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AWI Global Strategic Advisor Peter Ackroyd reports on healthy demand in the men’s and women’s made to measure market in Japan. Mr Ackroyd is a former President of the International Wool Textile Organisation and is Chief Operating Officer of the Campaign for Wool.

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AWI Global Strategic Advisor, Peter Ackroyd.

Reports from reliable sources in Japan suggest the boom in the made to measure (MTM) market is far from the ‘dead cat bounce’ that some had mischievously predicted it would be, and many feared it might be, as the more affluent world emerges from the horrors of ‘sweat pants’ and ‘lounging around wear’ during Covid and beyond.

At the IWTO Congress in Kyoto in May of this year, Mr Tatsunori Yamamoto, General Manager of the Product Division of Aoyama Trading Co Ltd in Hiroshima, once the world’s largest manufacturer of suits when most middle management dressed ‘off the peg’, confirmed the company’s commitment to MTM in its 700 stores across Japan, once exclusively reserved for ready to wear, cut and sewn across the East China Sea. Aoyama’s acquisition 18 months ago of the prestigious Azabu Tailor adds significant weight to the company’s commitment to MTM.

Further encouraging reports from Japan, where sales directors from all the Merino weaving companies that matter in Europe are currently converging, suggest predicted sales of branded finer worsted qualities are expected to be the best in a decade. This comes at a time when the Japanese Yen remains persistently weak against most currencies, particularly the US dollar.

“Were it not for Japan, a number of UK and a good few Italian worsted mills would have gone to the wall in the 1990s,” noted the late Gordon Kaye, an old Japan hand who was in Tokyo when the market began to open up to foreign fabric imports after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Once seen as doomed dinosaurs of the retail sector in a world of online frenzy, Japanese department stores are enjoying a post-Covid boom that few would have thought possible in a country that has always been at the leading edge of e-commerce, technological progress and innovation. Several, more seasoned, observers of the fashion scene saw a return to the visual and the tactile in the quality clothing market as a natural segue to the move towards MTM and the return to smarter appearance as a semblance of normality returns to the workplace.

The resemblance of Tokyo’s majestic department stores to well-known retail palaces such as Macy’s, Harrods, David Jones or Selfridges is striking.

As sales at all 167 department stores across Japan report record revenues, it is perfectly reasonable to ask which demographic is the driving force behind the +29% rise in sales at Isetan to ¥327.6 billion, and the +30% rise in Hankyu Department Store sales to ¥261 billion, both iconic fashion venues that have transformed themselves in the past four years. Venue is perhaps the operative word here, as a visit to both these competing stores will confirm a unique retail experience that combines fashion with lifestyle, art, music and culture. The answer, according to Nikke Asia (that acquired the Financial Times in 2015) is Japan’s urban wealthy, mainly male high-income earners in metropolitan areas.

A Japanese employee of a leading UK supplier to Japan, with close links to Isetan Shinjuku in Tokyo noted, “consumers in their 40s or younger accounted for 33% of sales via the store’s personal shopping service, up a clear +10% over 2022”.

Many of the merchandisers, buyers and fabric selectors being visited by the posse of sales directors from European mills this autumn in Tokyo and Osaka will be from a style of modern apparel retailing unique to Japan.

Select stores, a sector in which the main players are United Arrows, Beams, Ships and Tomorrowland, specialise in an immaculately assembled selection (from whence the name ‘select’) of coordinated merchandise ranging from shirts, ties, knitwear, shoes, leather goods, bags, watches and, more importantly, ranges of suits and jackets. The carefully curated racks of sports jackets all carry sleeve labels from mills in Italy and the UK (never China), as do the suits, still mainly in blues, greys and charcoal. The ‘select’ stores reflect a peculiarly Japanese obsession with the didactic, as seen in a series of glossy style and fashion magazines, particularly Men’s Ex, Leon and Japanese GQ where page after page is devoted to teaching both young and old how to dress for specific occasions and the art of mixing and matching separates and accessories.*

Reports that these uniquely Japanese retail concepts are again performing well, adds to the general mood of optimism among suppliers of quality cloth from UK and Italy.

The rise in MTM and happier days for department stores is good news for some, but not for all. Quite the contrary. Ready to wear, once a significant percentage of global sales for bulk Italian and Chinese weavers, is dead (sic) and its revival is not even visible on the horizon, noted one cloth agent, adding a cautionary note to the euphoria around tailored apparel in Tokyo recently. The key question is: “Will volume MTM ever compensate for the demise of ready to wear?”

Samuel Cockedey, AWI Regional Manager Japan & Korea, added a salutary word of caution: “The welcome optimism around premium MTM in the exclusive retail market, must be seen in the context of ongoing poor performance of the middle market for suits that is not likely to improve in the foreseeable future, and certainly not until the Yen strengthens against the US dollar and the Euro”.

Spending by well-off shoppers is the driving force behind the current good fortune of several premium Woolmark licensees in Japan. The Nomura Research Institute estimates Japanese affluent individuals with assets of ¥100m to ¥500m and an elite group of high-net-worth individuals with assets of ¥500m or more increased by +17% from 2017 to 2022.

“High-net-worth consumers and the cash rich are attracted to brands and weavers who have invested in their own brand equity in this market and will benefit accordingly. It was ever thus in the latter part of the last century, just as it is today,” noted Richard Boidé, Managing Director of Dormeuil, a merchant manufacturer of fine Merino whose records show their first shipment of cloth to Japan was in 1914.

* Paragraph from ‘Wool in Japan: A Very British Story’ by R Peter Ackroyd, Britain & Japan: Biographical Portraits Volume X. Available from AWI via Peter.Ackroyd@wool.com

 

This article appeared in the December 2023 edition of AWI’s Beyond the Bale magazine. Reproduction of the article is encouraged.