See it on catwalk, buy it through cell phone

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

Screams erupted from 22,000 young women in flowery frills, boots, really short shorts and glittery jewelry whenever a model — dressed similarly — waltzed down the runway in a Tokyo stadium.

“Kawaii,” cooed the women in Japanese. “Cute, adorable.” As they gushed over the models and their outfits, many also pulled out their cell phones and placed orders for the clothes as the models marched past.

Japanese do on cell phones almost anything that Americans do on computers: read e-mail and news, search for restaurants, blog and shop. Enough new mobile phones were sold in Japan last year — 52.3 million — for nearly half the population.

The biannual Tokyo Girls Collection show, the brainchild of Tokyo startup Xavel Inc., targets both the popularity of mobile devices and the fashion frenzy of trendy youngsters.

Xavel runs girlswalker.com and fashionwalker.com, sites designed to be accessed from mobile phones as well as personal computers. And it welcomes retailers to sell their wares through the sites.

Since its 1999 founding, Xavel has grown into such a big name that Toyota Motor Corp., Walt Disney Co.’s Japan mobile unit, Tiffany & Co. and other big retailers are signing on to participate in the shows. About 200 companies, mostly smaller local brands, sell through fashionwalker.com.

Some 7 million people regularly read the girlswalker.com magazine site, while 3 million shop at fashionwalker.com each month, according to Xavel, which also runs a job-referral site that advertises positions in boutiques and other jobs likely to interest trendy women.

Xavel won’t disclose its sales commissions or the fee for taking part in the Tokyo Girls Collection show.

But its 2007 revenue was ¥13 billion, mostly from advertising and direct sales. Sales at this month’s one-day show in Tokyo totaled about ¥35 million, Xavel officials said.

“The clothes are so cute. The models are so cute,” said one enthusiast at the show, Emi Nogawa, 25, who planned to spend about ¥20,000 there.

Xavel’s success grows from marketing what it has dubbed “real clothes” — functional, everyday apparel — through cell phone communication and the fashion show, in contrast to the more arty design statements that make up the conventional fashion world’s shows, said Ayako Nagaya, chief producer of Tokyo Girls Collection.

Chanel, Christian Dior and other couture houses display their clothes months in advance so people look at winter clothes in the summer — and vice versa — at exclusive shows meant mainly for reporters and celebrities and their guests.

Xavel peddles off-the-rack women’s wear for the season in progress, carefully selecting affordable brands like Japan’s new Titty & Co. and Spiral Girl. Most items cost ¥5,000 to ¥10,000, though some are pricier.

Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist and author of “Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life,” said cell phones and women’s street fashions have been the major force driving cultural innovation since the 1990s.

Women are behind the popularity of text-messaging, novels read on cell phones and “purikura,” which are booths for taking snapshots and adding decorative computer graphics, said Ito, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo.

“These are all important cultural trends that were created bottom-up from Japanese girls’ culture,” she said. “Japanese girls are not just consumers but makers of new technology uses and cultural trends.”

Xavel said the success of Tokyo Girls Collection goes beyond sales and gives participating companies exposure to young women worth ¥2.4 billion in annual advertising spending.

Between fashion segments at the latest show, Toyota showed a red car on the catwalk with cheerleaders dancing with red pompoms.

“We set up the show so fashion brands, Toyota and other companies become part of an exciting event,” said Nagaya, the show’s producer.

The stereotype that Japanese covet expensive imported brands has been shattered, Nagaya said. Women these days want carefree, hip clothes that have their street-style aesthetic in mind.

“Women are dressing up to please themselves, no longer to appeal to men,” she said, adding they also are becoming more creative. “There are so many different needs in fashion. Gone are the days that everyone wore the same thing.”

Westerners and some older Japanese may brush off recent Xavel offerings like “Beautiful Skin People,” a novel for reading on mobile phones that stars women with doe eyes and curly hair and is illustrated in “manga” comic-book style.

But the facial mask one character used — also available on fashionwalker.com — sold 24,000 sheets a day. The mask was such a hit it began to be sold in drugstores as well.

In 2006, Tokyo Girls Collection was shown in Paris, and it is going to China this year. Talks have begun to bring it to the U.S.

As the show goes mainstream, however, fans say it is no longer what it used to be.

“Sure, the scale of the show is so much bigger now. But there are just too many people,” said Shino Suzuki, 17.