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UK brands have successfully moved into the Japanese market thanks to their combination of quality control, long-term vision and understanding of the consumer.

In a highly competitive market like Japan, you need to stand out to succeed, and to do that you need to understand your customer. Drapers visited a range of Japanese wholesalers, licensing partners and agents who deal with UK brands to gauge what they think is the secret to a successful move into Japan.

Mach 55 is a distributor that specialises in small niche brands, mainly from the UK, including Tatty Devine, Hobo by Hoxton Boutique, Cabinet and The Old Curiosity Shop, and offers a range of menswear, womenswear and accessories. Among its distribution network are all the key select store chains and about 100 indies across Japan.

Mach 55’s Hasegawa

Mach 55’s Hasegawa

Mach 55 chief executive Masahiro Hasegawa says he visits the UK regularly to spot new brands: “Japanese customers are enthusiastic about UK brands – originally heritage retail brands like Harrods – but also the younger, smaller fashion brands. Ideally they will be manufactured in the UK too, but we understand that is not always possible.” Hasegawa signs exclusivity contracts with the brands he brings to Japan.

“The market in Japan is vast but there are opportunities. Distinctiveness is key. Don’t try to be a superbrand, just try to be a specialist in what you do,” he advises prospective clients.

Certainly this point of difference is working for Mach 55, where sales have seen steady year-on-year growth of about 10%, but Hasegawa adds that some Japanese companies are preferring to go directly to UK factories rather than dealing with designers.

“Designers have the unique and original designs we look for, but they are not confident on the supply and business side, so it can be a problem. If you go to the factories their attitude is right, but sometimes the product is formulaic and  requires a slight design tweak to be right for Japan.”

The idea of British product with a Japanese twist is echoed by others within the supply and wholesale market. Yozo Yagi is chief operating officer for Mackintosh in Japan and his parent company Yagi Tsusho owns Mackintosh outright. His Tokyo offices are almost like a museum to the traditional British outerwear brand, with display cases showing its earliest incarnation as a military horseguard uniform and even as a 1980s British Rail guard’s raincoat.

Quality counts

Mackintosh has become synonymous with any sort of gabardine overcoat, but the genuine article, as Yagi is quick to demonstrate, is clearly discernible by the quality of its fabric and cut. And the Japanese will pay a premium for that.

Mackintosh Japan’s Yozo Yagi

Mackintosh Japan’s Yozo Yagi

“It is an outstanding product, with a great history,” says Yagi, adding that the product has been adapted specially for Japan. “We have to interpret the point of the brand and think about what makes the brand unique and then reinvent it for Japan.”

In the case of heritage brand Barbour, which Yagi Tsusho has recently taken on for the Japanese market, this meant changing the cut of its classic jackets to make them fit closer to the body and narrower in the shoulder. Following these changes, the brand is now flying in terms of sales.

“Society at the moment has been through some big changes: the tsunami but also the financial crisis,” says Yagi. “The Japanese consumer is looking for stability, quality, heritage, so they feel stabilised. The more authentic a brand, the more reason the consumer has to buy it.”

And in terms of the design tweaks, he adds that the two teams in Japan and England work closely together to agree what is right for each brand.

Mackintosh Japan is looking to follow its British counterpart and open its first standalone store in Aoyama in the new year. This will be the start of a broadening of the brand strategy.

“We have to be careful taking it to a wider market because what fashion people want from the brand, the mass market does not,” says Yagi. “We’ve never pushed the logo on the brand before, but the mass market wants a symbol, so we need to be careful how we do this without harming the brand.”

Elsewhere, King Co has been operating in the textiles and clothing sector for more than 60 years. Founded in 1948 by Matsuyoshi Yamada, the group originally sourced fabrics and began to print on them, building a reputation as Japan’s equivalent to Liberty thanks to its distinctive prints known throughout Japan.

King Co’s Ted T Nishijima

King Co’s Ted T Nishijima

It was not until the 1970s that the clothing side took off, and in 1983 the company was taken over by the former president’s son-in-law, Yukio Yamada, then aged only 36 and one of the youngest company presidents in Japan. He remains at the helm, launching the Japanese licensing business first with Italian luxury casualwear brand Tru Trussardi in the 1980s, then later in 2009 with the womenswear range for Austin Reed.

“To keep a licensing brand is difficult because of the loyalty payment,” says King Co’s executive officer for corporate planning, strategy and administration Ted T Nishijima. “As the economy slowed in the early 1990s, we realised we had to concentrate on only the best-performing brands.”

The company took high-quality brands sold for a premium price.

“The originality and uniqueness of a brand is important to us,” he adds. “If you go for fast fashion you have to cut costs somewhere in your supply chain or manufacturing process, and that’s not the president’s way.”

Crucial appeal

One lesson learned is that brands need to evolve and change for the Japanese market in a unique way.

“A brand usually expects to do business in the same way in Japan as everywhere else,” says Nishijima, “but Japan is totally different.”

This difference is clear in the style and product ranges that King Co has designed under licence for Austin Reed. The looks are almost unrecognisable from the UK collections, not just in cut and sizing but in the whole feel of the range. Nishijima is hugely enthusiastic in his praise for the UK side of the operation. “The partner in Austin Reed knows and understands the Japanese market and what needs to be changed, and the design team there approves the adjustments.”

Now in its third year of trading, Austin Reed Japan has 120 concessions and franchise stores.

Meanwhile, the British Luxury Brand Group (BLBG), which acts as Japanese agent for UK brands Globe-Trotter luggage, Fox Umbrellas, shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser and Tusting luggage, among others, has opened five standalone stores under the name Vulcanize selling British products.

Toshiyasu Takubo’s Vulcanize stores fuse traditional British brands with Japanese style

Toshiyasu Takubo’s Vulcanize stores fuse traditional British brands with Japanese style

Vulcanize comes from the process used to temper the fibreboard to produce the iconic luggage sets made by high-end brand Globe-Trotter, but is also meant to symbolise the unique fusion between traditional British brands and Japanese style that makes up its product ranges.

Toshiyasu Takubo, managing director of BLBG, liked Globe-Trotter so much he eventually bought the brand. Having come from a marketing background working with Virgin boss Richard Branson – he helped launch numerous brand extensions within the Virgin empire – Takubo saw the opportunity to do the same with some of the (at the time) less fashionable British heritage brands. “This is not a fashion business,” he says of BLBG, “it’s a brand business.

“Some British products are still stuck with a boring old-fashioned image and look; we give them the Tokyo twist and they are much more popular.”

Lasting appeal

Takubo still has the original navy Globe-Trotter case that drew him to the brand in 1998. Indeed, this longevity is another selling point for the Japanese and the Vulcanize store Drapers visited in Tokyo’s Minato-ku district has its own repairs room at the back, with the promise to restore the Globe-Trotter cases back to their original condition if they were ever to get damaged in transit.

Takubo is also using some innovative cross-pollination to encourage ties between the UK and Japan. Pop-up shop-in-shops have opened at Vulcanize operated by UK designer indie Browns and homewares and furniture retailer The Conran Shop. Equally, he will be opening a pop-up shop at US department store Barneys’ Tokyo branch entitled, cleverly, ‘An Englishman in Barneys of New York’.

Toshiyasu Takubo’s Vulcanize stores fuse traditional British brands with Japanese style

Toshiyasu Takubo’s Vulcanize stores fuse traditional British brands with Japanese style

These types of upmarket UK brands are also proving a hit for Watanabe & Co, based just around the corner from Vulcanize. It was founded 50 years ago and is still run by the Watanabe family. A distributor and exclusive agent for UK brands, the company has 15 brands on its books including outerwear specialist Lavenham, and classic tie and nechwear brand Drake’s and footwear brand Church’s, which have experienced an explosion in popularity in the Japanese market.

Managing director Yoshihiko Watanabe started work at the company under his father 23 years ago, and now makes frequent trips to the UK to find new brands and liaise directly with manufacturers.

Watanabe and Co’s Yoshihiko Watanabe

Watanabe and Co’s Yoshihiko Watanabe

“I enjoy working with these people,” he says of the UK manufacturers. “We need a long-term vision to work with. Only the British have that. We communicate a lot with them and once they know us they trust us to agree changes to suit the Japanese market. It’s all about that relationship.”

He adds that he is trying to rationalise his brand portfolio, concentrating on those brands he works best with. So what advice does he have for British brands looking to enter the market? “They shouldn’t expect a quick return,” he smiles. “They must talk to people in the market to find the best partner and they should come and see the market for themselves. It is big and it is extremely fashion-conscious. And consumers are so educated here that putting ‘Made in the UK’ on the product isn’t enough.”

Shinya Masudu, office manager, Boy’s Co

Shinya Masuda, office manager, Boy’s Co

It’s this partnership approach that is echoed by Shinya Masuda, Tokyo office manager for importer, distributor and retailer Boy’s Co, which has a chain of about 16 stores under its B Shop name as well as acting as agent for UK brands Sunspel (underwear), Gymphlex (shirting) and Falke (hosiery).

Boy’s Co was set up in 1979 by Shozo Mori, who was formerly with denim giant Levi’s. On trips to the US he saw brands he thought would work in the Japanese market and brought them over to great acclaim – indeed, two of his original customers, Yo Shitara and Osamu Shigematsu, went on to run major Japanese select store chains Beams and United Arrows. The company then changed strategy to bring in European brands.

“We were inspired by factory brands,” says Masuda. “We could deal direct with them and that helped us build a long- term relationship.

“We work with the factories to produce the Japanese measurements and we put in special requests for the Japanese market involving colours, designs and patterns. The Japanese are very quality-oriented and quality control is very important to us, especially in those first batches.”

Once a brand is taken on, the company is loyal – even going so far as to buy out Gymphlex when it recently got into financial trouble.

“There are no particular targets for us to expand to, but we are always looking for new brands – although many now approach us because we have a good reputation,” says Masuda. 

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