Mar 16, 2016
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The fashion scouts taking Japan's underground labels global

Mar 16, 2016

Far from the flashbulbs of Tokyo Fashion Week, Yoshio Yokobori is juggling multiple roles -- talent scout, cultural interpreter, dealmaker -- in a quest to help foreign buyers navigate a labyrinthine design landscape and access Japan's most exciting underground labels.

Jotaro Saito Tokyo Fashion Week - Twitter ‏@MBFWT_official

Although Tokyo's streets offer up a wealth of inspiration for global trend spotters, Japanese designers have struggled to make a dent abroad in recent years to follow in the hallowed footsteps of influential and successful designers such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto.

And while local labels continue to earn respect for their quality, technical skill and creative design, many fail to translate that reputation into global sales.

It's a problem industry insider Yokobori knows well.

"If someone running a store in Singapore, for example, wants to place an order with a Japanese designer, it is impossible," Yokobori said.

"The designers don't speak English, they often can't write an invoice or make decisions quickly... and many have no knowledge of overseas markets or why they matter," he told AFP on the sidelines of fashion week.

A booming domestic market once meant Japanese labels had little reason to ponder global expansion.

But chronically low birth rates have resulted in a decline in local consumption, prompting the fashion fraternity to begin looking outward for future customers.

The lull has seen Tokyo government officials and the Japan External Trade Organization sponsor visits by fashion buyers from leading concept stores, including Colette in Paris and Andreas Murkudis in Berlin, in a bid to stir up business overseas.

- Secrecy rules -

For those designers willing to dive into unfamiliar waters, consultants like Yokobori can mean the difference between sink or swim, thanks to a Rolodex packed with contacts and an insight into what makes Japanese brands tick overseas.

The 37-year-old, whose responsibilities cover everything from brokering business deals to ensuring that designers file invoices and answer store-owners' emails on time, works in six countries on a punishing schedule that saw him take 117 flights last year.

He launched his company a decade ago, intending to work as a domestic distributor for Japanese brands, but later realised that economic opportunities lay elsewhere -- in countries with consumers hungry for fashion and branded goods.

J Quality - Twitter ‏@MBFWT_official

While Yokobori works with stores based in China, Singapore, Indonesia and other Asian countries, veteran fashion consultant and journalist Masahiro Kubo takes Japanese brands to Paris, hosting pop-up shops and running a fashion news website called "Journal Cubocci".

A founder of Tokyo's International Fashion Fair, a trade show which attracted around 15,000 visitors last year, Kubo worked as Paris bureau chief for Japan's top fashion daily, Senken Shimbun, before setting up a consultancy.

Neither Kubo nor Yokobori were willing to reveal details of who they represent, citing non-disclosure agreements with stores.

Furthermore, in a business focused on finding underground labels, maintaining an air of secrecy is seen as the key to exclusivity.

"My priority is to find brands that people haven't heard of yet," Kubo told AFP.

"The most satisfying part of the job for me is incubating a small brand and watching it grow," he said.

Local labels such as Discovered and Divka, the latter a former client of Yokobori, are now stocked in leading boutiques across the US and Asia, signalling that a shift is underway, as well as success for the consultants working behind the scenes.

For fashion hunter Yokobori, who spent his teenage years working several part-time jobs in order to afford T-shirts sold at cutting-edge boutiques in Tokyo's vibrant Harajuku neighbourhood, business is on the up.

"When I started working with overseas clients, I worked with just one store my first year, so we have experienced a big increase," he said.

"Japanese fashion designers have to go outside (Japan)... but many don't bother. That needs to change."

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