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Retail

Japanese men's business wear industry revamps to fit 'new normal'

As suits lose favor, Aoyama and others push telework-easy casual look and masks

An Aoyama Trading outlet in Tokyo displays men's clothing promoted as suitable for teleworking and even reducing stress associated with it. (Photo by Shumpei Sakai)

TOKYO -- Major Japanese menswear retailers are rushing to adapt to changing tastes and needs brought about by the coronavirus by stressing clothing adapted to the 'new normal' of teleworking and face masks.

Dummies displayed at Aoyama Trading outlets, for example, are dressed in polo shirts, with some seated on chairs to present an image of dressing that suggests both comfort while working at home and suitability for video conferencing.

Casual wear, including polo shirts priced at 4,900 yen ($45) and sport jackets at around 20,000 yen, have been part of Aoyama's product line since even before the pandemic. The company has about 550,000 such items in stock and wants to clear them out by repositioning them as clothes easily worn when working remotely. "They are selling better than usual because their functionality is appreciated," the company says.

The men's business wear industry has seen a rough stretch. Wearing suits, once the indispensable corporate uniform of Japan Inc., has lost popularity due to influences such as the "cool biz" campaign in summer to save energy by raising air-conditioning thermostats and the growing acceptance of casual clothing in the workplace.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, average spending on business suits by households with two persons or more was 4,716 yen in 2019 -- far below the price of a suit -- dropping by nearly half from 2000. Aoyama says the average selling price for its suits was 27,088 yen in the fiscal year that ended in March.

The coronavirus has, of course, further exacerbated the plight of the industry. Many ceremonial events have been canceled and more people have shifted toward remote work. March and April are the months of graduation, school and company entrance as well as many other ceremonies in Japan. This year, however, most were canceled or took place using remote conferencing apps. "We missed the bestselling season for business suits" Aoyama said, citing that as the reason for its first ever net loss of 16.9 billion yen in the year ending in March 2020

A sense of crisis in the Japanese men's apparel sector has also been intensified after U.S. giant Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month.

Aoki Holdings is selling air-conditioned vests equipped with battery-driven fans on the back to cool the wearer's body. (Photo courtesy of Aoki Holdings)

Apparel companies in Japan are searching for unique items that will sell well. Face masks are an example. Haruyama Trading has started to offer custom-made masks that allow customers to choose the fabric and design as well as high-function masks with quick-drying and wrinkle-resistant features. It has also put masks using materials that feel cool and are stretchable on the market and is continuing to increase supply.

Taka-Q, another major apparel retailer, also started to manufacture masks. The first 20,000 sets sold out immediately.

Aoki Holdings, meanwhile, has been offering air-conditioned vests in collaboration with Kuchofuku, a maker and seller of such kinds of clothing in Tokyo. The vest has battery driven fans on the back to cool the body of the wearer.

Aoki has assumed that many people will feel hotter this year because of wearing masks on public transportation and in the office. Aoki says that it will "create an environment where people can dress neatly even in hot summer weather" as it puts a larger quantity of short-sleeved shirts on sale than last year.

Despite industry efforts, it has not been easy to get sales back to track. In June after the government lifted a coronavirus state of emergency, sales at Aoyama's business wear outlets declined by 35% from last year. Aoki also saw business wear sales drop by 4% despite a massive clearance sale.

The business clothing market is set to change dramatically as teleworking is becoming the norm. "Nobody knows what will be the standard under the remote work setting," said Haruo Tamura, executive vice president of Aoki.

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