May 1, 2014 12:00 am JST

Shows and tourists alike bring Asian styles across borders

MASATO TSURUTA, Contibuting writer

TOKYO -- Asian fashionistas no longer look to the hoi polloi of Paris, New York, London and Milan.

     In March, 45 labels showed off their upcoming lines during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo. Although 37 of those fashion houses were from Japan, it was two designers from other Asian nations that wowed audiences.

     Fashion Week Tokyo is held every March and October. But it is only part of what goes on. Every year, groups of retailers and fashion boutiques hold concurrent shows -- they do a little guerrilla marketing, in other words.

     But since the week is really one big party, the more the merrier.

     The official event's main venue was in the Shibuya Hikarie commercial complex. One of the side events was Shibuya Fashion Week, put together by a collection of department stores and shops in a Tokyo youth enclave that is now being gentrified by, ironically, Shibuya Hikarie and other developments. One designer who took part was Miharayasuhiro, whose collection evoked Ito Jakucho, the great 18th-century Japanese artist known for his paintings of phoenixes.

Asianable

Fashion houses from the rest of Asia also showed outstanding lines. The event opened on the 17th, and immediately, Sretsis, Thai designer Pim Sukhahuta's label, generated buzz.

     Two fashion houses from Indonesia also showed up: Major Minor and Nur Zahra introduced a joint collection heavily influenced by Islamic and Indian traditions.

     And Ariunaa Surenjav, from Mongolia, showed kimono-like styles.

     It was Sretsis, though, that stole the show. The label was founded by three sisters. Spell the last word in the previous sentence backward and you have the label's name.

     The theme of the label's first fashion show in Japan was "The Curious Club of Gentlewomen." For its designs, Sretsis borrowed from the trappings of an English gentlemen's social club, but reimagined as a club for women.

     Sretsis' line put the audience in a dreamy, fanciful world. The runway dresses were feminine with simple, modern silhouettes and dark colors. They fused Asian and European elements.

     Although it was Sretsis' first show in Japan, the label is not new to Tokyo. In fact, there is a good story as to how the fashion house made it to Japan.

     It all started with Japanese shoppers noticing the brand while in Thailand. They were so impressed with the clothing that upon returning to Tokyo they decided to ask an Isetan buyer to start carrying the line.

     Isetan's department stores are known for being on the cutting edge of fashion.

Uniquely Thai

The year was 2010, and the buyer, Aya Ota, still remembers hearing tourists talk about "the cute line from Thailand." It was a very good tip. Ota followed up on it, brought Sretsis to Isetan, and every season since the line's collection has sold out.

     But it is not only Japanese going gaga for Sretsis. Recently, Isetan has been getting a lot of Thai tourists buying the apparel. Talk about coming full circle.

     Since Fashion Week Tokyo, Sretsis has gained even more attention. With more stores wanting to -- and actually starting to -- carry the line, the time is now for Sretsis to do some serious branding and define its direction.

     Even choosing what stores to be in is important. "I hope," Ota said, "they can be even more creative and bring their styles to the next level."

     In Southeast Asia, home to huge talent pools of young designers, Thais are in the spotlight. Thailand's fashion scene reached a new level about seven years ago. Two main factors were involved -- the country's middle class swelled, and financial deregulation allowed more foreign venture capital to find its way into the country.

     Many Thais, like Sretsis' Pim, were already studying fashion in the West. They would come home and start their own fashion houses with financing from private partners.

     They also had a place to go: Siam Center. When it was built in the early 1970s, Siam Center was Bangkok's first Western-style shopping mall. But today the mall's reputation is all about Thai flair.

     Once among the largest malls in the Thai capital, Siam Center now stands in the shadows of much bigger, gaudier complexes. But it remains the mall of choice for young hipster Thais and other fashionistas looking for cutting-edge designs. And a big reason for this is the collection of uniquely Thai boutiques the mall has attracted, most of which are on the third floor.

     While this old, recently remodeled mall has been instrumental in supporting the country's young and established designers alike, so too has the Thai government. In 2003, the government began holding Bangkok Fashion City shows. The main hope was to showcase Thai designers to the world, but the events also focused on design education. The initiative has supported more than 100 new designers.

Taiwan wisdom

Back in Tokyo, a Japan Fashion Week adviser also set up one of the event's side attractions, roomsLINK. Feeling that Tokyo should make stronger connections with other parts of Asia, Tomonori Matsui started the project to help globalize fresh Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese fashion brands. He even plans to bring a roomsLINK event to Bangkok.

     "Japan is a small country," Matsui said, "which has lent itself to developing a special culture. We have a concentration of brands and shops that can't be found in any other country. There is so much talk about becoming more international, but first we should be considering how we can draw on the uniqueness of our own culture."

     Matsui's roomsLINK works with partners from other countries. So part of the March event was given over to Creative Taiwan, which itself got financing from the Taipei government. 

     Xie Pei Ru, a fashion marketing officer at Taiwan Textile Federations, says, "Japan is one of the target markets for Creative Taiwan's collection. It is supported by our government's Ministry of Economic Affairs. In other words, it is a national project. The goal of Creative Taiwan is to take Taiwanese fashion houses to a global audience -- and to maybe inject a more international flavor into domestic fashion magazines." 

     The Tokyo show turned the spotlight on 12 Taiwanese designers. Their energy and enthusiasm were palpable, not least because they were in Tokyo with support from the government and industrial organizations. 

     One Taiwanese label that stood out was Wisdom, created by designer Hans Chyi. Wisdom's line at the show embodied the theme "Urban Outdoor." It was a collection of clothing with outdoor functionality that can also be worn in the office.

     Chyi has shown his clothes in Tokyo before. "The first time, I was more nervous than excited," he said. "I didn't even have any experience displaying any of my collections in Taiwan. So everything was new to me.

     "I was worried about what everyone would think. But that experience taught me how to grow. I've learned to move forward by showing my best and accepting the reactions."  

Business possibilities

"Last fall in Taipei," said Tsui Wen Chien, editor in chief of MA magazine, Taiwan's newest fashion journal, "Japanese chain shops like Beams and United Arrows started to arrive, changing little by little Taiwan's traditional fashion scene, which had been all about Korean brands.

     "That is, people are starting to look for their own original, unique fashion sense. Something that is different from what is in magazines or from collections that department stores have put together."

     Like we noticed in the Sretsis anecdote, it is not only fashion shows helping designers gain notice. Tourism and word of mouth are also bestowing recognition on fresh brands and even allowing them to expand outside of their home countries.

     As the region's middle classes grow and more Asian tourists circulate around their continent, they will likely spark even more interest and investment in fashion.

     And as the industry becomes more competitive, partnerships will form. Designers with exciting threads will need developers with cool digs. Corporations that have experience taking chains global will buy into the scene.

     The Great Asia Fashion Market is about to open. Get those credit cards ready.