Since Japan began easing its Covid restrictions a year ago, the country has been in a continued state of recovery, attempting to breathe new life into its internal fashion industry. This was the central task of the AW23 edition of Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo (FWT), which returned to almost full capacity for the first time since the pandemic hit. Spanning March 13 to 18, a total of 58 fashion houses were a part of the official calendar, 42 presenting in-person catwalk shows while the other 16 opted for digital presentations.
This season was the first to take place since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted throughout the country, with the government now setting its sights on improving the domestic economy. This is also something the fashion week’s headline sponsor, Rakuten, has set out to support since it first got involved with the event. The tech company provides a wide array of services for both Japanese and internationally, with one of its primary focuses in its biggest industry, e-commerce, being that of fashion. In recent years, Rakuten has been building up its efforts in this sector, with moves like launching a US site and introducing new categories, such as luxury fashion. However, since the pandemic, it has particularly centred its efforts around backing local brands.
Rakuten’s place in fashion week: then and now
Rakuten got involved as a sponsor for FWT in the end of 2019, not long before the pandemic hit and forced the world to close down, raising the question of how the fashion week was to proceed. Tthe company was determined to go ahead with its support, despite the challenging environment. In response, Rakuten turned its attention to how it could instead support Tokyo’s fashion industry as a whole, putting a particular emphasis on the goal of making the region’s fashion more attractive to buyers, press and the public. Its first steps? To bring strong Japanese brands back to FWT.
As part of its efforts, Rakuten launched the ‘By R’ project in 2020 in light of brands not being able to participate in fashion shows overseas due to pandemic restrictions. Through the initiative, which has continued throughout each season since its inception, the organisation has looked to support designers as they take to the FWT stage to present their latest collections, encouraging them to return to their homeland. For this edition, the ‘By R’ brands were revealed to be TakahiroMiyashitaTheSoloist and Chika Kisada, the latter of which hadn’t hosted a show in Tokyo in six years.
Alongside a limited-edition product sale for each of the participating brands on Rakuten Fashion, the initiative also looked to boost their presence through this season’s Online Merges with Offline (OMO) programme. This included a limited time pop-up store for TakahiroMiyashitaTheSoloist and nine other brands from Japan and around the world located in the department store, Shibuya Parco. Each initiative under the ‘By R’ looks to fuel Rakuten’s efforts to bring brands back to the capital by supporting their initiatives on a wide scale.
That’s not to say that Tokyo would be cutting ties with its western counterparts. In fact, FWT sees its role as the exact opposite, instead aiming to act as an incubator for Japanese talent who are then hoping to obtain a spot at Paris or Milan, something the likes of Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto have previously realised. This was an element noted by Rakuten’s group managing executive officer, Ryo Matsumura, who said in conversation with FashionUnited: “If you look at the history between FWT and Paris Fashion Week, many of the well-known Japanese brands had started their activities in Tokyo and then they moved on to Paris. We are really driving to accelerate that direction more. In that respect, we believe that we should be able to establish a cooperation between Tokyo and Paris, or other fashion weeks outside of Tokyo. Now, we have just started to explore the possibilities.”
Other ways Rakuten looked to drive positive change for the event was through enhanced digitalisation, something that has also been increasingly adopted in the shows themselves through the use of holograms or other technology. In Matsumura’s eyes, however, this aspect was particularly important when it came to the distribution of content during the pandemic, when there was a heavy reliance on livestreamed fashion shows via Rakuten’s e-commerce hub.
This factor has continued for this latest season, as has a particularly important distinction between fashion week then and now; opening the event up to the end consumer – a similar move recently adopted by many at Milan Fashion Week. “Fashion weeks usually target businesses and stakeholders, but we believe in order to cultivate the fashion culture in Japan or Tokyo, we really need to open up fashion week to our customers so that they can access the content themselves,” Matsumura said, adding that this shift further supported the event’s efforts to connect with an international audience.
Designers emphasise craftsmanship and traditional values
FWT’s attempts to connect with the world outside of Japan were also evident in the inclusion of various international designers that joined the runway this season. This rang true for first time attendees China’s Yuenqi Qi and France’s J.Simone, the former a Shanghai Fashion Week regular and the latter a participant of Paris Fashion Week SS23. While Qi combined references from both 1960’s psychedelics and Y2K trends, J.Simone’s designer Jude Ferrari took cues from infamous super villains for her eclectic collection for which each piece looked to reference specific characters, such as the Joker or Black Widow.
Meanwhile, Japanese designers took to the runway to present collections that offered social commentary on their own surroundings, giving a more localised perspective of fashion in their country. This was particularly evident in the collections of both brands under the ‘By R’ programme, each of which took on the topic of gender for AW23. Takahiromiyashita The Soloist tackled the subject in a collection of garments that could typically be associated with femininity, such as mini skirts, flowing dresses and fluffy gilets, but instead were donned by male models. The designer further cemented this take in his theme for the line, which pointed at a love letter of an unnamed “close female friend”. On the other hand, Chika Kisada opted to go deeper into the topic of femininity while taking into consideration the male form, with a collection referencing her ballet dancer past. This saw the male ballet dancer Haruo Niyama perform in the backdrop of the show, while models strode down the runway in exaggerated tulle silhouettes and chiffon gowns, each the designer said were created with both a male and female consumer in mind.
For Akiko Aoki, commentary was less about gender and more about conservative society as a whole. The young designer, who returned to the capital after five years, presented a range of designs that appeared modest at the front while the backs unveiled raunchy cutouts and daring hemlines. Soshiotsuki took a similar approach, challenging the pressure to conform to society through the eyes of a Japanese businessman. This resulted in garments that bore resemblance to qualities he linked to conforming, including hunchbacked silhouettes mirroring bad posture and grey suits typically worn by Japanese people, often derisively called ‘dobuzumi’ or rat suits.
Both Aoki and Otsuki formulated their designs with the use of deconstructed fits, something that was taken on by a larger portion of participating designers, including Ablankpage, which brought together both deconstruction and social commentary. The brand itself, founded in 2022 by Thailand’s Larprojpaiboon Phoovadej, was created on the basis of dismantling stereotypes, with a concept that revolves around wiping the slate each season – hence the name. Like Japanese designers, Phoovadej favoured complex construction techniques and reformulated garments that appeared raw and exposed.
Reconstruction and contrasting methods were an unmistakable element to many shows, in fact. While anonymous young designer group Khoki showed such themes through whimsical, childhood-inspired lines, Pillings’ designer Ryota Murakami centred his collection around deconstructed knitwear, pieced together in unconventional and abstract forms. Other designers adopted similar methods albeit merging them with traditional or local production techniques that incorporated Japanese design values. At Seivson, Taiwanese designer Tsu Chin Shen combined remodelled outerwear with obi-style belts, bringing together both modern and classic forms. For Irenisa, the concept was seen in a series of jackets and trousers created alongside a Kyoto-based artisan who specialised in 17th-century dyeing techniques. A similar approach was taken at UCF, which worked with a combination of denim from Okayama Prefecture and other materials for its collection of deconstructed workwear.
Sustainability was also highlighted during a three day event hosted by Zero-Tex entitled ‘Sustainable World’. The festival was designed for both those studying fashion and those interested in the sector, with panel discussions taking place throughout covering an array of topics, including information on adopting sustainable business practices. A collaboration with the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) was also present, for which three students of the New York school utilised the Zero-Tex material itself, a fabric that was developed towards the beginning of the pandemic created to be “zero-waste” and “zero-infection”. The final products were displayed in an exhibition, with a workshop for Japanese students also available to attend, further emphasising the importance of craftsmanship in design.
Japanese luxury consumerism in the post-pandemic world
This favouring of crafted items and mismatched techniques was something that was also evident in the street style spotted throughout the week, with attendees also adopting the look into their personal wardrobes. If anything, this only reaffirmed that Japanese designers are well aware of who they are selling to. It also must be noted that customers in this region have very particular characteristics when it comes to shopping, as emphasised by Rakuten’s Matsumura, who stated: “In western countries, the luxury and mid-range brand sectors are very much separated, but in Japan it is more mixed.There are two reasons for this. One is to do with individual finances and distribution. In Japan, there are several demographic segments which, portion-wise, are smaller compared to ones in the US, statistically speaking. So luxury brands are able to appeal to larger combined groups in Japan. Secondly, a typical feature of Japanese people is ‘editing’ fashion. They edit their style by mixing various segments. There are many people who mix mid-range or even fast fashion clothing with luxury.”
While Rakuten’s focus is clearly on expanding the exposure of its domestic designers, Japanese consumers are also fans of global luxury brands, making the region one of the most important for many of these labels. This sentiment was mirrored in the financial reports of major fashion giants, including Richemont, for which Japan was labelled the group’s fourth most important geographic region. While this has seen the likes of Louis Vuitton collaborate with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, Dior open the doors of a Designer of Dreams exhibition in the capital and the launch of a flurry of retail stores, it has also convinced others to stray from the confines of western fashion shows. Last June, Chanel presented its Metiers d’Art show in Tokyo, while most recently, Marni also took to the city to show its AW23 collection. The decision came as creative director Francesco Risso looked to bring the brand to the “epicentres” of its communities, he told WWD prior to the event, noting that Japan was one of Marni’s most important markets, representing 23 percent of the brand’s total sales.
Such results were backed by research by Bain & Company, which stated that the cautious Japanese consumer often viewed global luxury brands as good investments during the pandemic. Consumerism has also shifted to favour that of the digital, with shoppers either turning to e-commerce for the first time or expanding their use of this format. Despite this, many values of consumers have remained somewhat intact post-pandemic, particularly when it comes to the need for an authentic brand story, which has continued to prevail throughout generations. Through this method, many local brands have managed to capture the younger demographic, who are often considered more open to experimentation, according to Bain. To attract such a group, Matsumura said brands need to take advantage of the multiple communication channels they use while keeping a strong brand image and story.
Fashion Week Tokyo sets its sights on Paris and beyond
While global luxury brands continue to stake their place among the Japanese market, the desire to incubate young talent from Japan remains an integral part of Rakuten and FWT’s beliefs. As stated by Matsumura, this method of supporting these designers is part of the organisation’s efforts to help them grow and eventually see them off to influential fashion weeks elsewhere in the world, namely Paris, and vice versa. “If we could set up a collaboration with Paris or other fashion weeks that would be the best way,” Matsumura noted. “There are many young, alternative designers in Europe and other areas that could also come to Tokyo, and therefore we could make FWT more of a global occasion for young talent.”
For Rakuten itself, the company is looking to continue cementing its place as one of the top e-commerce and retail companies in Japan, something Matsumura stated would be achieved through various means. He added: “The e-commerce ratio for private brands and mid-range brands has been getting much higher for the last 10 years, but there should still be opportunities for luxury and designer brands. How to cultivate this by ourselves is one of the big challenges we face over the next couple of years. Also, one of Rakuten’s main strengths is its membership option, which allows us to capture all consumer behaviour on the digital part. By using our big data, we can support brand activities and broaden our capabilities.”
Rakuten has also been eyeing new opportunities for category expansions, with the company most recently introducing beauty to its range. Matsumura noted it was an important industry to consider, stating: “From a digital point of view, the beauty category is currently ahead of fashion, particularly in terms of the luxury segment. About 10 years ago, the e-commerce channel was not the main sales platform, but there has been a dramatic change in the last five years, and now e-commerce is one of the biggest channels for this sector. We believe fashion will follow that trend in the next couple of years.”
Broadly speaking, Japan’s current economic situation is seemingly positive, with Bain reporting that it expects the country’s market value to recover to pre-pandemic levels this year. This will vary from segment to segment, Matsumura noted, before concluding: “[The economy] has been recovering in Japan, but one of the risks we are facing at the moment, like other countries, is inflation. It is still lower than others, but it is one of the concerns. However, overall, Japan is recovering.”