TOKYO • Tokyo fashion week opened on Monday with a show by having a United States designer, an arrangement observers say underlines the absence of local labels on the world stage despite Japan's reputation for the edgiest streetwear.
More than 50 fashion houses will exhibit their collections over six days, casting a spotlight on designers working with materials ranging from denim to handwoven silk.
"There is no shortage of design talent in Japan," said Ms Akiko Shinoda, director of international affairs at Japan Fashion Week Organization, which is responsible for the event.
"Unfortunately, many designers and textile houses are still quite unknown outside Japan, so we need to promote them."
At times Tokyo's pavements feel like catwalks, with youngsters sporting weird and wonderful ensembles. Beanie hats worn high on girls' heads are everywhere this autumn.
But while Tokyo's fashionistas are applauded by bloggers and columnists worldwide for their daring and sophistication, the wealth of street-style inspiration has not translated into big business for Japanese designers.
Frenchman Loic Bizel was among the first style hunters to cash in on Tokyo's status as a laboratory of trends in 2001. "This city is so ahead of the curve when it comes to fashion, trends begin here and then months later, maybe even a year later, they go global", he said.
The Tokyo-based trend-spotter plays a key role in this process. For anywhere between US$700 (S$976) and $1,200 a day, he takes clients representing retail giants like H&M, Nordstrom and Zara on a tour of Tokyo's most edgy boutiques, tucked away along quiet side lanes and often known only to fashion insiders.
Bizel's clients pay big bucks to his company, Tokyo Fashion Tour, to scout inspiration: "In one case, we had buyers from Primark who must have bought some US$20,000 worth of samples in a single day. In the end, they had to buy extra suitcases to carry all the stuff."
All too often, trend-setting designs from boutique Tokyo shops are often adapted or copied, particularly by Chinese manufacturers, and sold at a fraction of the original cost.
"Most Japanese designers work on a small scale, they don't have patent protection or legal teams who can fight back so it's easy for big brands to copy their designs and make money from it."
Industry veterans acknowledge the severity of the situation and say they are pushing local designers to secure their trademarks and protect their labels against fraud.
Traditionally, Japanese designers - with notable exceptions such as Issey Miyake, Kenzo and Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo - have not paid much attention to overseas markets.
"For a long time... the fashion industry in Japan did consistent and sufficient business solely in the domestic market, so there was no need (to pursue) international markets," said Mr Izumi Miyachi, deputy managing editor of Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
The country's low birth rate, however, has prompted a slowdown in domestic consumption, he said.
Some Japanese designers with global ambitions - from legends like Yohji Yamamoto to thriving new label, Sacai - prefer to stage shows in Paris instead of Tokyo.
But that does not worry the organisers of Tokyo fashion week. "We can't compete with Paris, Milan or New York," Ms Shinoda said. "But what we can do is provide a platform for young designers who are starting their careers."