Anxious luxury groups have seen big sales drops in China and Russia but one country just keeps growing.
At Milan Fashion Week Men’s in January, one country was being spoken of warmly by many of Europe’s niche luxury brands. It wasn’t China or Russia – once seen as the future of the luxury industry – but Japan, a country with a longstanding affinity for quality, where customers are prepared to wait a year for a €7,000 Liverano & Liverano suit and style-conscious 20-somethings might save hard for a Salvatore Piccolo shirt and a pair of Paraboot walking shoes. When times are tough for the luxury business, Japan keeps the boat steady.
“Japan is our top market,” says Mario Griariotto, CEO of marketing and retail at Slowear, the Venice-based group of Italian brands that has four shops in Japan. “It is really sophisticated and that’s why we love to interact with it. Japanese consumers are extremely knowledgeable and well trained. Their high expectations constantly push us to innovate and we love that challenge.”
Japan is the world’s second-biggest luxury market after the US. Spending on personal luxury goods in Japan hit €20.1bn in 2015, a 9 per cent increase on 2014. In the same period the US recorded zero growth, Russia dropped 2 per cent, China fell 1 per cent and Hong Kong plunged a massive 25 per cent. In spite of the huge increase in tourism to Japan, analysts say that visitors are not responsible for the rude health of luxury sales in the country.
“The luxury market in Europe is largely supported by tourists, while Japanese luxury consumers tend to buy locally,” says Shannon Nishimatsu, retail consultant at cbre Japan. More than half the luxury-goods purchases made in Europe are by visitors from overseas; in Japan tourists account for only a quarter. Nishimatsu says that the stronger yen and the Chinese government’s decision to raise tariffs on goods acquired abroad has reined in the extravagant spending sprees of Chinese visitors.
“The majority of our customers in Japan are Japanese,” says Slowear’s Mario Griariotto. “Most of the incoming tourism from Asia is from markets that are not as mature as Japan. Like us, Japanese are more stylish and attentive to details; men with personality willing to stand out from the crowd.” Griariotto says that long exposure to luxury has made connoisseurs of the Japanese customer.
The country’s grown-up relationship with luxury has evolved over four decades. Shoppers gorged on brand labels in the bubble years, leading up to the stock market crash of 1989, became more selective during straightened times that followed and emerged with a sharper idea of what they wanted to spend their money on.
“Japan is indeed a ‘mature’ market for luxury,” says Umberto Angeloni, CEO of Italian tailoring brand Caruso. “Many of its consumers are literati about quality, design, style and value, something that is recognised not only in Asia but also in Europe. Japanese men have inherited a passion for fine fabrics and superior tailoring from the kimono tradition, to which they have added many decades of interest in British formal style and more recently Italian sprezzatura [studied nonchalance].”
Moreover, he adds, “The love of things Italian is not limited to fashion but everything that exudes Italy’s character, craftsmanship and culture. I believe there is a natural affinity between sophisticated Italian and Japanese people based on similar lifestyle traditions such as wellness – thermal baths and massage – theatre and music, love of nature – mountain and seaside – and haute cuisine.”
It’s certainly true that Japanese men’s fashion is enamoured of Italy, whether in the Aoyama atelier of Neapolitan-trained tailor Noriyuki Ueki (aka “Ciccio”) or on the shop floor of fashion giant United Arrows, whose Harajuku men’s shop is filled with Errico Formicola shirts and jackets made with fabrics from Trabaldo Togna. Walk along Naka Dori in Marunouchi (Tokyo’s answer to Wall Street) and you will find an impressive range of luxury shops that includes top-end Milanese tailors Boglioli alongside Japanese select shops such as The Sovereign House. The latter has Slowear and Liverano & Liverano shop-in-shops alongside everything else that a dandyish gentleman could desire.
“Tokyo is the Asian mecca of shopping, where consumers can choose from the cutting-edge selection of the modern multibrand boutique, such as United Arrows, or the immense variety of retail institutions such as Isetan or Mitsukoshi,” says Angeloni. “The Caruso product is present in both, interpreted differently but always as a testimony to authentic Italian style.” A strong presence in Japan, he adds, “will facilitate the brand’s introduction in China and South Korea”.
Italian brands are not the only ones to have benefited from the Japanese customer’s appreciation of craftsmanship and pedigree. Shoppers in Tokyo are remarkably well versed in obscure labels from around the globe and Japanese buyers do their utmost to supply them. W David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, says that the binge brand-buying of the 1980s is a distant memory. “Japan has moved past using luxury as conspicuous consumption so it would rather have something that is the best of its category, even if very few other people know it.”
Footwear is a case in point in that Northampton – a UK town with a tradition of shoemaking – probably has greater fame in Japan than at home. Japanese customers, encouraged by fashion magazines, have embraced heritage brands such as Edward Green, Trickers, Church’s and Crockett & Jones. Hermès-owned British maker John Lobb has five shops in Japan where customers can expect to drop €1,500 on a pair of suede penny loafers and far more for bespoke shoes. The label has experienced three-fold growth since its Japanese outpost was set up in 2005. “Japanese people are aware of John Lobb’s value, its history and its craftsmanship,” says Tomooki Matsuda, president of John Lobb Japan. “And they buy the brand not just in Japan but all over the world.”
French shoe brand JM Weston is also thriving in the Japanese market, its biggest after France. “Japan is one of the priorities for the JM Weston house for the next five years and we will be opening two new points of sale [at Hankyu and Matsuya Ginza] in 2017,” says chairman Thierry Oriez. “The Japanese are very sensitive to know-how and especially French know-how. They are interested in the details of finishing and the quality of materials and they have great interest in iconic models such as the 180 loafer or the Golf Derby.”
JM Weston’s collaboration models with Japanese retailers have proved popular with men and women. Creative director Michel Perry says that “the Japanese perfectly subvert the classic codes of the house by reinterpreting without ever being ostentatious. The reinterpretation is always right.”
As Angeloni points out, luxury shopping in Tokyo these days might not be in dedicated brand shops but instead in meticulously sourced boutiques such as H Beauty and Youth, International Gallery Beams or Tomorrowland, where the womenswear selection offers a tantalisingly eclectic perspective on luxury: Kinloch silk scarves teamed up with a Chloé sheepskin coat, a Mansur Gavriel bag and Sergio Rossi slingbacks.
Naomi Uehara of Tomorrowland says that discerning young Japanese shoppers are less interested in brand names than provenance. “Young customers want to get the latest fashion items but they also want to know more about the story behind the collections. I have to explain the source of a designer’s inspiration, the fabrics and the embroidery. There has to be added value to the products to satisfy customers.” Once convinced though, they do buy.
It seems like only yesterday that luxury brands were falling over themselves to open in cities all over China, only to find that their expensive shops were empty and sales were not as buoyant as they had hoped. Steadfast Japan has rightly come into a sharper focus once again with a loyal audience that has evolved but never lost its taste for the finer things in life.
What is it about the Japanese consumer? Why do they have a different appreciation for quality? And why do they have such an evolved sense of style?
During the past decade monocle could have made a small fortune if we’d charged a consultancy fee for every enquiry we had from retailers with an eye on Japanese expansion, bank analysts in need of some additional spin for their reports on the luxury market and academics working on papers about “Tokyo style”.
Over the years we’ve honed our view on the Japanese fashion consumer and why they’re so focused on cut, quality and provenance rather than designer hype and fleeting trends. Having made well over 100 trips to Japan we are still trying to decode why certain silhouettes endure; why the New Balance trainer is a wardrobe classic and how obscure British leather brands never see their shelf space shrink at top retailers. Below is our house view on why Japan is a fashion retail market unlike any other.
Start ’em young
Spend a weekend afternoon on the streets of Tokyo, Sapporo or Osaka and it’s easy to see that families put considerable emphasis on appearances and ensure that their children look as good as they do (far more than Americans, Aussies or Swedes). From a young age the Japanese are conditioned to make an effort, be creative and go the extra few minutes in front of the mirror to master their look. What starts at age two stays with them till they hit 100.
Japan’s style press plays a huge role in informing consumers about the history of a brand, the technical details of denim manufacturing and how to look your best with a garment or accessory. The country’s newsstands feature the biggest collection of homegrown fashion magazines in the world and there is something for every segment of the market.
Urban surfers who want to look like they spend their weekends in Byron Bay have three or four magazines to call their own, just as young women who want to look like they’ve walked off a college campus in Lyon also have a stack of mags to help them amass the appropriate wardrobe.
Buyers as explorers
The buyers behind retailers big and small are tireless in their quest to find the authentic espadrille, the forgotten Austrian hat factory and the perfect Italian interpretation of the duffel coat. If you happen to see an impeccably dressed young Japanese man on a rural German train there’s a good chance he’s on his way to a company that he found that still makes sturdy knitwear for police commandos. Rather than following predictable brands, the Japanese buyer needs to surprise his or her customer every single season and recognises that they’re an educator as much as a purveyor of choice cuts.
Many retailers will tell you that theirs is not a static industry but few actually live by their words. In Japan retailers thrive on a culture of renewal with well-established shops going through regular cycles that see them shut down for three days while they “renew” their look and feel, to reflect a new mood for Finnish prints, alpaca knits or Tyrolean hiking looks. At the same time the consumer expects it of the market so the relationship between buyer and seller has elevated the metabolism. It’s at a level that’s unseen elsewhere in the world.
Sticking with your look
The Japanese might be quick on trends but they’re also committed to certain styles that they stick to but constantly evolve. The dapper gent who likes his Caruso suit doesn’t necessarily migrate to another label the next season just because it’s hot. Rather this consumer will work hard to hone his look, build up his collection of suits and become known for his sharp interpretation of Florentine gentlemen. This commitment to deep, personal style allows for proper specialisation on the part of retailers and means buyers need to work that much harder to satisfy the demands of customers who want not only the best but also the most hard-to-get items.