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The Future of Tokyo Fashion Week

After a transitional season with a new title sponsor, Japan’s biggest fashion event is gearing up for a revamp. Will it be enough?
Tomo Koizumi Spring/Summer 2020 at Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo | Source: Courtesy
  • Zoe Suen

TOKYO, Japan — It wouldn't be a stretch to call Kaoru Imajo's first season as director of the Japan Fashion Week Organisation a baptism by fire.

Days before fashion industry leaders were set to convene in the Japanese capital for Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo (the domestic e-commerce giant’s first season as title sponsor following three-year deals with Mercedes-Benz and Amazon), Japan was struck by its worst typhoon in decades. But the storm was not the only challenge that fashion week had to reckon with.

Dealing with scheduling issues, attracting big local brands and providing a complex support system for new talents are just a few of the challenges facing the gatekeepers to Japan’s fashion industry. Though Rakuten’s first season as title sponsor saw the organisation adopt a transitional, rather than transformational approach, both obstacles and exciting changes lie ahead.

Timing is Everything

This month, 15,713 people and 55 brands made it to Rakuten Fashion Week’s 42 runway shows, two of which were hosted online.

However, the e-commerce company’s impact was not yet apparent. “Since the contract with Rakuten was just signed in August, we couldn’t do much [this season],” says Imajo, adding that the organisation will focus on drawing a more global audience to Tokyo in the future to bolster opportunities for local brands.

Topping his list is the task of scheduling. Where Tokyo’s show schedule spanned October 14-20, Seoul Fashion Week ran from October 14-19, pushing international press and buyers to choose one or the other. London boutique Machine-A’s Senior Buyer Bryant Lee was just one of the global fashion set who forewent Tokyo for Seoul due to an earlier invitation. “I hope to go to [Tokyo] next year if time allows,” Lee says.

Inside Shibuya's Hikarie mall, where the bulk of fashion shows take place | Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Imajo, a change is currently under consideration. “We are thinking of moving [the Spring/Summer] season to the end of August,” he tells BoF.

Aside from the opportunity it would create to encourage more press, buyers and influencers to attend events and generate buzz, a scheduling shift would be a game-changer in other ways. Currently, some brands hold appointments outside the fashion week schedule entirely, making the week feel disjointed from the global buying process.

"Honestly, it's not perfectly integrated," says Maiko Shibata, creative director and buyer at local multi-brand store Restir, where Tokyo's shoppers can find brands from Maison Margiela to Chanel. Shibata notes that Japanese designers show their collections to buyers months before fashion week to secure good orders. "Most of the established designers [finish] their showroom [before] fashion week. Or, they have to have extra capacity to pre-order the fabric before they take orders from buyers."

Tokyo's timing, while likely to change, spoke volumes about Tokyo Fashion Week's (TFW) previously domestic-focused approach. Tokyo "seems to cater more to its own domestic industry," says Monica Kim, a stylist and former senior fashion news editor at American Vogue.

“The international presence is quite small [and] only a few overseas guests are invited each season,” Kim says, adding that a small celebrity presence and main show venue at Shibuya’s Hikarie mall means fewer general onlookers and less space for street style stars to gather. The resulting atmosphere “feels calmer.”

Optimising timing, location and e-commerce ties will be integral to the event's shift from a dominantly B2B attraction to including a consumer-facing element.

This has both pros and cons, and Imajo says that TFW is looking for new venues in the city but hasn’t yet found a perfect location. However, inviting more overseas editors, buyers and influencers is definitely on the cards. Additionally, Rakuten has announced that a group of local fashion stalwarts, such as Numero Tokyo’s Editor-in-Chief Ako Tanaka and stylist Takashi Kumagai, will serve as representatives of the retail giant’s fashion business at future seasons.

Optimising timing, location and e-commerce ties will also be integral to the event's shift from a dominantly B2B attraction to including a consumer-facing element — a palpable change as of late in London and New York.

Tokyo is a prime city for consumer-facing fashion week formats, according to Imajo, because of its history of eclectic and subculture-infused streetwear. Though he says that 40-50 brands will stick to their current set-ups, B2C events in the form of pop-ups and street fashion shows may come sooner than we think.

Hometown Heroes

Some of the week’s most inspired moments took place when Japanese talents residing abroad brought their collections home.

On the evening of October 16, Tomotaka Koizumi — the breakout star whose kaleidoscopic gowns were made the talk of NYFW Autumn/Winter 2019 by Marc Jacobs and Katie Grand — brought his Spring/Summer 2020 collection home for a second showing in the heart of Harajuku. Models were rendered spherical by mounds of ombre organza in technicolour hues, from sunset to tropical greens and blues.

Shibata says that the show was by far the most talked-about event at fashion week, and drew key editors-in-chief and stylists from the region.

The same day, two Japanese, Central Saint Martins-trained, New York-based designers took the stage at a back-to-back show. Kozaburo (the two-year-old menswear brand helmed by 2017 LVMH Special Prize winner Kozaburo Akasaka) presented a covetable vision of Japanese Americana with stiff indigo ultra high-waisted ‘3D bootcut’ jeans and silk bombers.

At Landlord, Ryohei Kawanishi’s neon yellow faux fur and garish accessories paid homage to the iconic '90s streetstyle of Harajuku but his paint-smeared denim sets would fit right in on the streets of London or New York.

Kozaburo Spring/Summer 2020 at Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo | Source: Courtesy

It was Imajo who asked Akasaka and Kawanishi to consider staging a show in their hometown. “It was a good opportunity to see my collection presented on the runway,” says Akasaka of his first official catwalk event. “I have been away [from Japan] for a long time... I wanted to bring [the story of my brand] back to Tokyo.” Like Koizumi, both brands made names for themselves in New York before staging a homecoming show this season, marking highlights for editors and buyers alike.

During Amazon's tenure at TFW, the At Tokyo programme (which brought brands like Ambush back to the city) were a major attraction for buyers and press. Koizumi, Kozaburo and Landlord's shows were a successful continuation of the strategy. It is Imajo's goal to one day have the Japanese 'master' brands like Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto show at Tokyo Fashion Week for a special event after their regular presentations in Paris.

“I know that I need a special occasion and a big budget to invite them [to Tokyo], so I’m looking for the right timing for it.”

Beyond the Catwalk

Off the runway, the success of one event in particular could encourage brands and retailers to think outside the box for future seasons.

Shibata notes that in addition to homecoming shows, a wider variety of experiences could attract global press and buyers to Tokyo. “At other fashion weeks, such as Copenhagen, Tbilisi or Seoul, there’s a landmark event such as a conference [on topics such as AI or sustainability],” she says. Imajo agrees. “We need to do more interesting events,” he says, adding that inviting more designers from other markets and amping up pop-ups and parties could be a draw for the fashion crowd.

Musical group Minyo Crusaders perform at Face.A-J dressed in Kenneth Ize and Sulvam | Source: Courtesy

A case in point: local retail giant United Arrows sponsored African and Japanese creative platform Awa'Tori's Face.A-J event on October 16, which united African and Japanese brands from LVMH Prize winner Thebe Magugu and finalist Kenneth Ize to local label Sulvam in a cultural fashion exchange. The night included a performance by musicians Minyo Crusaders (who fuse Japanese folk songs with Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms) and an installation by Nigerian artist Kadara Enyeasi, followed by a panel discussion two days later. Around 400 people were expected to show up, but the final headcount was closer to 700, according to Face.A-J.

“We didn’t want to do a fashion show... when people think fashion, they think runway,” says Seiko Mbako, who founded Awa’Tori alongside Bukky Adejobi last year. “Kurino-san injected this idea of, let’s do something more interactive, where they’ll be asking ‘what are they doing next year?’ and ‘what’s going to be different this time?’”

Awa’Tori and United Arrows plan on making Face.A-J an annual event, and the second edition is slated for March, which after this first test run will be the real deal. “We don’t want to reiterate,” Mbako adds. “We want it to get better.”

Support from the Ground Up

At Mikado Arcade on October 18, poker-faced models appeared to float down the aisles in Mikio Sakabe's pastel-hued nylon ensembles fit for an anime heroine (albeit one who shops at Dover Street Market), thanks to cartoonishly bubble-soled sneakers and sandals that put Nike Air Max to shame. Next up was the Jenny Fax show, where Rococo-inspired suits, "XO" beaded lace dresses, oversized peter pan collars and bubblegum pink silk were paired with kitten heels, lace-edged socks and oversized scrunchies.

In Shueh's trademark flourish, the collection's Marie Antoinette-worthy sweetness —  models' faces were increasingly smeared with "cake" as the show progressed — was offset with something darker. Casts, adorned with lace and sequins, stayed true to the brand's yami-kawaii roots; voluminous floral frocks were paired with acid-washed denim and coated in PVC. The two shows were a hit with press and buyers alike.

Sakabe and Shueh (a husband and wife duo who helm the first brand together) have been running their brands for 13 and 11 years respectively, and their collections left one wanting to see more from Tokyo's up-and-comers, many of whom illustrate that Japan’s zealous sartorial subcultures and commitment to good design make for a one of a kind combination. Akasaka reckons that Tokyo’s unique eclecticism attests to its potential as a top fashion week destination. “I think in terms of the attention to current fashion and overall fashion sensibility, Tokyo is one of the top places in the world,” he told BoF. “Looking at the crowds, the young people who love fashion, this kind of energy and attention [is almost the best among top fashion cities.]”

However, stronger grassroots-level support is needed to take homegrown talent to the next level. At present, TFW supports young designers through two fashion sponsorship programs and allows chosen talent to use show venues for free. But fewer opportunities are afforded to designers at earliest stages of their careers, creating a void in the market where fresh talent could flourish.

Tokyo’s fashion week schedule has long been dominated by established designers such as menswear labels Children of the Discordance and Diet Butcher Slim Skin, but few of the brands on the timetable were launched after 2014. Yet some say that the industry is beginning to show more support for up-and-comers. “I think it’s changed dramatically,” says Yukari Negishi, creative director for womenswear at local multi-brand chain Ron Herman. “It’s not only buyers, but consumers have levelled up. They’re not only looking at the brand name, but the design and material of a piece.”

Takuya Morikawa of Taakk, winner of the Fashion Prize of Tokyo 2020 | Source: JFWO

Negishi served as a juror for the JFWO Fashion Prize of Tokyo on October 19, where it was announced that the sponsorship for two season’s worth of fashion shows and showrooms in Paris will be awarded to Takuya Morikawa of seven-year-old brand Taakk, who won the JFWO Tokyo Fashion Award (where six brands are sponsored a showroom presence in Paris for two seasons) in 2017. Past Fashion Prize of Tokyo winners include Auralee and Mame Kurogouchi, whose pieces are now stocked on Moda Operandi, Opening Ceremony and Selfridges.

“The majority of support comes from the Tokyo Fashion Award and [Fashion Prize of Tokyo], and in the past has gone to more established brands,” says journalist and influencer Yu Masui. Other bolsters include department store Parco which supported the nine-year-old brand Balmung’s runway show on October 15.

Among this season’s six Tokyo Fashion Award winners, the recognition of newer brands Yuki Hashimoto and Fumie Tanaka (established in 2018 and 2019 respectively, though the latter has helmed other labels) could signal a sea change and good news for designers who are just getting started.

If anything, Japan’s quality and design-focused mentality when it comes to shopping has primed it to become a breeding ground for new, globally successful talent. “I came back to Tokyo because the market is bigger,” says Yohei Oki, one half of the duo behind six-year-old Tokyo Fashion Award winner Shoop. He moved to Madrid when he was 15 and while Shoop’s production is tethered to Spain, its business is based in Tokyo. “People in Japan are quite sensitive to fashion and independent brands now. Japanese customers are really interested in investing in a brand to see how it develops,” he adds.

Japanese customers are really interested in investing in a brand to see how it develops.

Bridging the gap between consumers and young brands is no small feat, but various initiatives could uncap Japan’s potential as a global hub for young talent and draw global retailers to Tokyo’s front rows and showrooms.

Access to mentorships from industry insiders would be a game changer, says Yoshiki Hanzawa, whose latest collection at his three-year-old label Perminute adopts feminine and nostalgic silhouettes to explore the unexpected and optimistic beauty of nature in his hometown Fukushima, after 2011’s devastating earthquake and nuclear disaster. “My team is small, and it was hard, as someone who studied design, to become familiar with all the business aspects of managing a brand.”

Ultimately, there can never be too much support for young talent, which Japan has plenty of. Masui raises Shanghai’s Labelhood as an example of an incubator that now spearheads its city’s fashion week offerings, helping boost exposure for homegrown labels like Shushu Tong and Ming Ma. “[It] may be interesting to team up with Rakuten and think of a new program,” says Imajo.

“We need a platform for young designers,” Masui adds. “I think that’s what Japan is missing right now.”

Zoe Suen travelled to Japan as a guest of Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo.

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