TOKYO, Japan - So far, 2008 has been a foreboding year for the European luxury houses in Japan. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has reduced credit lines, rising food prices have decimated discretionary spending, and lower stock prices have convinced the New Rich they aren't so rich after all.
Although the Japanese super rich seem unfettered, aspirational customers are staying home and saving their meager incomes for an uncertain future. With wages weaker than ever, the average female 25 year-old (in a salary hierarchy based on age, with an exclusive "management track" decided at time of entry to the company) makes barely enough to pay rent let alone make credit card payments for a luxury handbag or designer apparel.
Just five years ago, the Japanese luxury market looked like it was headed for an era of permanent dominance. The economy had finally started to uptick after a long decade of recession in Japan. In came a relatively-unprecedented New Rich — mostly, internet millionaires and employees at foreign investment banks — who ushered a wealth-obsessed zeitgeist into the popular culture. Conspicuous consumption was in.
As an analogue to this movement, female style gravitated away from the street fashion of the 1990s to a style called O-nee-kei ("big sister style"), popular among mainstream females in their early twenties. The O-nee-kei girls were convinced that the only chance at future happiness was a rich suitor, and the bibles of this fashion movement — magazines CanCam and JJ — told them exactly how to dress in order to snag a man in a decent income bracket. The styling was mostly cute office conservative, but instead of designer fashion like in the 1990s, the clothes came mostly from cheap domestic labels. Handbags, however, needed to be from Louis Vuitton or Gucci, and jewelry meant Tiffany, Bulgari, and Cartier. The bling was all in the accesssories.
These O-nee-kei girls would not think for a microsecond about Parisian mode. In fact, these girls started to openly preach a love of "real clothes" — a term to describe inexpensive, trendy apparel from exclusively Japanese companies, mostly designed by young women the same age as customers. Although CanCam's focus on looking "classy" to attract rich men kept the luxury handbag on the menu, the "real clothes" rhetoric of "unreal foreign fashion labels vs. real Japanese brands" offered omens of wide-scale luxury rejection.
These fears of luxury decline unfortunately seem stumbling towards reality: At least for the first two quarters of this year, the European Superbrands are experiencing tough times. According to Yomiuiri Online, Hermès Birkin bags — which normally have a two-to-three year wait list — are piling up in stores unsold.
Most brands have resorted to radical steps in order to make up for the hostile economic environment. Chanel had an unprecedented one-month sale in July at its department store in-shops. Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, and Bally have all announced price reductions on most products to counterbalance the rising prices of a high Euro and high fuel costs.
With the less robust economy and a visible rise of underpaid young workers, the New Rich Pageant of 2003 has gone out with a whimper, making the princess-y O-nee-kei look appear somewhat shallow. In this recession-adjusted cultural atmosphere, everyone wants inexpensive, low pressure, and comfortable clothing.
This year has thus seen the rise of the Yuru Nachu ("relaxed, natural") style, which could be a long-term challenge to previous luxury attitudes. This "fashion ethic" is based on relaxed silhouettes, muted colours, and layering organic textiles. From loose "Bohemian" flower print dresses to off-white linen tunics, young women from all taste and consumer subcultures have embraced some variation of this fashion look.
Although Yuru Nachu reflects many of the global industry's spring trends, the look has succeeded wildly thanks to its ability to connect with young women's need for a less consumerist take on fashion. Out with the exclusive leather handbag, and in with the $12 "eco bag."
Select shop Cher's white-red-and-blue canvas eco bag sold over 70,000 units this year, and they are having to limit its sale to deal with under-supply. Yuru Nachu is like a LOHAS without the political commitment — a passive rejection of wealth culture and conspicuous consumption, but not really the active embrace of Bohemian ethics. Either way, however, the end result has been a move away from bling and traditionally-defined "luxury brands."
In the past, the national dream of "catching up to the West" worked as a powerful engine fueling luxury sales, but now wider confidence in local culture has made big purchases on imported bags and jewelry less automatic. Japanese young women have not become anti-luxury per se, and surely Tokyo still sports the largest number of luxury handbags of anywhere in the world, but young Japanese women are starting to question how exactly Western luxury brands fit into their new more austere, insular lifestyles.
The brands themselves will have to provide the answer.