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Independent Designers Move Up in the Fashion World

August 21, 1998

The streets of the hip Tokyo neighborhood of Harajuku are filled with young people dressed in their own unusual styles. Many of their clothes are almost shocking in their asymmetry, their crumpled look, or in the way they are thrown together from various scraps of cloth. A few of these surprising clothes are made by the wearers, but many of them are taken from "indie brand" collections. These "indies" are moving up in the market, in many cases overtaking the imported brands that were all the rage just a few years ago.

Working on a Smaller Scale
Until quite recently, the stores lining Japan's fashion districts were competing to bring in the latest Western designs from New York or Milan. But over the last couple of years, the domestic fashion world has turned its eyes to Japanese brands, and clothes from independent designers in particular.

The term "indie" was originally used to describe music and movies released on a small scale by independent artists or small companies, without major corporate backing. Indie fashions are generally produced by two or three people at most--often the designer works completely alone. Quite commonly, the same person who drew up the pattern handles everything from the sewing to the marketing and sales of the merchandise. Many of the clothes from these indie designer labels are avant-garde, one-of-a-kind pieces. Compared to the polished creations imported from fashion houses in Europe and America, these indie designs can seem rough and even clumsy, but they are popular for that very individuality.

Finding Fashion at Home
The boom in indie fashion is being accompanied by a move away from imported brands. When the boom in overseas labels was at its peak, all that the stores had to do to ensure steady sales was to get their hands on the goods and line them up on their racks. Boutiques, department stores, and trading firms sent a stream of buyers abroad in a fierce competition for the exclusive rights to market top brands in Japan. The spending frenzy extended even to minor labels unknown in their own countries of origin--it seemed as though a Western brand had automatic popularity in the Japanese market. Spurred by this competition among Japanese buyers, licensing fees reached astronomical levels.

But with Japan's economic recession, the import boom came to an end. Consumers began shying away from the higher prices of the imported goods, and stores looked more critically at the costs and delivery problems associated with them. Japan's fashion world then shifted its attention to the domestic scene, where the popularity of indie brands among young people was rising rapidly.

The Future of Indies
Young people in their late teens and early twenties make up much of the market for indie brands. The designers are mostly in their twenties or early thirties, and their dynamic designs and creative fashions seem to have struck a chord with others of their generation.

Meanwhile, sensing a new business chance, the buyers who had been active overseas are beginning to set their sights on these indie designers. Department stores are starting to replace many of their designer boutiques with sales spaces devoted to indie brands. And magazines targeting the fashionable young are carrying special features on indie designs, boosting sales of these brands.

The future of the indies boom remains up in the air, however. Traditionally, the fashion world pampers independent designers and offers them licensing contracts while they are hot, but severs the relationships when their popularity fades. The long-term success of these young designers may hinge on whether corporate backers can come up with a fresh approach to new fashions and their creators.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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