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Rejuvenating Residences(HKTDC Enterprise, Vol 08,2007)

Tokyo Style



Japanese homes are starting to reflect the same styles as the innovative fashions on the country's streets if a recent Tokyo trade show is any guide

More and more department stores and boutiques in Japan are turning their attention to marketing home interiors in the same way as they promote the fashions for which the country is famous.

As a result, Japanese consumers are beginning to incorporate a touch of design and style to houses and apartments that were formerly simply utilitarian dwellings.

Professional singles keen to add a touch of international design - and young families ready to replace wedding presents or hand-me-downs - now see their apartments and homes as an environment ready to be "dressed up" and accessorised.

The premier new product showcase of its kind in Japan for these furnishing fashionistas is the Interior Lifestyle Fair, which ran from June 6-8 and attracted some 600 exhibitors and 26,332 visitors to the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition centre.

Divided into goods and interiors, textiles and design and style categories, the exhibits suggested that innovative but affordable European designs and new hi-tech materials were coming to the fore in the Japanese market.

About half of the exhibitors were from overseas, with France, Italy and Germany occupying distinct areas of the exhibition halls with approximately 30 booths each.

There was also an Asian Centre and smaller national pavilions for Taiwan, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia and China, while some half-dozen Hong Kong participants were scattered through the general exhibitor area.

One of the better-received Hong Kong exhibitors was Topchoice Industries Ltd, which presented its trendy, well-designed and attractively-packaged products in an airy and accommodating, open-concept booth.

Topchoice's factories on the Chinese mainland make household ceramics, about 70% of which feature original designs and the other 30% licensed motifs, largely for sale in Europe.

"Our selling point is quality and creative design and packaging," Topchoice spokesman Vincent Fung claimed. "We have six in-house designers in our Hong Kong office and produce hundreds of unique designs each year."

He added that Topchoice now had "four or five" regular importers in Japan who coordinated with wholesalers and retailers. "Business is good," Fung said.

"We have met a number of potential customers at this fair, including big retailers such as Tokyu Hands."

Topchoice's most successful item at the Tokyo fair was its coin banks - attractive but inexpensive ceramic piggies and other animals which emit oinks and other noises when a coin is deposited.

Capitalising on both the Japanese penchant for cuteness and the recent boom in trendy pets such as handbag-sized dogs, Topchoice also showcased its VIP (Very Important Pet) collection.

The VIP range includes well-designed chewable toys, such as a squeaky rubber chicken, as well as food bowls and other accessories all designed to add pleasure to a pet's life.

A key point with this line is the attention Topchoice pays to its clean, fun and cute packaging, designed to make a favourable impression in store displays.

Also from Hong Kong was Moneray Int'l, which displayed home and office clocks that use radio signals to synchronize with an atomic clock to provide accuracy within one-billionth of a second per day.

Moneray charges up to US$30 per clock FOB Hong Kong and has a 3,000-unit minimum order quantity, company spokesman Eric Leung explained. "If the unit price or order size is too low we get another problem, with shipping costs," he revealed. "We have to be patient and develop contacts with the Japanese importers we feel are sincere, because it is better to find long-term relationships than someone who wants to make just one deal."

Moneray's state-of-the-art clocks were representative of a fair which featured many products made from new hi-tech materials such as microfibre, silicone and special plastics and coatings.

French firms in particular had plenty of surprises for the kitchen, including Mastrad's line of "Orka" silicone oven mitts - big spaceman mitts whose design is almost humorous but which perform in temperatures up to 300蚓. However, new materials do not come cheap, and these kitchen mitts were priced at US$40 and up.

Elsewhere in the fair, a Japanese company tied up with a Hong Kong supplier, Winds, with less-ambitiously designed silicone fabric gloves, made on the Chinese mainland and selling at about half the price.

Notwithstanding all the hi-tech, Hong Kong's Wise Unicorn Industrial had an unlikely hit with a traditional material: high-quality but reasonably-priced porcelain.

"Almost all of the items at this fair are contemporary and minimal," said Wise Unicorn's Michael Chang, "but we are getting interest - actually more than expected - with our 'return to the age of beauty' theme and art nouveau porcelain figures."

He added that the items were "technically challenging" to produce. "We had to develop our production slowly to get the quality right," Chang noted, adding that there were different types of porcelain, with emphasis on design, technique or hand-crafting.

"The Europeans might have a traditional coffee set that costs $2,000 or more, but our prices are US$10-150 and I think people who know porcelain can see we offer high quality," Chang observed.

The mixture of traditional and contemporary at the fair was further underscored by buyer Mayumi Takada, from the planning and design section of Manas Trading Inc.

"We are always looking for trends," she said. "I came to look at window coverings, but I found some Japanese vases and glassware done in a traditional style, and I think some young families might be interested in these classic and elegant pieces in their homes."

Overall, the Interior Lifestyle Fair saw countries building on their strengths: France and Italy pushing new design, Indonesia featuring textiles and woven goods, China with bargain-basement displays and utility products such as towels and cooking utensils.

Hong Kong exhibitors continued to position themselves as the OEM connection, and in some cases showed they can also keep up with the leaders when it comes to materials, quality and design.