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Consumers Come to the Fore as Ultimate Style Arbiters at JFW

No longer can a small coterie of buyers dictate seasonal fashion trends, according to exhibitors at the Japan Fashion Week-International Fashion Fair. Instead, empowered consumers are using social media and setting their own agenda.

Photo: JFW-IFF: Out of fashion and into lifestyle.
JFW-IFF: Out of fashion and into lifestyle.
Photo: JFW-IFF: Out of fashion and into lifestyle.
JFW-IFF: Out of fashion and into lifestyle.

The most recent Japan Fashion Week-International Fashion Fair (JFW-IFF) differed from previous incarnations in a number of significant ways. Most obviously it was responding to the impact of Tokyo Fashion World, a relatively new rival event, but change was also in the air with regards to how the overall fashion sector does business. For many exhibitors, there was now less of a focus on the big seasonal trends, typically dictated by a few powerful buyers, and more of an emphasis on connecting directly with consumers.

Although the market was seen as increasingly fragmented, a number of trends were still clearly apparent at the show. Several exhibitors, for instance, were promoting styles notable for their softness and looseness, while a more sophisticated aesthetic was also in evidence. In the latter case, this had a distinct affinity with Nordic style, a look already popular in the interior design sector. There also seemed to be a penchant for earthier, more muted colours, as well as simpler shapes and subtle designs. Obvious exoticism, however, was notable by its evidence. One trend continuing from last year – and arguably more pronounced – was the growing emphasis on 'Made in Japan' as a selling point.

The event, organised by Senken Shimbun, a daily Japanese fashion newspaper, was notably smaller than its 2014 predecessor, with visitors down from 20,081 14,254. According to Chigusa Ueda, a Reporter for the paper, this was because, historically, the show had attracted a considerable number of wholesalers, a sector that was currently in decline. Ueda saw this decline as the inevitable consequence of retailers and consumers making significant inroads into the territory of these former middlemen.

Expanding on her view, she said: "The consumer has come to be more professional. Ten years ago, buyers decided on trends six months before they came to market. Nowadays, though, it is the consumer who has more power than the buyer or anyone else in the fashion business. It is they who now decide on the trends."

While this is related to changes in technology, most notably the rise of social media, it is also the result of a changing fashion culture. This has seen the opinion of fashion leaders become significantly less relevant than the views of consumers. Ueda said: "Thanks to social networks, consumers are instantly aware of all the latest fashion news."

As a result, the fashion market is now less centralised and less dominated by biannual seasonal collections. The rise of fast fashion has also seen manufacturers and retailers having to respond rapidly to sudden changes in taste. This has led to smaller runs of fashion items being produced more quickly, as well as styles being created as a best guess as to where consumer demand is likely to focus.

One company that had clearly adopted this strategy was Bali-based LaLuna. Luca Cavazza, the Founder and Head Designer of the business, was in Tokyo to present a wide range of beach and urban fashion for spring/summer 2016. Overall, his company's new collection eschewed the more obvious Indonesian ethnic flavours, instead adopting something of a generic, bright and cool look.

Describing the range as combining Italian sensibility with a hint of something more exotic, Cavazza said: "While having a lot of variety to play with, we need to respond quickly to changes in taste. Fashion is no longer as fixed as once it was, with shops often refreshing their lines every few weeks."

Photo: Old school fashion.
Old school fashion.
Photo: Old school fashion.
Old school fashion.
Photo: Beyond clothing and footwear…
Beyond clothing and footwear…
Photo: Beyond clothing and footwear…
Beyond clothing and footwear…

Another company to have taken this on board was Pashama, an emerging Indian fashion brand. The business specialises in cashmere scarves, shawls, and wraps, all made from the wool of a specific species of Himalayan goat, with prices for its products ranging from US$100 to $600. As with LaLuna, it had also opted to play down any more obvious ethnic influences.

Summing up the company's approach, Reetu Vasan, Pashama's Head of Merchandising, said: "While our collection is clearly from India, it is not very ethnic. We are more European in terms of our design patterns, more international even."

Although featuring a considerable number of different designs, Pashama's range still had a common tonality, giving the items a loose brand identity. This year, its unifying theme was 'rainbow,' resulting in the use of a number of complementary raindrop-like paisley patterns and stylized flowers.

The company's facility for managing small production runs sees it able to continually offer its customers something new. Highlighting this, Vasan said: "Our smallest run is just 100 items. Nowadays, retailers always want smaller qualities and greater variety."

The changes in Japan's fashion culture have proved a major challenge for a number of the country's established institutions, something that Sankei Shimbun has not been immune from. Toru Takazawa, the publication's Managing Editor, now sees the need for a dual approach, with existing business models having to be maintained and improved, even as new methods and technologies are embraced.

He said: "In general, it's not just JFW-IFF that is having a tough time, but also the other big shows. We need to respond to the challenge of digital media and make our business more international. We recently launched an online edition, something we will soon be upgrading. Many of our readers, though, love the print edition and have much more faith in it than in any of our digital competitors."

In terms of changes to the event itself, Senken Shimbun introduced several new initiatives. This year, for example, saw the addition of three new zones – Made in Japan, Sustainable Fashion, and Lifestyle.

While promoting the Made in Japan concept may seem at odds with the overall commitment to internationalise the event, Ueda sees it as unavoidable. She said: "Almost every department store in Japan is using the Made in Japan slogan as part of its spring/summer 2016 promotion. Inevitably, then, it is a priority for every buyer."

In terms of the Lifestyle zone, this was clearly an attempt to broaden the range of products shown at the event. Conceding this, Ueda said: "We have to feature more categories. Previously, we focussed solely on garments and footwear. Nowadays, though, fashion is about more than just clothing and accessories. Fashion is also about lifestyle choices, cosmetics, decor and even food. There is a synergy and we have had to widen our categories to embrace this."

These changes to JFW-IFF, however, did not meet with universal approval. Vasan spoke for many when she said: "To me, the show seems a little confusing. It is displaying too many different things, all mixed together. There should be greater clarity, with companies working in the same sector easier to identify."

Photo: Consumers calling the shots: The new fashion paradigm.
Consumers calling the shots: The new fashion paradigm.
Photo: Consumers calling the shots: The new fashion paradigm.
Consumers calling the shots: The new fashion paradigm.

Japan Fashion Week-International Fashion Fair (JFW-IFF) was held at the Tokyo International Exhibition Centre. The event attracted 14,254 visitors and 440 exhibitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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