15 July 2015
High-end Goods Return to the Fore at Interior Lifestyle Tokyo 2015
While still hamstrung by the economic uncertainties that bedevil Japan, there were clear signs of a willingness to spend at this year's Interior Lifestyle Tokyo event, especially given the emergence of several high-end niche consumer sectors.
This year the Interior Lifestyle Tokyo (ILT) event reflected the generally mixed economic picture in Japan. The low yen continued to inhibit importers while bolstering domestic production. Investment is still being held back by doubts over the government's push towards a 2% inflation target, while consumption remains sluggish due to wage levels remaining static. Despite this, a number of luxury markets continue to provide clear opportunities for those who know how to exploit them.
As with last year, the dominant looks for 2015 leaned either towards a Scandinavian/Nordic style or a sleek Japanese contour, one incorporating a number of traditional elements. Both styles are essentially low-key, but both embody elements of innovative design and a certain boldness that hints at a degree of optimism. Fitting visual metaphors, then, for the overall tone of the Japanese economy.
In line with this optimism, Karl Hahne, the President of Hafele Japan, a Yokohama-based furniture and kitchen goods distributor, sees the luxury kitchen and furniture sector as currently benefiting from a little investment and expansion. He said: "Our core business is furniture fittings. We have an electronic lock system that we are selling to all the high-end brand shops, and we can see that many are now opening new stores across Japan."
Hafele's main offering at ILT was the Novis Vita Juicer, a large, stylish juicing machine. With a retail price of US$750, it ii an item clearly aimed at the luxury market. The size of the device, though, is said to be a measure of its efficiency and soundproofing, making it ideal for early morning juicing. According to Hahne, although it was conceived in Switzerland, it is – perhaps inevitably – manufactured in China.
He said: "It was invented two years ago by a company that is, primarily, a distributor for a whole bunch of brands in Switzerland. It reviewed all such products on offer and decided to launch its own."
As Swiss goods already enjoy considerable prestige in Japan, Hahne remains confident that he can find a small but profitable niche for the juicer, despite its bulky size and high price tag. Focussing on this, he said: "The Novis Vita has a lifestyle factor and that's what makes it unique. It's not for the lower end of the market, but there are enough upmarket consumers to sustain it.
"The challenge is to sell it in large quantities at 75,000 yen [US$750]. Selling larger quantities at 30,000 yen [US$300] is a piece of cake, but then the market doesn't allow for proper remuneration."
Hahne's approach of looking for a profitable upmarket niche was also being adopted by several other exhibitors, including Hearts in Fashion, a Portuguese hand-embroidered textile brand. The company was in Tokyo to promote its three different handbag ranges, including one that was highly customisable.
In terms of its own approach, Tiago Vieira, the company's Chief Executive, believes that getting the basics right – studying the market beforehand and reacting to feedback – remained essential. He said: "We were here at the fair in 2014 and, in the interim, we've been working on a project to present here this year. We are hoping to reach several different markets. That's why we've brought three collections along on this occasion.
"Our selling points are that are products are handmade – so we can create something truly unique – as well as the fact that we use only the best quality fabrics. Some of our prices are higher than the average consumer would be willing to pay, so we are looking at a niche – high end, not volume."
In line with this strategy, the price of the bags starts at around the US$500 mark, going up in price according to the amount of hand embroidery included. As an ecological premium, they also use cork fabric rather than leather.
Explaining this particular innovation, Viera said: "As Portugal is one of the world's major producers of cork, a lot of technologies have been developed around the material. In the future, we see it as being a popular alternative to leather, a material now considered damaging to the environment. Cork is also very light and waterproof, and it ages well."
Significantly, ecological products do well in Japan for quite different reasons than that do in the west. In the EU and US, such products benefit from a desire by consumers to "signal" their progressive attitudes. This is much less the case in Japan, where the focus is on the direct benefits to the consumer – in health, comfort and aesthetic terms – of anything deemed ecological or natural.
This was an issue directly addressed by Ieva Urboniene, a Lithuanian designer of wood products. She was in Tokyo to promote her birchwood laser-cut cup and tablemats, all retailing for between US$2 to US$5. She believes that potential Japanese buyers were largely uninterested in the ecological aspects of her range, focussing much more on its price and style.
Urboniene was clearly aware of Japanese tastes. Although originally from Lithuania and incorporating a number of traditional Lithuanian patterns into her work, her brand – Nord Deco – has deliberate Scandinavian overtones.
She said: "Right now Lithuania wants to be like Scandinavia. If people don't know where Lithuania is, we say we are from Scandinavia."
As to why Nordic style does quite so well in Japan, it seems to be a combination of its overseas sophistication and the fact that it is sleek, flexible, and low-key enough to blend in with Japanese style, as well as with modern gadgetry – two very important considerations in the Japanese market.
In perhaps a renewed sign of domestic confidence, this year the exhibition also played host to an extended Japanese section. In addition to the more traditional items – metal teakettles, lacquer ware, and wall fabrics – there were also a considerable number of items that were modern but with subtle references to more traditional fare. A prime example of this was a range of drinking beakers courtesy of Yoshinuma Glass.
Although looking totally modern to the non-Japanese, they actually subtly reference the retro-modernism of Taisho Roman. This is a style associated with the early 20th century and remains popular with many young people in Japan in a way reminiscent to the retro-hipster trends in the West.
Elsewhere, there were other signs that traditional items were being "modernized" and utilised in new ways. Hamada Washi Brothers, a Japanese designer label, for instance, has adapted traditional Japanese paper making techniques to create avant-garde screens and wall hangings. These typically sell for several hundred dollars.
These kind of items are aimed at a niche market, one where products are particularly valued for their uniqueness, as well as the skill and effort expended. Such products are exempt from the tight value-for-money calculations that dominate much of the rest of the market. Instead, they are evaluated in cost-value terms, where craftsmanship, time expended in production, quaintness, and the quality of the materials are all seen as contributing to the final price tag. In truth, such attitudes are deeply embedded in Japanese culture.
One company trying to play the game both ways was Di Classe, a Japanese light fittings brand. Its philosophy saw it showing both value-for-money cheaper items, as well as far pricier cost-value pieces. Alongside its simple candleholders with silhouettes of famous cities (US$28), it also had on offer a number of specialist designer light fixtures. Foremost among these was the Paper-Foresti Grande pendant lamp, an intricate assemblage of steel, glass and paper, retailing for US$2,800.
The overall sentiment seemed to be that such occasional bright spots in the Japanese luxury market might not only satisfy a limited number of affluent clients, but also inspire less monied shoppers to at least buy something. This was a theme picked up more specifically in the show's "Museum Shop" zone.
Interior Lifestyle Japan was held at Tokyo Big Sight from 10-12 June. The event attracted 628 Japanese and 141 overseas exhibitors. Visitor numbers were 28,119, marginally up on last year's 27,543.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo