26 Oct 2018
Changing Rooms Maintains its Focus on Japan's More Outré Outerwear
Although forcibly relocated while preparations are under way for the looming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Rooms' reputation as Tokyo's most avant-garde fashion forum and most ambitious showcase remains wholly undiminished.
The most recent edition of Rooms Experience – Tokyo's high-end, avant-garde look at fashion and interiors – saw it temporarily abandon the Yoyogi Gymnasium, its customary locale. With that building – a heritage site from the 1964 Olympics – being refurbished in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, the event found itself in the somewhat mundane TOC Building in Tokyo's Gotanda district. Even though this new venue lacked the gravitas of its former home, Rooms remained an intense fashion experience, as well as one that provided a compelling snapshot of the various factions and issues that currently complicate Japan's fashion market.
While there was plenty of optimism and some signs of growth, it was also clear that the local fashion industry is facing many fundamental problems. Not least of these is the perennial challenge of grabbing the attention of shoppers in an increasingly crowded market.
On top of that, there is the need to factor in the preferences of the increasingly affluent older demographic, a segment that has often been side-lined by the youth-fixated fashion industry. As an added complication, any attempt to appeal to the older generation must steer clear of being too non-youthful, with Japan's groovy grandparents wholly averse to any allusion to their advanced years.
As ever, Rooms was far from short of conspicuous artistic and entertainment input, making it as much a cultural happening as a trade event. This fun, playful vibe, however, always has a role to play and has proven to be a key way of making showgoers receptive to many of the new and outright outré ideas on offer.
Indeed, this outré-ness was on show right from the outset. One of the first things to greet visitors as they entered the show was the opportunity to explore a digital shopping mall, courtesy of a virtual reality helmet, which somehow segued into a wrestling match between various people dressed as sea creatures. While Tokyo's other trade shows may focus on the mass market and more established methods of reaching the public, Rooms has unashamedly retained its love of niche markets, minority tastes and quirky presentations.
Such a commitment, though, may seem a trifle perverse given that, when it comes to fashion, the typical Japanese consumer favours low-key, loose-fitting garments in muted tones, with just the occasional gimmick, accent or cutesy element. While it's fair to say that such styles were not in short supply, there was plenty of its polar opposite – loud, garish, extreme, eye-catching fashion, the kind that was once a staple of fashion magazines, but was seldom worn by Real People.
Typical of these more garish garments was the collection on offer from HP France Concento, an import label headed by fashion maven Yukiko Yuzawa, with outlets in Tokyo and Osaka. This year, it had on offer a range of radical items, all culled from Europe's catwalks, complete with vivid colours, strong shapes and lurid patterns.
Dismissive of the dress-down aesthetic that dominates the Japanese mass market, Misaki Kitakoga, an assistant to Yuzawa, said: "Our view is that Japanese women's fashion is very boring and unadventurous. In line with that, our latest collection takes "borderline" as its prevailing motif – clothes that cross the border between beautiful and not beautiful, between useful and not useful, while also being genderless."
According to Kitakoga, a key element of the Concento philosophy is "acute appeal" – sharp and deep appeal to a select market rather than the broad, shallow appeal the mass market aims at. In many ways, this approach is also an essential part of the Rooms world view, with many of the exhibitors committed to cutting through the "consumer clutter" and connecting more personally with their target customers, while offering goods deemed to be irresistible to certain niche buyers.
For its part, Concento is one of many labels that falls under the umbrella of HP France, a Tokyo-based importer and specialist retailer. At this year's event, it was also putting its weight behind a number of other designers and imported brands – including Zoo, a range of animal-themed porcelain accessories available from Nach Bijoux, a French designer brand. Unusually, its range of rings, which sell for between US$80 and $120, not only has "acute appeal" but is also rather cute.
Explaining the abiding appeal of animal-themed items, Kaori Hanaoka, an international liaison officer for HP France, said: "Japanese girls love rabbits and, basically, we will do anything that appeal to young ladies. In line with this, one of earliest ideas was to let Japanese girls reinvent themselves as Parisians, so we imported a range of items from French buyers – accessories, bags, shoes. Between any two cultures there is always some kind of dreamy admiration and longing – French people are very interested in Japanese culture and vice versa."
This romance between different cultures is just the sort of concept that Rooms' exhibitors are keen to seek out, believing it will help them achieve true stand-out in Japan's me-too market. Highlighting the importance of this, Hanaoka said: "We try to propose something different to our customers. Our President likes to use the term 'alternative' – something outside of the mainstream. While most people like to buy something from a very famous fashion house, we seek to offer something different, something with an artisanal or French feel..."
While many of the items at the show were ostensibly aimed at young women, many were also on the radar of older ladies. One company clearly aware of this dual appeal was Messe International Corporation, a Tokyo-based brand importer. This year, it was majoring on a range of jewellery created by Anne-Marie Chagnon, a Canadian designer. Fashioned from pewter, bronze and resin, the items ranged in price from $300 (necklaces) to $200 (bracelets), with all of them having a chunky, vaguely "tribal" feel, which was seemingly of appeal to all ages.
Acknowledging the level of interest that was coming from more superannuated shoppers, Department Head Ken Komura said: "A lot of our customers are in their 60s. They like something big and noticeable, something with instant impact…"
Sachie Toba, who runs her own start-up import business was showing a range of earrings in the $30-50 bracket, all based on a series of fine-art digital prints by DC Designs, a US accessory brand. Maintaining there was a considerable difference in the types of jewellery favoured by younger and older woman, she said: "Younger women like smaller, more delicate accessories and jewellery, partly because they're cheaper, but partly because you have to lean closer to look at them. Older women, by contrast, prefer something that can be appreciated from a distance. While I don't want to say why that might be, you can probably make an informed guess."
One of the most interesting peculiarities of Japanese fashion is that the older consumers tend to prefer the louder styles, while the younger generation is happier with something more subtle and muted. This particular peccadillo was noted by Mayu Sohara, a Sales Representative of Wet, a specialist Berlin-based retailer with its roots in the city's punk, which now also has showroom in Tokyo's Shinjuku district.
Typically, the outlet forefronts lesser-known brands such as Tata Christiane and Typical Freaks, both of which mix tribal / African elements with urban street designs. Despite the prominent elements of sartorial anarchy, the prices are well within the luxury range, with a vivid denim jacket going for $800 and a hand-painted T-shirt for $120.
Freely admitting that this is not the kind of money young rebels tend to have in their back pocket, Sohara said: "Students and young people really have no money. All the people who buy this kind of thing tend to be older. I guess it's a kind of substitute rebellion for the more well-off people."
Rooms Experience 37 took place from 5-7 September 2018 at TOC Gotanda. The event attracted some 20,000 visitors and 350 exhibitors.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo