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Wholly China-proof Designs Prove Holy Grail at Tokyo Fashion World

Exhibitors at autumn event polarised between showing extensive range of largely undifferentiated middle-market footwear and apparel or going for broke with high-end items designed to be virtually unclonable by most mainland imitators.

Photo: Tokyo Fashion World November 2016: Some of the 23,122 visitors lured by its eclectic mix of styles.
Tokyo Fashion World November 2016: Some of the 23,122 visitors lured by its eclectic mix of styles.
Photo: Tokyo Fashion World November 2016: Some of the 23,122 visitors lured by its eclectic mix of styles.
Tokyo Fashion World November 2016: Some of the 23,122 visitors lured by its eclectic mix of styles.

Although Tokyo Fashion World has expanded considerably over recent years, the event has yet to find a signature style. With its strong industry focus, it has a nuts-and-bolts feel that is reflected in the disparate mini-expos – including the Tokyo Bag Expo, OEM/Sourcing Expo and Textile Tokyo – that make up its constituent parts.

There are many who feel, however, that developing a more unified identity for the show would render the event both more enjoyable and more memorable. Regardless of that, though, there was plenty to be learnt about both the supply and the distribution sides of the sector, with the event having a deserved reputation as one of the industry's more garrulous trade fairs.

Kicking the ball off, Henry Cui, Marketing Operations Vice-president for the People Group, a Taiwan-based shoe manufacturer, was keen to emphasise that increasing pressure on prices had resulted in very narrow profit margins. This, he believes, has made it incumbent on all manufacturers in the sector to seek out ever cheaper manufacturing options.

He said: "On account of the different tariffs levied by different countries, we have had to change where we manufacture. As a result, much of our production has shifted to Vietnam and Cambodia. As Japan is keen to promote business with these countries, this has created opportunities for us.

"We are always looking to get around any obstacle, to find a solution and to make it happen for the customer. Today, business is ever more competitive and we must always do something smarter in order to survive."

At the event, the People Group was presenting a large range of shoes aimed at the budget buyer, with no particular trend dominating. A similar approach was taken by many other exhibitors, with styles generally more diffuse than in previous years.

A number of exhibitors were also adjusting their retail strategies in light of the increasing impact of online shopping.  In the case of Hisaki, a luggage manufacturer operating out of the Aichi Prefecture, it was focusing on its Neo Keepr brand. Although looking not dissimilar to Rimowa, the upmarket German luggage brand, the Neo Keepr range has a lower price point and is available almost exclusively online.

Explaining its approach, Ren Cho, the company's Sales Manager, said: "We were looking to sell at the same price both online and in department stores. This, however, has proven to be more difficult than we anticipated."

In Japan, distributing a product through department stores is seen as a good way to enhance its prestige. This practice, though, invariably involves the store expecting a hefty chunk of the retail price. Inevitably, then, the online price is always going to be considerably lower.

Tackling the problem from the opposite end was another upmarket luggage manufacturer – Sweden's Vikland. To date, its range has largely been sold through department stores, while maintaining only a minimal online presence.

Explaining his company's reason for exhibiting at the event, Sales Director Rickard Haggren said: "This is actually only our second time here. Last spring, we took a smaller stand, but we had so much positive feedback we decided to come back bigger and better."

While selling through department stores is widely accepted as a good way to protect a brand, sales through this channel have a tendency to become relatively static. Predictably, Haggren is now looking to online sales as a route to growth, though he is not unaware of the downside of this particular channel.

He said: "We have to be careful about going online. We need to retain the value of the product, while also nurturing its image and its higher class associations. We can't just turn it over to an e-tailer and see our prices cut by 40%.

"We are not, however, entirely against online retailing. What we are looking for is an agent with experience in dealing with high-end goods and, if that person also knew how to sell our range online, that would be more than acceptable. We would be perfectly happy to trust someone like that."

Another area where the internet is having a big impact is the speed with which new designs and trends are now disseminated. Thanks to digital technology, companies around the world are able to modify their own designs almost immediately in response to the latest fashions emerging out of London, Paris, Milan or New York.

This, however, undermines the idea of any single fashion trend being in the ascendant, with a large range of styles available at any one time. It also pushes high-end fashion designers towards creating styles and features that may be harder to "clone" in the short-term.

This first factor was clearly in evidence in the range on show from Taiwan's George Shoe Corporation. The company had on offer a wide selection of predominately ladies shoes (US$65-85) under its Pic & Pay brand.

Photo: Largely in: Non-descript shoe styles.
Largely in: Non-descript shoe styles.
Photo: Largely in: Non-descript shoe styles.
Largely in: Non-descript shoe styles.
Photo: Largely out: Funky Finnish fashion.
Largely out: Funky Finnish fashion.
Photo: Largely out: Funky Finnish fashion.
Largely out: Funky Finnish fashion.

According to Vicky Chen, the company's Assistant President, the current trend in the shoe sector has seen a move away from distinctive or idiosyncratic styles – something once hugely popular in Japan – and more towards low-key, low-cost practical shoes.

Chen said: "Tastes are less crazy now. People are going for classy, elegant and less adventurous fashions with a practical element. Nowadays, we have to present a lot of styles because as there is no specific trend.

"It's now a very transparent world. We've become accustomed to the internet over the past 15 years and everyone is now used to seeing everything instantly. Fashions are being broadcast from the catwalk straight onto the net. It's easy for anyone to copy them.

"As a result, young people don't follow just one trend any more. They are more inclined to try to highlight their own personalities and want something that comfortably fits their lifestyle. Of course, there is still a small number of people who continue to take fashion very seriously. The majority, though, are more in favour of quality of life and are not interested in the stress of following every new trend."

While sympathetic to many of Chen's views, Cui believes the relationship between upmarket and down-market fashion is a little more symbiotic. He said: "Our focus is on recognising trends and re-purposing high-end designs for the mainstream market. While the fashion houses may not like that aspect of the business, we still help popularise their styles."

As was noted earlier, however, the very ease with which styles can now be copied is having an impact on up-market designs, with a premium now being placed on any element that is harder to duplicate. This is seen as explaining the recent emphasis on embroidered footwear.

Nothing the trend, Chen said: "I think high-end clothing and shoe companies, such as Gucci or Dior, are now attracted to embroidery because it is distinctive and it's harder for other companies to simply copy. Over the long-term, though, a means will be found to imitate even this."

Manish Kawtra, a partner in The Sac and Satchel Company, an Indian high-end bag maker, also sees good quality embroidery as hard to replicate, provocatively billing it as 'China-proof'. His own company was attending Fashion World Tokyo for the first time and was looking to do business with select outlets, while also hoping to secure OEM deals with a number of Japan's more upmarket bag brands.

He said: "We thought Japan would be a good market to try as it can take an expensive product. As embroidery is expensive, we prefer to use only high-end materials, such as French calf. You can't have expensive embroidery on cheap leather."

Perhaps begging to differ with Kawtra's belief, Flapper – a Japanese brand –had on offer a range of Chinese-manufactured bags, all decorated with machine-embroidered designs. Despite retailing from just US$27-60, the embroidery had a distinctively authentic look. Perhaps, after all, nothing is truly China-proof.

Photo: Can even the most exquisite of embroidery prove ultimately China-proof?
Can even the most exquisite of embroidery prove ultimately China-proof?
Photo: Can even the most exquisite of embroidery prove ultimately China-proof?
Can even the most exquisite of embroidery prove ultimately China-proof?

Fashion World Tokyo was held from 7-9 November at Tokyo Big Sight. The event attracted 871 exhibitors, and 23,122 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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