Tokyo Fashion Week: a niche for edgy young designers

While it may not boast the big names that draw the international press to Milan, Paris, New York and London, Tokyo Fashion Week has long enjoyed a reputation as a springboard for up-and-coming young designers.

But 10 years after it first stepped out onto the international catwalk, Tokyo is facing two serious challenges: a declining domestic market and the emergence of regional rivals wanting to steal the spotlight. In many ways Tokyo seems happy with the niche it has carved out for itself -- a showcase for young, relatively unknown and edgy designers -- even if others would like to see it expand its scope.

Top-flight Japanese designers such as Kenzo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons have for years shown their collections in Paris instead of Tokyo, and more recent success stories have followed suit, such as Sacai and conceptual label Anrealage, which made its maiden foray in Paris last month. The French capital offers them more visibility with buyers and the fashion press from around the world, who do the rounds between New York, London, Milan and Paris but rarely make the long trip to Tokyo.

For some, that is a missed opportunity. "It's a shame because this city is so inspiring," says Anna Dello Russo, editor at large with the Japanese edition of Vogue, adding that she thinks the young and creative designers showing in Europe should also show in Tokyo. "I...(would like to) come here to see all the up-and-coming Japanese designers, on the catwalk." But for the organisers of Tokyo Fashion Week, the fact that the big names still prefer Paris is not an issue.

"I think it is rather natural to prepare here in Japan and then go to Paris to try the world market. We like to rather encourage the people who go (on to) try the overseas markets like Paris," says Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs at Japan Fashion Week. One reason why designers choose to show abroad is that faced with a shrinking population at home and a smaller domestic market every year, overseas shows offer the exposure needed to reach foreign buyers, explains Shinoda. With the big names absent, Tokyo's shows feature collections from around 50 smaller designers -- most of them Japanese.

Long tradition

With looks inspired by manga or Hello Kitty and clothes that range from the traditional to the avant-garde, Tokyo prides itself on its creativity, its street style, trendy shops and global reputation for design. But it is also aware that cities such as Seoul and Shanghai are piling resources into their own fashion weeks and could threaten Japan's leading position in Asia, Shinoda explains.

"At this moment Tokyo is top, top, top, there is no comparison. But we have to watch always that Thailand, Indonesia, Seoul, all the governments are investing a lot of money to encourage their own fashion week to develop. We'll be very careful." Japanese designer Yu Amatsu, who was behind the latest collection for Hanae Mori, the grande dame of Japanese haute couture, as well as presenting his own label "A Degree Fahrenheit" at this year's fashion week, says that Tokyo is a gathering of "brilliant craftsmen."

"But the problem is that we are sometimes a little reserved. We struggle to open ourselves up to the rest of the world," he says. The Japanese government has been keen to support a textile industry that enjoys a solid reputation for quality but has been in decline for years. For Geraldine Florin, a buyer with French department store Galeries Lafayette, the "made in Japan" label is a sign of high quality, but one that inevitably pushes up prices.

"That positions Japanese fashion at the high-end. That's why we want products that are that much more creative and bring something different to the table, to justify the higher price," she explains. Japanese fashion journalist Keiko Hirayama says the key to the future of Japanese designers is their originality, their vision and their experience in selling in the current challenging economic environment. And she is optimistic about the future, regardless of the challenges posed by regional rivals and shrinking markets.

"We have the longest tradition of fashion in Asia, and the Japanese are passionate enough to make it endure." (Anne-Laure Mondesert, AFP)

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