If you’re in Japan and need hosiery for any occasion, there’s only one place to shop. Tabio have shaped the market in its own image. We find out how and ask where it’s treading next.
Tabio is a household name in Japan. The Osaka-headquartered hosiery company brings in ¥13.7bn (€100m) in annual sales. For regular socks, gifts or smartening up for last-minute client dinners, it’s a go-to “Made in Japan” brand that also has a global footprint with shops in the UK, France and China. On screen it dressed the Joker’s feet in The Dark Knight and supplied tights to luxury fashion brands for Paris and Milan runway shows. On the pitch, Japanese professional footballers and baseball players wear Tabio Sports performance socks.
One principle might have contributed to the huge market that Tabio has created in Japan. “Kodawari [the pursuit of perfection],” says Tabio president Katsuhiro Ochi. “In Japan there is a culture to take off your shoes on many occasions but there is certainly a kodawari element in Japanese people.”
He cites a story of former UK prime minister David Cameron on television, wearing a pair of socks that had a hole on the ankle; he assures monocle that this kind of thing would never happen in Japan.
The company was founded in 1968 by Naomasa Ochi, Katsuhiro’s late father, as a wholesale business. Naomasa, who had an unrivalled kodawari in attention-to-detail, soon started collaborating with manufacturers to produce original socks that pass his standard quality tests on everything from yarn to gauge and comfort to longevity. Today, Tabio’s network of some 50 partner factories in Japan (mainly in the Kansai region) is built on trust.
“I would make our socks overseas if there was a quality guarantee,” says Ochi. “There is a limit to the quantity we can make domestically. And I believe that an industry should be connected with the economy, meaning that Japan should be able to manufacture things for its domestic market. The same goes for the UK or China. For us to do so, we also need to export the spirit of craftsmanship.” Ochi hasn’t found a partner factory overseas yet but is keeping his eyes peeled.
Happy Product is one of the proud sock factories in Nara that Tabio works with. Old looms are spinning at full throttle, while sharp-eyed women are adding the finishing touches to their creations. There are some cutting-edge machines, but the production seems low-tech. “We still do a lot of things by hand,” says the president Ikuo Mitsuoka. “It takes a lot of time and steps.”
Vintage machines from the 1970s produce long tubes of cloth that look like giant noodles. Once trimmed to size, they’re flipped inside out by hand. For the luxury products, toes are hand-sewn to create a perfectly “seamless” finish. Flipped over once again, staff inspect every sock for the tiniest imperfection. Then they’re washed and tumble-dried to shrink before receiving a high-pressure steam ironing. After another inspection, staff pair the socks that have the same length. “Each sock can have slightly different measurements even if they’re made in the same size,” says Mitsuoka.
This is the tip of the iceberg of the Tabio inventory. From polyester mesh design to no-show styles (for peep-toe pump wearers) and trainer socks to fingerless toe socks, its collections are growing along with global fashion trends. And Ochi sees a big opportunity in men’s fashion. “We created the women’s market for them to enjoy socks as a fashion item to dress up and have fun in,” says Ochi. “Now we’re going to do it for men. In the past, nobody thought of a time where men’s skincare would become a standard business. So why can’t we do it for men’s fashion socks?” Ochi and his team of 15 designers consider the fabrics and colours that will match with everything from denim to boots.
Although the company has grown, Ochi is alarmed by the industry’s shrinkage. “In the past 20 years, hundreds of socks factories in Japan have gone bankrupt because production has moved offshore,” says Ochi with concern. “I want to protect the industry. Even if Tabio goes bust in the future, I want the industry to survive.”
The key figures for Tabio’s operations.
¥13.7bn (€100m). Of that, 95.2 per cent is in Japan and the remainder overseas, in the UK, France and China.
Sales by category:
Women’s socks, 40.4 per cent; stockings and tights, 11.4 per cent; men’s, 19.5 per cent; children’s, 2.3 per cent; others, 26.3 per cent.
Number of shops:
249 in Japan and 28 overseas (one in the UK, three in France and 24 in China).