Tokyo Fashion Week

Why Japanese fashion can't cut it abroad

Models wearing Mitsuru Nishizaki’s preppy, grungy, sporty creations during Tokyo Fashion Week.
Models wearing Mitsuru Nishizaki’s preppy, grungy, sporty creations during Tokyo Fashion Week.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The casual and conservative designs do not cater to Western tastes and its bi-annual style fest comes after other fashion weeks

TOKYO • He has been hailed a "fresh new voice" by Vogue, won admiration from Giorgio Armani and bagged an award: Mitsuru Nishizaki is hot fashion talent in Japan. But that does not guarantee international stardom.

Loud applause and uncharacteristic cheers erupted from the usually restrained Japanese fashion crowd at the 38-year-old's packed autumn/winter 2017 show for the brand Ujoh at Tokyo Fashion Week.

The models strode out to upbeat techno tempo, tearing up a multi-lane catwalk in a high-energy show starring preppy, grungy, sporty tailoring that would not look out of place in New York.

The clothes were eminently wearable: bright high-necked ribbed sweaters slashed at the side, a deconstructed pale pink trench coat, and crisp shirts that button front and back to be styled as the wearer desires.

The shoes were trainers-meetloafers - black with white soles and yellow serrated grips, which he called shark soles, worn with gypsystyle skirts, pinstriped suits or slouchy velvet track bottoms.

Nishizaki set up Ujoh in 2009 after seven years as a Yohji Yamamoto pattern cutter. He won a design award sponsored by DHL in 2015 and staged a show in Milan last year.

Armani provided the venue, though Nishizaki did not meet the Italian designer in person. Vogue wrote afterwards, "this is how cool girls dress now" and predicted a bright future for him.

But what does it take to make it outside Japan? To follow in the footsteps of Issey Miyake, Yamamoto - Nishizaki's former boss - and Rei Kawakubo, 20th-century masters who have flown the nest to take their place among the greats in the fashion pantheon of France?

What are the hurdles that need to be overcome in a country where the fashion industry is embedded in exacting standards of tailoring, where creativity at times can take a back seat to doing it the right way?

Ujoh is already stocked in more than a dozen foreign cities such as Barcelona, New York and Seoul. Still, Nishizaki's chief ambition is to expand further abroad.

But taking success to the next level is a tough road.

In an interview at his showroom in Omotesando, a chic neighbourhood heaving with high-fashion boutiques, he was polite and earnest, but also shy and nervous behind the wide brim of a black floppy hat.

He appears reluctant to present a compelling personal narrative in the rags-to-riches or fashionruled-my-childhood style that has helped many celebrated American designers market pret-a-porter to a mass audience.

When it comes to his collections, he says he works in the style to which he became accustomed at Yamamoto: having an open mind and designing freely without preselecting a particular inspiration.

"It is a difficult question to answer and I wish you could give me some ideas," Nishizaki ventured when asked if he thought it was harder to break through as a designer from Japan than from Europe or the United States.

But he does admit that the Japanese calendar is stacked against quick success on the international circuit.

Tokyo's bi-annual style fest in March and October comes several weeks after the main fashion merry-go-round in New York, London, Milan and Paris comes to an end.

By then most international editors and buyers are too exhausted and saturated to board a long-haul flight to Tokyo.

"What I really should do now is rearrange my brand schedule for press and sales not only in Japan, but overseas," Nishizaki said.

Misha Janette, a Tokyo-based stylist, creative director and blogger who has lived in Japan since 2004, said a major challenge for many Japanese designers trying to cut it in the West is different tastes.

She summed up the Japanese market as conservative and casual, rather than expensive and high fashion, warning that simple clothes were "not going to sell" in Paris.

"I think the most important thing is to have a balance of show pieces, interesting things that show their viewpoint with simple, off the rack to satisfy both. That's hard," she said.

"Most Japanese brands don't have the investment, it's just girls and boys doing it alone out of their garage. Instead of having this balance of show pieces and wearable pieces, it becomes either or."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Why Japanese fashion can't cut it abroad'. Print Edition | Subscribe