixes steadily on others, were slightly disconcerting at first.

Aware that his presence can intimidate at times, Sesia speaks Japanese slowly, in a tone much gentler than his English, which comes fast, clipped and businesslike. When switching to Japanese, his face suddenly lights up in a dazzling, winning smile.

Meanwhile, he said, “You can say everything without promising anything” in Japanese. An example might be saying something like, “We will make an effort to do the best we can to meet your request.”

Such phrases have helped Sesia secure a location in a department store before making a binding agreement, and has bought him time to conduct market research, shop around and help Prada Japan triple its net profits in fiscal 2002.

Of course, feigning noncomprehension still gains a foreigner leverage, he said.

Foreign managers can ask bold questions, demand unprecedented returns from staff and overhaul time-honored logistics arrangements, all without raising resentment that could cost a Japanese his head, he said.

“The Japanese always forgive foreigners only because they are foreigners. . . . I hope to help change that soon.”

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