“Another factor is the language barrier as many Japanese designers don’t speak English and are also very shy and a bit close minded, so they’re comfortable to remain in Tokyo but I think that they should sell abroad and reach out.”
While the Japanese designers who have made forays into the international market have done well, it was only after moving to bigger stages. The Japanese wave that took Paris by storm in the ’80s saw designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons join the ranks of the top international couturiers while more recently brands such as Sacai and Undercover have built loyal followings and become hot tickets at Paris Fashion Week.
How does Shinoda feel about them leaving Tokyo for the greener pastures of Paris? “Paris historically is the centre of fashion and all the important editors and buyers visit Paris so for international business you need to go there,” she says. “I don’t care if they go to Paris and I’m happy when they come back for a special show, but our vision at Tokyo Fashion Week is to incubate young designers so once they reach a certain level they can go to Paris or Italy.”
When Shinoda first joined Japan Fashion Week more than a decade ago, the Japanese government provided financial support but she eventually had to find sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz and more recently e-commerce giant Amazon, which is trying to increase its presence in Japanese fashion.
She firmly believes that fashion week has a vital role to play in the economic development of Tokyo. “When you have a big fashion week a lot of other industries benefit from it,” she explains. “New York has been the most successful at making fashion week into a business although they’re not really the best fashion week now but historically they were the first to use fashion for the development of the city.”
Shinoda’s goal, however, is to bring global exposure to Japanese fashion, which is not an easy task. “I’m here to help people understand Japanese fashion. People outside Japan don’t really understand it because we’re not good at communicating with the rest of the world and I want to help explain Japanese fashion,” she says.
While in the ’80s and ’90s Japan was the ultimate arbiter of cool, things have started to change in the last decade or so, especially because of the rise of K-pop, K-beauty and K-fashion.
“In South Korea, private companies and the government work together; they’re very smart. They travel abroad as one team to promote their industries but we Japanese, even though we have many talented people, can’t market ourselves and are too modest,” Shinoda says. “We’re too shy and don’t feel the need to speak out. Many Japanese designers think that just making good products is enough but they don’t understand that the international market doesn’t work this way, that you have to explain and market products.”
Shinoda has also seen the incredible change that Japan has experienced because of the influx of Asian tourists, especially from China, who are known for going on shopping sprees in cities like Tokyo and have been propping up the country’s luxury retail sector for years now.
The Japanese even coined a new word to refer to Chinese tourists’ shopping expeditions, bakugai, which translates as “explosive shopping” and which some find slightly offensive. “I’m not against bakugai,” Shinoda says. “The Chinese come and shop and I’m grateful to them. Finally the Japanese are becoming more open and more welcoming to the Chinese and are adjusting to other cultures. That’s a good thing.”
The increased spending on luxury goods from wealthy travellers from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines also makes up for changing shopping habits among Japanese consumers. “Young people in Japan don’t care about brands but design and quality; they’re smarter than my generation,” Shinoda says. “They mix high-end goods and fast fashion; people of my generation adored big brands but not any more.”
Shinoda, who in her previous roles at companies such as Itochu collaborated with many Italian and European labels, has also brought young Japanese designers to the West, most recently Sulvam to the Pitti Uomo menswear fair in Florence. She mentions that label as one of Japan’s brands to watch, as well as Doublet, which won the latest edition of the LVMH Prize For Young Designers and had previously won the Tokyo Fashion Award; and Auralee, which she says is selling well domestically.
Finally, when asked about the Japanese menswear market, which tends to outperform womenswear, especially creatively, she doesn’t mince words. “I agree that in Japan menswear is much stronger than womenswear,” she says. “One big difference is that menswear designers in Japan are usually straight. They just love fashion and making clothes and normally are more into designing rather than marketing. I think that gay guys are great at being both creative and media and business savvy but male Japanese menswear designers only focus on the craft and creation. Also, in Japan guys really love fashion, whether they’re gay or straight.”
It’s definitely an interesting theory and, given Shinoda’s deep knowledge of the Japanese fashion industry, there’s likely some truth to it. Outspoken and worldly, Shinoda is a vocal ambassador for Japanese fashion to the world and, in trying to help the country stake its claim on the global scene, she certainly has her job cut out for her.