Forget the global rumblings about protectionism. In Japan at least the rallying cry is “Buy British” as sales of some doughty UK brands go on a roll – even as overall retail sales wilt.
Liberty, whose printed fabrics are used on everything from baby buggies to yukata, or summer cotton kimonos, is increasing annual sales in Japan by double-digit percentages.
Overall, retail sales in Japan fell 3.9 per cent year-on-year in March, compounding several years of retail decline. Of the total, clothing sales were down 5.9 per cent.
“When the [UK-based] president arrived, [his] first question was: ‘Why is Liberty doing so well [here]?’” says Isamu Takei, special adviser to the UK brand.
United Arrows, which runs boutiques selling several British lines, is also bucking the trend. Reeling off a list of resolutely British names – Drake’s, Crockett & Jones and Cath Kidston – Hirofumi Kurino, senior adviser to the store, points to such brands’ “classic and timeless” image.
“Now it’s good timing for these kind of classics,” he says. “There is so much
Consumers also like the cheer afforded by the colourful designs, he says, describing Cath Kidston’s distinctive retro floral prints as a “good antidote for these depressive times”.
More sober brands are also cashing in on the Japanese love affair with British brands. Hackett, the preppy men’s wear shop, recently opened its own shop after selling its clothes through department chains.
“Japanese like British-feeling products,” says Jiro Tanaka, managing director at Hackett Japan.
Paul Smith, which is to add another half dozen shops this month and next to its more than 160 in Japan, agrees.
“We are showing Britishness to the people, and people like it,” says Genryo Ota, Paul Smith’s Japan office manager. Other purveyors of British goods add perceived value for money and quality to the list of attributes that attracts Japanese buyers.
Liberty’s Mr Takei takes a more holistic approach. “Many Japanese, especially women, love Britain. It’s a small island, like Japan. Before the US came, when Japan opened up to foreigners, the Japanese nation as a whole trusted Britain. Also, we have the Emperor, you have the Queen; but the US has no queen. That’s very important.”
Whether or not that explains the penchant of elderly and pregnant women to pack Liberty pyjamas in their hospital cases is a moot point, but pack them they do – a Japanese pyjama-maker is one of Liberty’s important customers.
Burberry, best known for its red, black and tan check, is to intensify its efforts to court Japanese consumers.
The brand, which can be classic and cutting edge, has moved from selling its goods purely under licence in Japan to a joint venture with its licensing partners. Leading the joint venture is Masaki Iwase, previously chief executive of Gucci Japan for eight years and who also boasts lengthy stints at Yves Saint Laurent and Issey Miyake.
It is particularly keen to boost sales of handbags, shoes and other accessories in what it reckons to be the world’s biggest luxury accessories market.
Yet not all that glisters with Britishness is gold. Some brands are seeing sales dip alongside a broader fall in retail sales. Paul Smith has racked up a sales decline of 5 per cent year-on-year during the past six months. Clarks, the shoe shop, admits to disappointing performance.
Even those on a roll are not infallible. One Liberty fabric print, suitably oriental in the eyes of the London-based designer, has gone down like a lead balloon. Consumers balked at the Chinese-style zigzag design, reminiscent of the pattern used on cheap bowls of ramen noodles.
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