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The Gatekeepers Who Hold the Keys to Japanese Fashion

BoF examines Japan's 'madoguchi,' the bicultural point people who play the critical role of scout, market researcher, mediator, cultural ambassador, interpreter and deal broker for Western businesses seeking out the most exciting niche labels in Tokyo's often impenetrable fashion landscape.
Source: Illustration by BoF
  • Robb Young

TOKYO, Japan — All it takes is 24 mindboggling hours in Tokyo's retail jungle before the penny drops. As seen through the eyes of an eager international shopper, the city certainly surpasses itself as a spellbinding, delightfully bonkers and cutting-edge consumer paradise. But fashion insiders with an eye for opportunity know that it can be as frustratingly inaccessible as it is inspirational and indulgent.

For years, landmark shopping centres like Parco, Marui, Laforet and Ichi-maru-kyu 109 have been full to the brim with unheard-of domestic brands while large tracts of the city's cool new fashion districts seem untouched by the relentless march of global trade. Although international labels and global mega-brands often get here first and put down deeper roots than in their home markets, relatively few of Japan's many successful brands have made it big abroad.

Among the inevitable copycats and also-rans, Tokyo is positively overflowing with exciting, well-made niche labels that are competitively priced and persuasively merchandised. They may be ripe for the picking but unless you have a talented and well-connected 'madoguchi' ('point person') at your disposal, your chances of doing business with them are slim at best. And even then, any number of obstacles can conspire against would-be exporters.

In Japanese business culture, the 'madoguchi' (literally, 'window opening') was traditionally someone who sat as the designated contact person funnelling all dialogue between two companies. Over time, it has also come to refer to a host of independent specialists who – to varying degrees – act as scout, market researcher, mediator, cultural ambassador, interpreter and deal broker between Japanese and international markets. As in most other sectors, they are usually bicultural and bilingual but 'fashion hunters', as they're sometimes playfully cast in our industry, are an especially diverse, valuable and enigmatic bunch.

"There are so many Japanese brands at the moment. They come and go, so it may be difficult to understand what's relevant and what's not, if your 'madoguchi' isn't based here in Tokyo," says Hidetaka Furuya, chief editor of The Fashion Post, a rare online source of fashion and lifestyle news published both in English and Japanese.

Furuya himself has operated as a 'madoguchi' – or "Japanese ambassador" as he prefers to call it – for LN-CC, an East London concept store which has since become one of the few places outside Japan to buy cult labels like SASQUATCHfabrix, Blackmeans, Nonnative, Unused and Sunsea.

"The thing is, I sometimes get the impression that Tokyo streetwear brands are consciously trying to be less visible on the scene [while others ] are not as visible as they should be because they're shy, anti-mainstream or too-cool-for-school," he continues. "Their attitude kind of reminds me of this Japanese proverb that means 'a skilled hawk hides its talons.' They often say they're just making what they want to wear, producing really well-made things in Japan. They present their collections when they are ready; not during the Japan Fashion Week period. However, all this makes it difficult for foreign buyers to visit Tokyo to buy good Japanese labels."

Tokyo-based Martin Webb, director of marketing and communications at Marc Jacobs Japan, understands well the complex role that 'madoguchis' play in the fashion industry. "It's very difficult to turn mediatory, introductory jobs like this into a steady source of income, so I think most people in [the 'madoguchi'] category are moonlighting or multi-tasking in one way or another. But when brands reach a certain level of resources, they tend to hire a bicultural person to handle overseas relations. Sacai has Daisuke Gemma who also works for Lane Crawford; Mastermind Japan has Etsuko Meaux, and so on. Recently, I think Lubo Lakic from Lakic Showroom has a great grip on the scene and especially for the kind of brands that overseas retailers are most interested in."

While in previous positions as fashion editor of The Japan Times and as publicist for PR firm WAG, Webb also often found himself called upon for informal advice and ad-hoc matchmaking for industry peers abroad. Thanks to Webb's and others' 'friendly introductions', now-famous Japanese brand names like N. Hoolywood and John Lawrence Sullivan first began to gain an international following.

Nicole Bargwanna, like Webb, is one of only a few truly fluent Japanese-speakers working extensively in the fashion industry. As a result, she has also contributed in similar ways over the years. More recently, a younger generation of Japanese PR professionals including Yoshiko Edström (Edström Office) and Tatsuya Takahashi (Dune) have returned to Japan after working abroad and assumed the role of 'madoguchi' in addition to their main activities.

"Because Japan is so impenetrable, it is very important to gain the trust of the people you will be working with. In order to survive long-term here, you have to show you know your stuff, that you're serious, that you're here for the long stretch, and are willing to put yourself 100 percent behind whatever it is you're endorsing," says Bargwanna, a serial entrepreneur who, after building an import showroom business, opened her PR agency CPR Tokyo four years ago.

In the decades before the arrival of Bargwanna and Webb, there were a handful of cosmopolitan trailblazers who championed their favourite Japanese brands by connecting them internationally in one way or another. From Tokyo, Comme des Garçons' CEO Adrian Joffe and United Arrows' co-founder Hirofumi Kurino did their part. Meanwhile, the distributor Stella Ishii of New York-based showroom The News and media coordinators like Mina Wakatsuki in London and Yuko Arakawa in New York joined then upstart stylists Kanako B. Koga in Paris and Nicola Formichetti who worked with Yuko Yabiku for the now defunct but groundbreaking London retailer The Pineal Eye. 

Among this pioneering group with valuable local access and insight was Tiffany Godoy. Since 1997 Godoy has carved out an impressive place for herself in Tokyo as editor, consultant, TV personality and author of two books on Japanese street fashion and subcultures. Today, she is one half of Japanese fashion entertainment branding duo Erotyka and chief editor of The Reality Show Magazine.

"One reason we haven't seen a lot more womenswear brands break the international market is that the feminine ideal is so different here. Also, today's Japanese designers aren't pumping out the sort of complicated, intellectual, shocking clothing that fashion critics abroad got used to looking for from Japan," says Godoy.

Putting aside the outsider's perennial challenges in Japan – such as its exceptionally puzzling business culture and the constant threat of misunderstanding from a population with shockingly low levels of English language abilities – there are many serious operational barriers too.

"It's true that most brands still don’t have English-speaking staff and won’t try to hire a translator for your appointment unless you're a buyer from a super famous store. And I hear some use Google Translate to reply to emails," says Furuya. "But I know of more tragic stories [around other issues].

For most domestic brands to transition into international business, they would need create a new sample collection and at least double the number of production sizes on offer from the narrow range which fit the majority of Japanese consumers. Not to mention the fact that domestic manufacturing cycles and seasons still aren't completely in-sync with international standards and that marketing to non-Japanese would require a serious cultural leap of faith. Together, this all adds up to substantial long-term investment.

Yet the same issues which have kept many of Japan's highly covetable fashion brands off the international market for so long also go a long way toward explaining why they represent a trump card for many international retailers looking for a point of differentiation in an increasingly homogenized marketplace. And why many are willing to invest hiring Japanese-speaking market experts and spending more than their competitors by adding an extra buying trip to Tokyo at the end of the long season in Europe.

"[Hong Kong's] I.T. pretty much built their business on Japanese brands – especially A-net brands. They invested in a team to do intensive research and tough negotiations for exclusivity with Tokyo brands and that gave them a huge advantage over their competitors," says Webb. "And I’d say Lorenzo Hadar of H. Lorenzo in LA is worthy of 'legend' status as his stores have been the first overseas retailers to buy many Japanese brands and without his investment many smaller labels might never have even bothered to enter the export business. Amazingly, he's still at the bleeding edge of the scene visiting Japan more frequently than any other buyer I know and is very patient with designers who aren't used to dealing with overseas clients."

Bargwanna believes that more retailers like this are now braving the opaque market in order to penetrate what many still consider to be an insular domestic fashion industry.

"There are quite a few of them [now] coming to Japan Fashion Week buying underground Japanese brands. Most of them have someone on the ground to scout them out and communicate for them, or someone in the team who speaks Japanese. I think it would be near impossible without one or the other," she says.

Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs for Japan Fashion Week suggests that this is a sign of positive changes at the organisation which has long been blamed for being too old-fashioned, bureaucratic and inefficient – holding back the very Japanese brands they were supposed to be promoting. Or as one scathing insider puts it, "an office full of out-of-touch bureaucrats in boring grey suits."

"In response to not being modern, maybe that was sometimes the case 4 or 5 years ago but not anymore as I see it. We have many recent success stories of selling abroad. Some brands are gradually becoming more used to overseas business and others that were once satisfied with operating only in Japan because of the country's big market size now realise they have to look abroad for growth," she says.

Godoy believes that although such institutions have their place and that the old infrastructure around the 'madoguchi' system is still highly influential, they are beginning to wane slightly in the digital age.

"There are countless [Japanese brands to discover] that are being pumped out through street style images by foreign trend agency sites and domestic fashion sites that end up appealing to an international audience," she says citing the likes of Yuichi Yoshii's The Contemporary Fix, Hiroshi Fujiwara's (diffused through Hypebeast), Tokyo Telephone, Tokyo Dandy, Droptokyo and Tokyo Fashion Diaries. "Since we're now living in a world driven more by visual content, I don't believe being bilingual is such an important factor as it once was."

Nevertheless, centuries of tradition don't disappear in a digital instant. Furuya believes that, "the right 'madoguchi' by which I mean someone honest, unbiased and trustworthy," can in certain cases make or break a deal.

"'Shoukai' ['introductions'] is an extremely important concept in Japan and many business interactions in Japan are based around it. This makes the presence of a 'madoguchi' even more important."

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