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In Japan, Tapping the World’s Best Vintage

Japan’s vintage market has been slow to digitise and open up to international buyers, but change is afoot.
A vintage Helmut Lang bondage jacket | Source: Yahoo! Japan Auctions
By
  • Edwin Jiang

TOKYO, Japan — These days, vintage fashion is more popular than ever, driven by a growing consumer interest in unique products that signal individuality, as well as rising cost-consciousness and the storytelling value of vintage finds. Indeed, according to the annual resale report published by online consignment website ThredUp, the fashion resale market has grown 82 percent over the last three years, reaching $14 billion, and is expected to reach $25 billion in sales in the next decade.

There’s little doubt that Japan boasts some of the finest vintage fashion in the world, from immaculate Louis Vuitton Keepalls from the past century to perfectly preserved Helmut Lang Astro Biker jackets. But unfortunately for foreigners aiming to tap this treasure trove of product, the adoption of internet technology like e-commerce has been uneven in this technically sophisticated yet deeply traditional country, where state-of-the-art customer service robots coexist with outdated fax machines.

"It has been really hard because the Japanese have not been good in putting any of their fashion online. When I was in Japan, a lot of these places are hidden away: the sixth floor of some obscure looking building. I had to have Japanese friends take me by the hand and lead me there," says Dr Valerie Steele, fashion historian and the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

But as online shopping finally gathers steam in Japan, there are signs that change is afoot. One of the leading sources of high-quality vintage fashion is Japan’s most visited website: Yahoo Japan, a joint venture between the US internet company Yahoo and the Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank, which operates the B2C site Yahoo Japan Shopping and the C2C site Yahoo Japan Auctions.

A near-mint condition Christopher Nemeth blazer from the early 1990s, seldom seen in the designer's native England, is listed on Yahoo Japan Auctions for ¥29,800 ($298). A hoodie from Raf Simons' Autumn/Winter 2002-2003 collection has a starting bid of ¥30,000. If you are a size 46, a Hedi Slimane-era Dior Homme suit can be yours for ¥2,411. And for those ready to splurge, a pristine Hermès Birkin from 1995 has a buyout price of ¥1,045,440.

Yet, despite the growing digitisation of the Japanese vintage market, obstacles persist for foreign customers. Even if one can break through the language barrier and find an acceptable payment method (PayPal is rarely, if ever, accepted on Japanese sites), international delivery remains a challenge, with the vast majority of sellers on Yahoo Japan reluctant to ship overseas. Though e-commerce giant Rakuten, which operates a marketplace platform similar to Yahoo Japan Shopping, allows foreign customers to filter sellers for those who ship abroad, the majority of the inventory on its site remains inaccessible to those abroad, leaving shoppers outside of Japan little choice but to turn to opportunistic proxy services, which buy and reship items.

The Japanese have not been good in putting any of their fashion online. When I was in Japan, a lot of these places are hidden away.

Buyee is Yahoo Japan’s official proxy partner. The company also works with Rakuten and ZozoTown, a fashion e-commerce portal operated by Start Today. Employing a two-step payment system, Buyee bids on behalf of foreign clients using bots and redirects parcels from domestic sellers to international buyers. The first charge covers item price and commission fees (0 percent for Yahoo Shopping and Rakuten, or 5 percent for Yahoo Auction and other C2C marketplace sites), while the second fee covers domestic and international shipping. If using Buyee seems confusing, its core competitor From Japan is no better. Employing a tedious deposit system, consumers who use From Japan must first set up and transfer money to a From Japan account before even placing a bid.

Yet despite the friction involved in using these services, they have been widely adopted by keen vintage shoppers hungry for access to the Japanese market. “There are some pieces available in Japan that you cannot find anywhere else,” explains Michael Kardamakis, an Athens-based fashion collector whose personal archive dubbed ENDYMA boasts the largest Helmut Lang collection in the world. “What made me use [proxies] was that I could expand my collection for designers that are, basically, unheard of. But these services are so time-consuming and the user experience is so tedious.” Nonetheless, a representative for Tenso, which operates Buyee, says sales of fashion items via Buyee has jumped roughly 40 percent in the last year and that in the 2015 fiscal year, consumers in China, Hong Kong and America bought the most.

Now, a handful of Western e-commerce players are turning their attention to Japan's vintage market, aiming to connect international shoppers with the country's market for high-quality second-hand clothing, while offering a better consumer experience. Farfetch — a marketplace that connects consumers with a global network of boutiques (and, increasingly, brands) — launched its vintage offerings back in 2010. The company has since added several key Japanese vintage sellers to its platform, including Vintage Qoo and Amore, the world's largest vintage Chanel boutique.

“Our customer is a very discerning luxury shopper, but really likes that point of difference. Vintage is something that we can see resonating very well,” says Candice Fragis, buying and merchandising director at Farfetch. “Every time we do a vintage focus or vintage email or vintage homepage, it is often one of our better performing sets.” Farfetch declined to share specific revenue figures for its Japanese vintage business, or its vintage business at large, but said sales of vintage had grown on average 70 percent year-on-year since inception.

Yet Western fashion e-commerce players operating in Japan haven’t always met with success. In August 2013, San Francisco-based luxury consignment start-up The RealReal established a Japanese outpost. The RealReal Japan anticipated sales in excess of ¥1 billion ($10 million) in its first full year of trading, with JapanConsuming reporting “real potential for Japanese consumers… to sell their unused luxury goods to consumers across Asia.” But in October 2015, two years after launch, The RealReal ended its licensing agreement with The RealReal Japan, shuttering the venture and pointing to a potential flaw in the company’s business model, which focused on facilitating transactions between buyers and sellers based in Japan, a market that is already well served, especially in densely-populated areas like the Kantō region, which includes Tokyo, rather than between Japanese vintage sellers and international buyers, like Farfetch.

But even for Farfetch, the road ahead is not without its obstacles. “[Partners] like Amore work okay because a Chanel bag is a Chanel bag, but with the cost of international delivery and potential returns it just doesn't make sense for [other boutiques who stock garments of varying sizes] to bother,” says Dan Bailey, founder of Tokyo Dandy and a longtime observer of Japan’s fashion landscape. What’s more, there is little incentive for Japanese vintage sellers to join a platform like Farfetch to engage with the rest of the globe. “They are still making enough money domestically without having to tap into a global market for greater return.”

Japan’s economy has been stagnant for years. But that doesn’t seem to be damaging domestic vintage sales. Quite the opposite. “There is no immediate threat that [the local vintage market] will dry up,” says Dr Steele. “The Japanese are really the most neophiliac people in the world, and a lot of young Japanese have less money than they used to; therefore over the last few years, the sale of vintage and used clothing has skyrocketed.”

“They’re still spending most of their disposable income on clothes. People are marrying later and having only one child,” she adds. This may spell continued frustration for international consumers hoping to get their hands on Japanese vintage stock and the companies aiming to help them do this. Still, given the growing international demand for Japan’s vintage inventory, as seen in the numbers released by Buyee, we may well see greater incentives for more Japanese sellers to join the global marketplace. Already, prominent Tokyo-based vintage boutiques like Brand Collect and Kinji are beginning to catalogue their stock online, perhaps a sign of things to come.

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