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Belgunique Talent in Japan

Sofie Smolders14 August 2017

Japanese fashion is a strong brand.
It is known for its avant-garde style thanks to leading designers such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto and artists like Yayoi Kusama.

Japanese design can be described as radical, extravagant and pushing boundaries. You can in fact go see the Across Japan exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Hasselt until September 3rd, a fascinating cross-pollination between Japanese and Western fashion between the 1980’s and today. 

The love however is mutual, as Belgian designers have found a strong and loyal Japanese clientele. Two of our Belgunique talents, Ann Cox en Sophie Recour, went to Tokyo in May of this year to present their products to Japanese distributors. Under the guiding wings of the Flanders Fashion Institute and together with four other Belgian brands, Rue Blanche, Aymara, Arte en Ellen Verbeeck, they were immersed in the worlds of sales and Japanese publicity.

The million dollar question of this trip: how does one make it in Japan?

Japan is a very important market for Belgian designers as it also gives them access to China. Brands that are popular in Japan will more easily make their way to the Chinese market.

“The Japanese market has a great eye for quality and detail”, says Ann, “and consumers there are prepared to pay for this quality.” As the Japanese market is so highly demanding, the designers are forced to give their designs and creations a lot more thought. “Japan initially doesn’t seem like a large market however to do business successfully there you need to exceed your own capabilities. They are such perfectionists so their standards and expectations are extremely high.”

Japanese style is incredibly varied - it is either eccentric or highly understated.  This is why the products by Ann as well as Sophie are so popular: Ann makes eccentric glass jewellery and Sophie sober leather handbags. Age nor lifestyle matter so much over there as older people find inspiration in the collections for the younger generation and vice versa.

Sophie explains, “Take a closer look at Japanese men’s fashion, you even see men’s handbags in their collections. Nothing is out of bounds or ‘not done’. Fashion is more free, more experimental and consumers are not afraid to express themselves more boldly and without inhibitions.” This can be attributed to the fact that fashion is restricted in their professional lives. Employees are expected to wear suit and tie and every school has its own uniform, making the need for self-expression in their own time so much more important. 

So how do you make it as a small designer in Japan? “Most crucially you need a good agent or distributor” Ann tells us. “Japan is quite a closed market with lots of large retail stores and own label brands. Independent, stand alone boutiques have become a rarity.”

Marketing and PR also work very differently to here. There is an overflow of magazines that are very narrowly segmented, according to a specific age or lifestyle for example. Facebook and Google are also not as prolific in Japan as they have their own versions of these channels. It is thus extremely challenging to penetrate the market from the outside in. 

In the past couple of years Ann has found some loyal clients. This being Sophie’s first trip to Japan, she has now laid the foundations for strong relationships. “My product definitely belongs there. Once they understand the concept of the design and product they are extremely excited,” says Sophie, “and as it is handmade the higher price is acceptable.”

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