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As Japan undertakes its bold stimulus plan under its prime minister Shinzo Abe, Japanese fashion is getting a boost, too. Earlier this month, eight years after the launch of the first Japan Fashion Week, members of the international press were brought in to view shows of local designers’ collections for spring/summer 2014.
“It was Abe’s Liberal Democratic party that founded Japan Fashion Week,” says Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs for the event. “The government is already trying to push to invest much more in promoting fashion, and we hope they’ll pump in more money in the near future.”
It is early days, continues Shinoda, and one goal is to copy London Fashion Week in promoting the country and its young designers to overseas markets.
In the rush to conquer the Asian market, however, there is competition. South Korea has the cash to bring in 25 times as many foreign press as Tokyo, says Shinoda. But no country in the region has the depth of designers that Japan has or, more importantly, the reputation for creative excellence and sophistication established by Japanese brands in Europe over decades.
And at this year’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, themes have emerged from the shows that would have been familiar to any fashionista who knows the leading Japanese brands that feature in Paris, such as Commes des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Sacai, Junya Watanabe, Undercover, and Yohji Yamamoto. Think lots of dark-black solemnity, playful experimentation, asymmetry and, especially, a blurring of the western distinction between male and female garments.
“There is no gender here,” says designer Hiromichi Ochiai after his Tokyo show for brand Facetasm, one of the week’s most eagerly awaited. “The collection has diverse influences but I’ve been inspired by townspeople, and I’ve used techniques usually applied to womenswear on menswear.”
Male models at the Facetasm show itself took to the runway in black, grey and white skirts made of leather, denim and soft cotton, while women wore menswear influenced outfits including baggy grey shorts paired with a white hoodie and knee-length grey trenchcoat over simple straight-leg blue jeans.
In fact, the man-skirt, often in black, was a theme of the week, perhaps given a boost after singer Kanye West wore a black Givenchy “kilt” on his world tour. Facetasm also featured checks in blue, yellow and white, and recurring horizontal slits on the front of high-waisted skirts and trousers.
Styles appropriate for both adults and children also featured in another blurring of lines. Né-net, a brand that, according to its website, “can be shared by couples, parents, and children”, put models male and female – including one very young girl – in big, powder blue straight-leg rolled trousers and white shirts and ankle-length dresses covered with the print of a big bluebird, a motif of its show.
Nozomi Ishiguro’s accomplished haute couture show displayed an array of jackets, dresses, and shorts in layered colours with heart-shaped and circular holes, as well as T-shirts inspired by US sportswear decorated with cartoon advertisements for “Tambourine Perfect Fried Chicken”.
The serious atmosphere at Christian Dada was broken by a surprise appearance from the American rock band Kiss, to the delight of the audience, after a show that featured both men and women in tiny black shorts, slim black or white shirts – some buttoned at the back, loose belted tops and black leather jackets and miniskirts.
Futuristic looks were also a theme. At Anrealage, hemlines rose and fell – literally – on black-and-white checked dresses seemingly fitted with electronic wires (reminiscent of Hussein Chalayan’s spring/summer 2007 collection). The models would stop while a long dress became a miniskirt, and then move on.
Tellingly, however, Anrealage, like a number of other Japanese labels, showed outside the official schedule and yet others are showing over the course of a month, making it tough to present a united front to the international fashion crowd.
But if ministry bureaucrats get their way, the government will soon be able to use its significant resources to promote Japanese brands to a wider audience. Plans are under way for a “Cool Japan” campaign, prominently featuring the cartoon character Pikachu, of Pokemón fame.
Japanese fashion sales are already significant in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand but that is not be enough for some designers with bigger plans.
“We want to go international,” says Hiromichi Ochiai of Facetasm. “We want to take on the world.”
Next week: fashion spotlight on Lagos
Accessory focus: Ambush marketing
Japan’s risk-averse business culture and its huge local market – Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, and everyone one meets seems to be middle-class and fashion-obsessed – means it can be “tough to take brands abroad,” says Verbal, a Japanese hip-hop performer who has branched into fashion with his designer wife Yoon, to create an accessories line called Ambush.
“Japanese designers tend to stick with the Japanese system,” he adds. “Investors tend to think, ‘why should we risk ourselves going overseas?’ ”
The fashion business community generally concentrates on the local market and would “not have been likely to help push the brand to sell internationally,” adds Yoon.
Ambush’s most recent collection, “‘Nomad”, was inspired by cult animated film Akira. It features huge, heavy gold and silver chains wrapped in comic-book bright colours that nod to old-school hip hop. It is now on sale at Barney’s in New York and will soon be available at Selfridges and Browns in London.
The couple relied on their connections abroad and a small personal investment funded by Verbal’s music career. Now, 40 per cent of Ambush’s sales are overseas. “Instead of having to get blessings here from the local system, we just went abroad,” says Verbal. “And then that got us more success here in Japan. After we were in Barney’s in New York, Barney’s here contacted us.”