7 Dec 2016
Anti-fashion and the Willfully Drab Conquer Japanese Style Show
Bright colours and ostentatious fashions are now being eschewed by many Japanese consumers, according to exhibitors at Rooms, Tokyo's most avant-garde clothing expo, with a nonchalant, rural vibe the must-have style of the season.
Rooms is considered a cut above many of Japan's other trade events. While the show mainly focuses on fashion, accessories and household items, it also has a distinct aesthetic that makes it more like an avant-garde art exhibition than a mere product showcase.
Contrary to what you might expect, rather than this making the show too esoteric and detached to reflect mainstream market conditions in Japan, it has actually had quite the opposite effect. For many, the content of the event is seen as amplifying and exaggerating the key characteristics of the Japanese market, making it a good place to get a real insight into its current standing.
In line with this, the latest edition of Rooms saw several key aspects of the local market become clearly apparent. Chief among these was the huge regional variety that exists in a country often mistakenly seen as entirely homogenous. In addition, the eccentric nature of the local fashion scene, which swings between ostentation and obfuscation, as well the prioritisation of fabric over design, were also highlighted.
Explaining the appeal of the event, Rie Kita, a designer of Victorian/gothic style costume jewellery, said: "Rooms is not mass market. It is far more selective and elite, with a greater variety of people and more unique and original things."
This year, the passion with which the event is organised was reflected by the choice of artists and their works that were on show, as well as in the general attention to detail. Even one of the rest spots, set at around the half-way point of the show, had been extensively decorated, making it seem like some kind of magical grove complete with elaborately hanging foliage. In many ways, these little touches all helped to spur the enthusiasm observable among many of the exhibitors and visitors.
One thing that was in keeping with many of Japan's other trade shows, however, was the sheer diversity on display, with a number of smaller craft producers participating. Among these was Kodai Sangyo, a manufacturer of wooden household goods based in the Fukushima prefecture. Back in 2011, the company's business was badly affected by the massive earthquake and nuclear power plant accident that all but devastated the region. Despite this huge setback, the company returned to the market and is now looking to build export sales.
Reflecting on a tough time for the business, Miwa Nemoto, the company's Head of Overseas Sales, said: "As a consequence of the earthquake and the resultant problems at the nuclear plant, any products from our region were difficult to sell in Japan. Having lost our inland sales, we decided we needed to export. Since 2012, we have been doing an increased amount of business in the US, largely through online sales and OEM deals."
This year, the company chose to showcase its range of Japanese Cyprus wood cutting boards (US$65). According to Nemoto, these have been selling well thanks to the wood's anti-bacterial qualities and the fact that the board's surface is soft enough to leave knives unblunted.
Typically, many of these regionally based producers receive considerable financial support from the national and local governments, This is particularly the case if they are seen as representing one of their region's traditional industries, something that Kawaguchi has benefitted from.
An established Tokyo-based manufacturer and distributor of dress-making tools, Kawaguchi chose this year's event to launch a range of traditional, craft-made sewing tools, a number of which had been made in Western Japan's Hyogo prefecture. Introducing the products, Keijiro Kawaguchi, the company's Chief Executive, said: "These goods are mainly manufactured in various parts in Japan, but with some overseas production.
"In the case of the regional suppliers, the national and local governments assist them in keeping their techniques and skills alive for future generations to learn. Unfortunately, few young people are interested in acquiring these traditional skills, so the government provides incentives for them to sign up to these professions."
Shifting his focus from the regional to the general economy, Kawaguchi was cautiously optimistic, saying: "In my view, while the economy is better than it was three years ago, our profits have not increased as we are not in a situation where we can commit to large production runs."
As a consequence of its aforementioned regional diversity, anywhere outside their own immediate region can seem like something of a foreign country to Japanese natives. Highlighting this, one of the stalls at the show had on offer Discover Japan, a magazine that it would be easy to assume was targetted at overseas visitors. In fact, it is very much aimed at the Japanese themselves, representing something of a call to them to explore what lies beyond their own immediate vicinity.
Even with so much local diversity and such blatant territorialism, there is still much that unites Japan. This is particularly evident when it comes to Japanese fashion. While, at a superficial level, it remains very diverse and eclectic, there are also consistent themes and characteristics that can be hard to miss.
One such motif can perhaps best be described as a kind of "anti-fashion" tendency, a style of clothing that serves to obscure or play down the human form. In many ways, this is the direct opposite of traditional fashion, where the body tends to be accentuated or highlighted in a variety of ways. This style is characterised by a lack of colour and decoration, as well as a general shapelessness or looser fit. While Rooms has traditionally been a showcase for the more extravagant fashion creations, this year it found plenty of space for the more low-key items.
Perhaps exemplifying this trend was Nimai Nitai, a Kyoto-based brand, which has outsourced its manufacturing to India. This year, the company had on offer a selection of loose, smock-like garments with minimal decoration. Available in beige or off-white tones, emphasising the use of such natural materials as linen, silk, and cotton, the items were priced from US$150-250.
To date, the four year old brand has looked to capitalise on its founder's existing connections with India, while imposing Japanese tastes on the local manufacturers. This is despite the fact that not all of them were quick to grasp just how little decoration was required.
Analysing why these almost drab styles are now quite so popular, Maki Nakayama, a director of Nimai Nitai, said: "Nowadays, people in Japan don't like decorative clothes. Instead, they tend to prefer simple, natural textures, free from chemical dyes and not at all gorgeous.
"I think maybe Japan developed too far, too quickly. As a result, nowadays people just want to slow down and get back to simpler, more rural values."
Adopting a similar philosophy was Kapoc, a start-up fashion brand from Osaka. The label's name is an updated take on kapoggi, the kind of house coat traditionally worn by stay-at-home wives in Japan. The company has now repurposed this plain and unassuming garment, reinventing it as an item that can be worn outside the house.
Yoshinori Yamada, the company's Tokyo Sales Representative, said: "It's kind of anti-fashion – young people like it, but so do a lot of older people. It has a reassuringly dull quality that makes it comfortable. High fashion brings with it too much stress. When you try to be beautiful, you put a lot of pressure on yourself."
As well as sending out a clear signal that the wearer is not competing or trying to be fashionable, the other main selling point of such garments lies in the quality of the material. Overall, there is a premium on fabrics that are observably natural, explaining the preference for a degree of coarseness or a certain crumpled quality. This reflects the profound interest in materials demonstrated by many Japanese consumers. Properly exploited, such materials can be stronger selling points than any design element.
Looking to capitalise on this preference, there were a number of interesting attempts to repurpose materials on show at this year's event. Barbara Kosiarek, a Polish Designer living in India, for instance, was exhibiting a range of bags made from dari, an Indian fabric typically used to make carpets, with prices ranging from $140-260.
Kaori Matsuda was another designer with a new bag brand – Rui Onzo. Manufactured in China, the bags are made from the same canvas material used to make judo uniforms and sell from between $80 and $130.
Explaining both the practical and psychological benefits of her range, Matsuda said: "Most obviously, it's tough and hard-wearing, but it's also distinctly Japanese. Most Japanese people, even when they are wearing Western fashions, like to feel they have something that is also Japanese."
Rooms 2016 was held from 14-16 September at Tokyo's Yoyogoi National Stadium. The event attracted 460 exhibitors and 19,000 visitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo