British fashion, which encompasses quality, tradition, edginess, and cool, continues to enjoy popularity with Japanese consumers.
From flamboyant and fanciful through chic, classic and cool, British designers have a firm following in a nation that is renown for its own sense of style – and tips on making it big in Japan’s rag trade resonate far beyond this sector.
“The image that most Japanese have of British fashion and accessories revolves around a sense of heritage, tradition, quality and what I can best describe as the ‘British look’,” said Yoshi Watanabe, managing director of Watanabe & Co., which represents some of the most revered names in UK fashion. “Take Church’s Shoes, for example,” he said. “Their shoes are a combination of top quality, tradition and stylishness, and that is exactly what you want to work in the Japanese market.”
Mr Watanabe’s company also represents another famous Northamptonshire shoe-maker, Joseph Cheaney and Sons, as well as Lavenham Leisure Ltd., which is renown for its jackets, Private White VC, famous for its ranges of men’s clothing, as well as Owen Barry, which makes leather and suede garments, as well as accessories. His longest business relationship is with Kilmarnock-based leather goods-maker Glenroyal, which he has represented for 25 years, a testimony to the longevity of the brand’s names in this oh-so-fickle market. “These companies are appealing to the upper end of the market, sophisticated consumers who are interested in high-quality fashion brands and who like to travel,” Watanabe said. “That is why it is important for the manufacturer to remain true to its signature concept and not to change too much, even as fashion trends change.”
The trade team at the British Embassy in Tokyo organises regular missions to Japan for UK companies in the fashion sector, with the next opportunity to showcase British products scheduled for the end of October.
“I’m always surprised at how much interest there is among UK firms for these missions, but then you take a look at some of the companies selling their products in high-end department stores like Isetan and you realise that there are hundreds of them,” said Kae Miyazawa of UKTI. “UK firms have a reputation of delivering high-quality, cool products – and it helps that there is a strong link to the British music scene, culture, art, design and other related sectors,” she said. “It also tends to impress Japanese consumers whenever a product comes with a Royal Warrant attached,” she added.
No fewer than 24 firms took part in The Great Britain Fashion Mission of 2012, with companies reporting positive results even before the end of the trip. Many already had a presence in Japan and were building their reputation and brand-awareness.
“We met with a number of buyers from large department stores, select shops, distributors and agents,” said Mark Rogers, of specialist hat makers Pachacuti. “We can certainly see great potential for Pachacuti in the Japanese market as there are just so many stores stocking hats. “Many of the larger stores will place small initial orders and then build their business over the years as they gain confidence in you as a reliable supplier, so we are hoping for sales to gradually increase with current customers, in addition to supplying new stores.”
Japan already represents 60 percent of the company’s export sales and its hats are already available in stores such as Matsuya and Isetan, but Rogers is looking to go further. “Japan has been our biggest growth market and, unlike in Europe where hat-wearing has been in decline, in Japan hats are worn frequently, both for fashion purposes and for sun protection,” said Rogers. “In Japan, a hat is perceived as ‘making an outfit’ and is an important fashion accessory, whilst in Europe and the US hats are worn infrequently by the majority of the population. “An additional reason for expanding sales in Japan in these difficult economic times is that the Japanese are very prompt at paying and generally pay 50 percent in advance, which really helps our cash flow.”
The trade experts and companies that have established a presence here say there are a number of golden rules that are important to bear in mind for any company that has set its sights on Japan. Top of that list is the need to understand a market that can be significantly difference to anywhere else in the world. And that includes regulations on imports as well as what will turn a local consumer’s head.
Ensuring quality is another requirement for Japan because with so much availability, consumers can afford to be picky. Finding a reliable partner who knows the Japanese market can also be critical to success, along with building the relationship and rapport with that partner and every other individual in the chain that leads to market.
All of these factors combine against companies that have never attempted the leap into a foreign market previously. The message is that while Japan is a very appealing destination, it is also fiercely competitive and will probably be very difficult to crack if a company does not have a sufficiently established brand and history.
And not every foray into the Japanese market works out successfully, with Adam Atkinson, founder of London based Cherchbi Ltd., saying he learned a lot about the market here in the three years before he ended his arrangement with a local agent.
“Japanese consumers liked our products, but they did find a little pricey,” Atkinson said, adding that the Pound-Yen exchange rate had impacted sales, along with high transportation costs. “If we had been a brand with a long history and marketing clout, then it might very well have been a different story, but we are small and relatively new,” he said.
Cherchbi’s collections of leather accessories and items that utilise top-quality tweed are now finding buyers in Japan through the firm’s web presence and Atkinson has high hopes that he will be able to return to Japan in a bigger way in the future.
“We have learned many valuable lessons,” he said. “And we will be better prepared next time.”
Export to Japan caught up with some British fashion icons as they regularly visit the market.
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Article by Julian Ryall, April 2014