Japan has been an important market for UK heritage brands, but times are changing. To stay relevant, brands must recognise the new consumer landscape. Simon Carter, owner of the eponymous menswear brand, reports for WGSN
My first trade mission to Japan was in the late 1980s - organised by the British Clothing and Knitwear Export Council. The briefing notes were a lifeline for first-time exhibitors. Tips included advice on business etiquette and trading partners and the heads-up not to expect to take any orders on the first visit.
Japanese buyers, we were led to believe, will want to see the label at the mission a few times before they have the confidence to trade with you.
Our Japanese distributors helped us set up the stand on the morning of the first day, and we stood and waited. By mid-morning we had paid for the mission, and by the end of the second day we had taken more orders than our previous six UK menswear shows put together.
Since those heady days of 1989, the Simon Carter label has expanded its product offer from pewter cufflinks to a full menswear collection, and our business in Japan has transformed into a structure of direct export and licensing.
Roller coaster ride
After the economic slump of the mid-1990s, our business in Japan slowed to a trickle, but we kept up the support and the contacts, and between 2001 to 2007 our turnover doubled every year. Our master licensee signed us up with sub-licences for shirts, menswear, bags and ties. Japan accounted for nearly 25% of our global turnover.
Then the world wobbled in 2008, and our business in Japan just stopped. Our direct export business declined massively, and two of our sub-licensees went out of business overnight. Despite the best endeavours of my export manager, it seemed that Japan had run out of steam as a market for us.
I decided that I should go to see the situation in Japan for myself, so I went to Tokyo earlier this year. This was my first visit for 18 months, but I was unprepared for the changes I saw at retail.
In Tokyo’s central shopping district, Ginza, where most Western super brands have flagships, the luxury stores were empty and it was almost possible to taste the fear.
There were, however, two stores that were busy: H&M and Uniqlo. Indeed, the latter had doubled its size since my last visit. These stores were heaving, with customers of all ages jostling at the rails. But the department stores were in trouble too. There were many red tickets and promotional offers, which would have been unthinkable two years ago.
Matsuzakaya, for example, had given over one floor to discounted branded suit sales. It was mobbed.
It’s not just that the recession has forced prices down, and that consumers are spending less. Traditional bastions of the ‘English look’, such as Tomorrowland and United Arrows, seem out of tune with the mood.
In the same way that in the UK we’ve moved on from the suit, shirt and tie look for business, so have the Japanese. Fashionable areas such as Roppongi in Tokyo would once have been full of young Japanese men in Trickers shoes, Hackett suits and knitted silk ties, tailored to within an inch of their lives. Not any more.
There are busy stores, new stores too, that are quickly tuning in to the mood. Ciaopanic sells what the younger Japanese consumer wants: less constructed, lower-maintenance clothing with a strong workwear influence. It’s a layered look, but carefully put together. And, more significantly, it’s predominantly Japanese-made.
Where does this leave the heritage brands that have depended so much on the Japanese obsession with Englishness? For many years, traditional manufacturers and brands have traded so well in this market because the Japanese love craft - and individuality, and heritage - and have been prepared to pay for it.
Significantly, this has been fuelled not only by an older customer but also by enthusiastic younger shoppers. Now that they have changed, what future is there?
This is a question I asked of my own business. Key to surviving is the recognition that it has changed - and not just imagining it will bounce back. Our most successful licence is for men’s bags, those ubiquitous and uniquely Japanese ‘man bags’. There is no way we could achieve those sales without an expert partner on the ground and that, too, is essential: find a licensee, or distributor, and be prepared to listen.
There is hope for UK heritage brands. The Japanese still love the British,but maybe in a different way. Success will come from understanding and embracing the changes.