16 Jan 2019
Magic's Last Hurrah Leaves Japanese Fashion Still Elderly-Fixated
While 2018 may have marked the end of the road for IFF-Magic, Japan's style sector continues to wend its singular way, with the affluent elderly still clearly topping the target list of even the country's more distinctive and daring designers.
When UBM, the UK-headquartered international event organiser, linked up with Senken – the Tokyo-based fashion-focused daily newspaper – to revamp JFW-IFF as IFF-Magic in 2017, it was widely seen as proof that trade shows need to evolve if they hope to survive the endless reinvention of the markets they supposedly serve. Now, things have taken an even more drastic turn, with the recent announcement that UBM Japan has cancelled IFF-Magic for Spring 2019. This means that the most recent edition could well be the last time the event takes place in anything like its current form. As to the future, both UBM Japan and Senken are now said to be concentrating on developing their own – inevitably smaller – Tokyo-based fashion showcases.
Although it was more than apparent at the September show that Magic had lost a considerable number of exhibitors since its 2017 debut – down to 468 from 700 – it also seemed well on its way to evolving into a more exclusive and more upmarket event. It may also prove somewhat ironic that Magic's last stand provided, arguably, one of the most comprehensive introductions to the inner workings of the Japanese fashion market, as well as delivering a rare insight into the factors transforming the country overall.
For those adept at a little reverse engineering, the number of child-centric and inter-generational brands on offer was a clear reflection of government-sponsored moves to drive up the annual birth rate. It was perhaps also significant that many such lines had a distinctly international look – quite a departure for a country that prides itself on remaining globally distinct.
Typical of many of those more inclusive brands was Zozio, an Osaka-headquartered upmarket kids' clothing label. Outlining how the company's guiding philosophy fell into place, President and Head Designer Masayo Thevenon said: "I live in France and I have three children, which pretty much explains our blend of European and Asian styles. While I produce every collection in Japan, everything is designed in France, with much of my inspiration coming from the needs and preferences of my own kids. Ultimately, our whole range is designed to be easy to wear, easy to take care of and, above all, comfortable."
Apart from those considerations, many of Thevenon's creations are clearly also functional, occasionally formal and frequently intergenerational in approach, with the latter elements accounting for the similarities between many of her adult and kid designs, with the crossover creating something of a 'buddy' feel for certain co-ordinated styles. With her focus largely on skirts, pants and tops, all of which are characteristically brightly coloured and baggy, her items tend to retail for between US$60 and $150.
Thevenon also offers something of a fresh take on the tracksuit, that most traditional of casualwear standbys, with her designs favouring large blocks of vivid colours which, if anything, make it seem more casual still. Explaining her championing of this particular garment, she said: "Tracksuits are great for women and for children – they're easy to put on, they're easy to wash and they always keep their shape. As they also tend to be made from very flexible material, they also have an unmistakably roomy feel.
"They're ideal for women who have recently given birth who, while they care about their shape, don't want to be too conscious of it and maybe want to hide it a little. They're also good for children, especially those who may be somewhat overweight."
While Zozio looks to serve a relatively limited customer base with its looser fitting, comfort-oriented, discreetly concealing styles, many of these elements also have an appeal for the wider group of older and middle-aged customers who dominate the market in Japan. One label trying to cater to this market in particular was Decks, a Singaporean fashion company that trades under several distinct brands, including Island Shop.
Singling out the latter brand's particular niche, Serene Ma, the company's Business Development Director, said: "We see it as very much as an urban leisure / resort style, largely because it's heavy on embroidery and has a relatively high price-tag of about $100. It's not a collection that would be suitable for those in their early 20s, say, partly because they lack the requisite spending power. In many ways, it's the very antithesis of fast-fashion and is really more of a high-end lifestyle collection."
One Island Shop offering showcased at the event was a long, yellow, linen dress with embroidered patterns, which came with a price tag of $130. Even a cursory glance was enough to suggest its long, loose, flowing style would, indeed, flatter the older figure.
Emphasising that the collection, above all, was intended to appeal to older, body-conscious consumers, Ma said: "The guiding principle behind many items in this range is to cover the parts of the body the wearer doesn't want to show. Most of the dresses have a line cut or are cocoon-like. They allow a lady to give the best impression of herself, with the flowing style having a definite slimming effect."
According to Ma, the company's design team had drawn much of its inspiration from the typical styles of the Middle East, a region long associated with loose, flowing, feminine garments. Maintaining that influence was set to be made explicit in the range's new seasonal collection, she said: "This coming year our theme will be the Sahara Desert. The touchpoints of the collection will be sunsets, braided materials and Marrakech. Even though we see it as very much modern urban leisure / resort style in approach, much of its look owes something of a debt to the developing world."
While Decks – like many other exhibitors – was squarely focused on the bigger production runs, the show also played host to a number of hand-crafted / artisan fashion labels, businesses with small production runs, comparatively high prices and something a little more outré on offer. Among the most engaging of these was Tokyo-based Ventriloquist, the proprietary label of Takashi Nemoto, the designer voted Japanese fashion's most promising newcomer in 2012.
For 2018, he had on offer a variety of designs, including hand-ripped-denim jackets ($500), dresses and designer T-shirts ($120). Given the price point, it was no surprise that the designer was avowedly out to woo affluent, older consumers. Outlining his positioning, he said: "Our market is middle-aged consumers. The denim we use is original and the prints on our dresses are all original prints – and I also hand-fray everything myself.
"This is an event that I come to every year. All the shops that sell my clothes – from outlets in Kyushu in the south of Japan to those in Fukushima in the north – come here, so I have to be here as well. I also want to get into China and into a number of other overseas markets and I believe that having a presence here will also help with that."
While many of the artisanal producers, such as Nemoto, seemed happy to focus on premium fast-fashion items for niche markets, the larger players appeared to be taking an increasingly contrary view. Addressing this polarisation, Thevenon said: "I definitely get the feeling that many consumers are tiring of fast-fashion, especially those in our target market – mothers with young children, who have their hands full and are constantly too busy to go shopping for quickly disposable clothes.
"One of the reasons we emphasise quality and durability is because people don't want to be going in and out of shops to buy clothes all the time. It's just too tiring. Our concept is to create something that people can buy and then use for a long time. It's an approach that's also very much in line with the long-term trend towards more environmentally sustainable products."
Despite this, Ma maintained that Decks, for its part, had no plans to pull out of the fast-fashion sector, saying: "M'phosis, our fast-fashion brand, has a totally different look and feel to Island Shop. It targets the younger generation – those in their early 20s – and is very much affordably priced.
"We don't want to tie ourselves too much to solely producing expensive collections. We want to stay in touch with the younger generations and educate them along the way. Then, when they reach a different stage in their life, we can introduce them to Island Shop."
While the dominance of the mature market is hard to escape in Japan, this kind of holistic approach, with its awareness of trans-generational synergies, is seen as vital for those brands that want to be positively positioned in the future. It's perhaps a shame that IFF-Magic's organisers failed to take a similarly nimble and dextrous approach to the show's own positioning. Then there might not be such an unexpected gap in Tokyo's 2019 fashion expo schedule.
IFF-Magic 2018 took place from 26-28 September at Tokyo Big Sight.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo