In the retail wonderland of Japan, T-shirts can become a crippling addiction. Anyone who’s spent time in Beams T or branches of Graniph have felt the wounds on their credit card statements. As an act of charity, Beams has brought out a volume documenting all their commissioned work.
It’s no surprise that Italian bicycle manufacturers Abici describes its products as bicycles “in their pure conceptual form”. The three designers, based in Lombardy, took the glory days of bicycle design in the 1950s as their starting point, and used the retro features of traditional racing bikes in all four Abici models.
These details – such as bent handlebars and brown leather saddles – actually belie the bike’s couture nature. With Abici, the handlebars are crowned with bone-effect grips and the saddle is made by Brooks. With all wires and chains tidied away out of sight, the company’s attitude is evidently progressive, yet owes just as much tradition as technology.
Miuccia Prada and husband Patrizio Bertelli have been busy cutting deals again – this time from Northampton, UK to Seoul. First came the announcement that they had snapped up the remaining shares they did not already own in the venerable British footwear brand Church’s. Not long after came murmurs that a phone was in the works with South Korean electronics giant LG.
With Church’s, Prada has a well established, much-loved brand that it can start to expand at the margins – perfectly cut shirts, engineered outerwear and sharp trousers. While Prada told Monocle that she is keen to leave the brand as it is, this seems unlikely. Bottega Veneta has become the fastest-growing brand for the Gucci Group and Prada has an opportunity to do the same with Church’s by building on the company’s tradition of craft and offering men (and, to a lesser extent, women) something a bit more accessible than Prada’s recent menswear collections. In some Church’s stores there have been hints at this with cashmere sweaters and luxurious scarves.
In a deal at the opposite end of the spectrum, Prada is about to bring a mobile phone to market that is all Prada on the outside (it’s the only marque on the phone) and all LG on the inside. Employing a touch-screen user interface, the device pays a nod to the black and silver used in Prada’s iconic nylon accessories collection. “I’m very interested in how technology and particularly communications technology influences a business such as ours,” says Prada.
While the concept of a fashion designer and mobile phone hook-up may be nothing new – witness Nokia’s myriad collaborations and Motorola’s Dolce & Gabbana models – the deal that Prada has signed with LG has put the fashion brand firmly in the spotlight.
Roger Vivier’s strappy, python sandals could take you from office to aircraft to dinner in the hills above Nice. Come morning, they can do duty in an antiques market and then work perfectly poolside. We eagerly await to see what parent Diego della Valle does with his latest acquisition – Schiaparelli.
Threesomes are always good for a bit of fun, which is part of the reason we’re attracted to the design/distribution alliance made up of retailer and wholesaler Nepenthes, up-and-coming label Engineered Garments and reborn all-American brand Woolrich. Working our way backwards, Woolrich is well on its way to establishing itself as a more rugged yet tailored sportswear alternative to Ralph Lauren with Japnese designer Daiki Suzuki at the helm.
Judging by the number of sharp-looking buyers from Osaka and Tokyo at their Milan autumn/winter 2007/08 menswear shows, Woolrich is about to make the critical leap from being a much loved vintage brand, embraced by a certain tribe of men in Aoyama who fancy themselves as LL Bean catalogue models circa 1963, to a finely tuned menswear label that can feed the hungry Japanese market. Logistics aside, Woolrich has a tricky management act ahead of it. In the US, it will continue to run its core business offering ample-sized chinos and camouflage gear while building a more directional brand via its deal with WP Lavori in Italy.
If it capitalises on the success that Suzuki is already having with his Engineered Garments label, it should do well. A favourite with buyers in Italy and Japan, Engineered Garments is now finding followers in the US and other European markets. Taking his inspiration from the golden years of American sportswear, Suzuki’s designs (and styling) feel firmly rooted in the small, moneyed towns of post-war New Hampshire and the campuses of Vermont, mixed with a distinctively Japanese attention to silhouette and detail.
Pulling all of this talent together under one roof is Nepenthes. With shops in Tokyo and Sapporo (as well as a wholesale/sourcing business in New York and Tokyo), Nepenthes has become a favourite stop when a meeting gets cancelled and we find time to beat a path.
If you’re a promiscuous type when it comes to choosing notebooks: a Moleskine for a bit, and something from Smythson till you leave it on a plane, then Comme des Garçons has a new one for your arsenal. Ultra lightweight, it feels like a Penguin paperback and has an exposed spine to further lighten your tote bag.
Gap tried and failed. Even the mighty Inditex hasn’t found it plain sailing. But that is not stopping Hennes & Mauritz from making the leap from discount to premium fashion, with a second clothing chain.
The Swedish retailer will break its own golden rule by diversifying from its sole H&M brand to open a chain of upmarket stores this spring. It will test the water with 10 COS (short for “collection of style”) outlets in key European cities, including Berlin, London, Brussels and The Hague. The move is an about turn for the low-price clothing specialist, which is losing share to Inditex’s clutch of brands in an increasingly competitive market.
“The COS price point will start where the H&M price ends. A suit will start around €250,” says an H&M spokeswoman.
Its path is fraught with risks. Gap stumbled in the 1980s with Hemisphere, a luxury US leisurewear chain that never made it beyond nine stores. In the UK, Marks & Spencer made a swift exit from its upmarket home furnishings chain Lifestore; while Boots failed to get customers to trade up to its Pure Beauty chain.
Inditex of Spain, the colossus behind Zara, has had more luck with its higher-priced Massimo Dutti format. But it has still run into trouble in France and the UK outside the big cities. H&M has said that its new upscale offshoot will have a completely separate identity. Retail analysts believe this will create problems.
Andy Hughes at UBS, says: “Starting any new brand from scratch is difficult. Full stop.” Tony Shiret, who follows H&M at Credit Suisse, predicts the group will struggle: “Its heritage is in cheap fashion. They can’t say, ‘I’m Prada!’ over night.”
H&M isn’t quite saying that. “This will be a separate business run out of London. It will draw on the experience and the economies that come with being part of a bigger group but it will have its own design and buying teams,” says a spokeswoman.
Shiret warns: “The low volumes and high prices of premium retailing is a much more difficult game. You don’t have the same volume economies, so you are exposed to a whole variety of quality and mark-down issues.”
Peter Wallin, at the Nordic bank Kaupthing, says H&M is putting its credibility on the line. “If this is a failure it will be something new for the corporate culture.” Should H&M prove its doubters wrong, however, it could set a new trend far removed from the catwalks and certainly give the likes of Mr Arnault something to think about
What does a leading Japanese retailer do for an encore after it has launched a series of diverse retail concepts, has become one of the most influential buyers of luxury goods in the world, developed a host of its own in-house brands and taken its business to the Tokyo Stock Exchange in the process? It ensures its customer base stays toned and lean by launching a capsule collection of active garments that speak to a generation of consumers weaned on labels like Dior Homme and Martin Margiela, and who care both about cut and fabric technology.
Targeting consumers who would rather not look like a moving billboard for Reebok while running around the Imperial Palace, United Arrows has come up with the aptly named Sounds Good. Built around a collection of zip-front jackets, track pants, T-shirts and too-tight shorts (Monocle would like to see some looser-cut ones in the mix), Sounds Good has used the best in fabric innovation. Designed for everything from easy Sunday morning tennis matches to sweaty yoga sessions, United Arrows has hit upon a market that the likes of Nike and Adidas should have tapped long ago. In its own words, team UA say they want their customers to “feel good, enjoy sports and become healthy, beautiful and wealthy.” Sounds good to us.
Sounds Good is available from United Arrows Blue Label Store,
Harajuku branch, 3-25-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku,
Tokyo, +81 (0) 3 3479 8186