22 June 2017
Combined Magic IFF Event Aims to Create Global Fashion Showcase
In the first year of its link-up with US-based Magic, Tokyo's International Fashion Fair has been transformed into an outward-looking promotional platform for high-end fashion, but has this been enough to arrest the event's decline?
For several years now, Japan Fashion Week-International Fashion Fair (JFW-IFF) has been in something of a decline. Back in 2012, the event was drawing around 25,000 visitors but, by 2014, this was down to some 20,000. In 2016, the official number of attendees dipped below 15,000 for the first time. While much of this decline can be attributed to changes in the Japanese fashion market, it is also fair to say that the real problem was that JFW-IFF signally failed to respond to many of these changes.
Now, though, this downward trend has prompted the show's organisers – Senken Shimbun, the Tokyo-based daily fashion newspaper – to have a fundamental rethink. This has seen them call in some outside help in the form of the US-based organizers of Magic, one of North America's largest garments/fashion expos. As a consequence, this year the event has been rebranded as IFF Magic, while its content and approach has also had a dramatic makeover. The early indications are that the revamped show has been well-received, with the decline in visitor numbers enjoying a swift reversal.
Why, though, did JFW-IFF go so notably out of fashion in the first place? Well, it was partly down to the changing nature of the fashion sector and partly down to the rise of competing forms of fashion promotion, particularly the growing significance of the many digital channels.
The ever-increasing flow of online information, facilitating the notion of "fast fashion," means that trends and styles no longer manifest themselves in distinct waves. Instead, good ideas tend to gradually leak into the collective fashion consciousness, with anything quirky and unique ultimately filtered out in favour of easy and comfortable styles. In Japan, at least, this has led to a preference for softer and more casual styles, looks that emphasis easy-going individual taste.
Even many of the relatively upmarket fashion brands have had to take this on board. One such company was Sanzen Cohsan, a Tokyo-based fashion importer, which was, this year, promoting its Acuta brand, comprising sweaters, blouses, coats and bags in the US$110-400 price range.
Explaining the company's approach, Buyer and Product Developer Toshie Sagi said: "Our guiding principles are 'enjoy my style,' 'selected only for myself,' and 'daily use.'"
In line with this, Sanzen Cohsan's 2017 range had a mix-and-match quality, favouring loose, soft and simple styles that maximized comfort. A similar "cosseting" vibe was evident from EMU, the Australian footwear brand, which was displaying some very fluffy slippers ($80), as well as a selection of moccasins with generous wool linings ($150).
Overall, it seems that what today's typical Japanese fashion consumer wants is lots of easy, non-challenging options. In short, fashion that is comfortable and suits everyday life, while not standing out too much. In many ways, the current Japanese market is the polar opposite of that of the 1980s Bubble Years, a time of brand-obsessed high concept fashion when the country was producing its most innovative styles.
Another recent change is that the influence of many of the regional fashion centres has notably diminished. This, according to many at this year's event, has left the sector increasingly dominated by a generic Tokyo style. Over the last couple of shows, this was a major contributor to the declining attendance of many of the regional retailers, distributors, and designers.
For Makoto Kuwabara, though, the International Sales Manager of Sunwell, an Osaka-based textile manufacturer, it was largely the emergence of new means of information sharing that had challenged the traditional dominance of the fashion fair. Expanding upon his thinking, he said: "Nowadays, communication is far easier. This means that any exhibition is not as important as it used to be.
"At the same time, as far as Japan is concerned, the big city markets are still growing and demand remains robust. Sales in the smaller cities and the rural areas, however, are declining.
"As far as the fashion business is concerned, everything is led by Tokyo. We no longer have Osaka fashion, for instance. We used to bring many overseas representatives to Osaka as a way of promoting the local textile business. Now, though, they don't want to come. They only want to go to Tokyo. As a result, if we want to do business with them, we have to go to Tokyo too."
Aside from this new exclusively Tokyo-centric approach to the country's fashion sector, Kuwabara also sees ecommerce and Japan's improved transport system as having had something of an impact, saying: "Not so long ago, many rurally-based retailers and wholesalers came to this exhibition, all on the lookout for new designs and accessories.
"Now, though, many of these smaller shops have lost their customer bases. Shoppers in the more rural regions can buy anything they want online, with the delivery costs now far cheaper. At the same time, the bullet train has made it far easier for people to come in to the big cities to shop."
While such changes have clearly been bad for JFW-IFF, other fashion fairs –notably Rooms and Tokyo Fashion World (TFW) – have suffered far less. This, though, is largely because the two have more of an international focus as well as a more glamorous approach. In particular, Rooms has focused more on the high-end market with a particular emphasis on creativity, aspects of the fashion business that are hard to convey online.
To be fair, JFW-IFF now seems to be committed to playing catch-up. Bringing in Magic as a partner for the event has made it instantly more international, while the style of the show has become notably more cool and aesthetically-appealing. Indeed, several attendees commented that its soundtrack and artistic approach were pretty much lifted directly from the Rooms playbook.
Indeed, following Rooms' lead, the new IFF Magic event was more upmarket and showcased a wider range of creative, innovative, luxury items. Perhaps significantly – and in something of a change this year – many of the companies attending were looking for non-Japanese buyers, citing this as one of the key reasons for their participation.
Tokyo-based Soma Design was one such company, with its debut attendance at the event largely predicated on getting wider international exposure. For its maiden outing, it was pinning much of its hopes on a range of clothing utilising a looser and more wearable form of spandex.
Introducing the range, Tamae Hirokawa, the company's Creative Director and Chief Designer, said: "We call it Second Skin. You can wear it every day, it's comfortable and easy to move in – very much like your own skin.
"Everything we make is based on a basic bodysuit template. Depending on where you cut, it's going to be leggings, a top, gloves…"
Smart, stylishly decorated and coming complete with lacing and embroidery, Soma's garments are upmarket and a little edgy. While its bodysuits have attracted a number of impressive reference clients – including Lady Gaga, the provocative US singer – Hirokawa believes the company's brand of fashion is out of step with prevailing Japanese tastes.
Outlining his reservations, she said: "To be honest, the Japanese market is not in a very good place at the moment. As it's mainly leaning towards the casual, people are not taking the opportunity to explore different types of clothes. Even at a party, they'll opt for ripped-up denim, a T-shirt or something similar.
"By contrast, our aesthetic is more elegant. It's quite difficult for us to find a market in Japan right now, so we're hoping to appeal to Western buyers. We're here now because we can see the show's value as an international showcase."
According to Hirokawa, one of the key difficulties with the Japanese market is gauging what people truly think. This particular challenge is largely down to the fact that opinions are seldom frankly stated, leaving designers and manufacturers having to second guess and infer preferences.
Highlighting the problem, she said: "We used to do a runway show, but we stopped because we weren't getting reliable feedback. We've attended a number of shows overseas where people shouted and yelled, but that has never been the case in Tokyo. People here tend to stay silent and remain poker-faced. I think fashion should be all about passion and that's all too often missing here."
Soma was not the only company looking beyond Japan at this reinvented international event. Indeed, many of the stands featured English language signs reading: "Looking for agents in Japan" or "Seeking overseas representation."
It could be that that the strength of the combined Magic IFF offering is that it sees Tokyo as less of entry point to the Japanese market and more as a transnational venue. The appeal, then, would be that two non-Japanese companies could meet at the event and then go on to do business without the intervention of any domestic partner.
IFF Magic 2017 was held from 26-28 April at Tokyo Big Sight. The event featured 810 exhibitors and attracted more than 21,670 visitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo