May 6, 2011 10:26 pm

Front row at the fashion parade

The Sign Café in Tokyo is a perfect place to get a snapshot of economic, social and cultural trends

I didn’t plan on marking the start of May by attending a colourful, choreographed parade but there I was last Sunday afternoon on a raised platform watching a spectacular show glide across the pavement below.

On my left was my colleague Noriko with iPhone poised to snap pictures. On my right, my colleague Natsumi was at the ready with a smartphone and open notebook to record events. Seated under a low awning on comfortable white armchairs (complete with polite service and good coffees), the parade didn’t feature the usual May Day trappings of a rousing soundtrack, rolling tanks, rocket launchers and precision goose-stepping. Nor were there girls in red gymnastic outfits twirling and swirling ribbons or muscular men performing heart-stopping tumbling routines.

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Tyler Brûlé

Nevertheless, there were battalions of young men and women in elaborate costumes and perfectly coiffed families turned out in precisely assembled uniforms. Men in their late thirties wore short natural tan boots with chunky white soles, crisp denim turned up to reveal exactly 4cm of calf covered in dark leggings, teamed with sky-blue Oxford cloth shirts with rounded collars and heavy-framed eyewear that might well be found on Kim Jong-il’s bedside table. Women of a similar age wore Birkenstock sandals, leggings that stopped just above the ankle, smock-style dresses in heavy chambray and parkas featuring labels from brands such as Nanamica and North Face.

While there were many other “looks” on parade last Sunday (including pairs of girls sporting violet locks, enormous eyelashes, pink petticoats, huge skirts and little bonnets), the prevailing style was a utilitarian, functional uniform that not only celebrated the struggle of workers for the past 100 years but that has also come to define an economy that has rapidly shrugged off luxury logos, body-conscious tailoring and complicated fabrics.

While this springtime “spectacular” might have been on the streets of Hanoi or Minsk (at a squint), it was in fact just another Sunday afternoon at Sign Café beside Daikanyama Station in Tokyo.

If I could pick just one place to watch the world go by it would be on the wooden terrace at Sign. With the station down a slope to the right and three roads intersecting to the left, it’s a perfect place to get a snapshot of economic, social and cultural trends. From this perch, a few metres from the bustle, hours can easily slip away as I create stories for all the passing human traffic and attempt to analyse each person. How long did it take the young man in Italian hiking boots and trim military trousers to get his Jack Russell dog dressed in clashing plaids and Gore-Tex booties? How did the Jack Russell feel about footwear? And what about the pack of young boys and their haircuts? How many products from brands like Shiseido and Mandom were involved? Five? Nine? 15? What would happen in a downpour? Would there be a petroleum slick left in their wake?

Analysts and economists have been trying to get to grips with the tastes of Japanese consumers for some time now in an attempt to chart how the market might perform and whether there’s a future for Europe’s traditional luxury goods companies on the streets of Ginza and Aoyama. In the aftermath of the events of March 11, many bank analysts have given up trying to figure out the Japanese consumer as they recognise there’s no set pattern in terms of consumer behaviour. Or is there?

A few streets away from the station, the foundations are being laid for what might be the most revealing development about the state of the Japanese economy and what’s important to consumers. By early autumn a new neighbourhood will have risen from scrubby ground complete with streets, leafy trees, cafés, shops, and places for Jack Russells to frolic and get a blow dry. At the heart of this new precinct will be a hybrid-retail concept that will be part library, part concert hall, part bookstore and round-the-clock hang-out for those men and women in their denim and chambray. At a time when many are wondering how we’ll consume media and whether the traditional bookstore has a place in the neighbourhood of modern economies, Japanese retailer Tsutaya is about to reveal that such a cultural hub is not only essential to stimulate other pockets of the economy but also key to the metabolism of urban life.

Two decades ago, this sizeable plot of land might have been the target of a large luxury goods group and could have been filled with the names that jostle for space in duty-free arcades around the world. Few of these brands hold much appeal for Japanese consumers any more and, almost two months after the great earthquake of eastern Japan, it’s clear that citizens of the world’s third biggest economy are migrating to a more meaningful place that will be stocked with vinyl, paper, rare volumes and cosy places to watch the world drift by.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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