With its haughty tailors on Saville Row and its inimitable street-garb boutiques in Covent Garden, Britain has been at the forefront of fashion design and innovation for decades.
Its hardly surprising, then, that the number of keen-eyed fashion buyers representing Japanese department emporiums, back-street boutiques and high-street retailers flocking to the major biannual fashion shows in Europe has been rising exponentially over the past 20 years.
Fueled by the deep pockets of a generation of Japanese Brit-lovers raised on a steady diet of Oasis, Blur, Paul Weller and Coldplay, buyers have been quick to search out, export and sell the offerings of defining British brands such as Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith and Alexander McQueen, safe in the knowledge that, in spite of the huge price hikes once the merchandise hits the shelves in Japan, come next season the pockets of those who crave designer British get-up will still run deep.

The Instigators

One British fashion export that has enjoyed a visible presence in Japan for nearly two decades is quintessential British label The Duffer of St George. Since its humble beginnings back in the eighties, no British brand has captured the imagination quite like this one. Duffer, as it is affectionately known by its loyal followers, has evolved like no other, dressing an entire generation in a look thats come to be known as street style and going on to not only keep its finger on the pulse of current trends, but to become the very essence of progressive UK fashion. Offering street-chic cuts and bespoke lines to what, over the years, has grown to become an extremely discerning client base, Duffer hasnt missed a beat.
Britain historically (over the past 50 years) has been a nation of cults: teds, mods, skins, punks, soul boys, even acid house, and the Japanese have had a certain fascination with these scenes and researched them fairly deeply, says Eddie Prendergast, managing director of The Duffer of St George, during a recent trip to Tokyo.Back in the eighties there were a lot of Japanese buyers in London and many vintage garments were still available throughout the UK both second-hand and dead stock. In our Portobello store we had one of the best selections of both, as in those days we traveled the country finding very good pieces. We started to reproduce the better vintage pieces under the Duffer label and the market grew from there as Duffer was in the vanguard of what was then called street style. The Japanese were very much into this and the relationship grew.
The sheer gravity of DufferCs influence on British fashion cant quite be quantified, suffice to say that for a label to single-handedly shape a fashion movement that, more than a decade and a half on, is still as prevalent today in Japan as it is Britain is simply remarkable.
Duffer more or less started old schoolc [fashion movement] in the UK, says Prendergast.We were the ones who went to Canal and Orchard Street in New York and bought Adidas Superstar shell toes, Puma suedes, big leather puffas and old Adidas tracksuits. We then brought them back to the UK and kick-started the movement.
When given some thought, the fact that Duffer and the Japanese fashion market have been in cahoots since the dawn of the brand makes perfect sense when the nations self proclaimed fashion leaders unremitting penchant for cutting edge and, in particular, British-born attire is taken into consideration. In 1986, Duffer started wholesaling vintage stock to Japanese customers. The relationship was further solidified in 1991, when Duffer sold several lines to illustrious department store Isetan (Shinjuku, Tokyo) Tokyos answer to the eminent Harvey Nichols, found on the corner of Sloane Street and Knightsbridge in London, providing the brand with unequivocal internationaldesigner status.
On the strength of all this pioneering ingenuity C the brands very modus operandi the success of the forthcoming dedicated Duffer stores, pegged to open in Japan over the next few years, is not even a question.
Having traded in Japan for many years we seem to have developed the knack of knowing what is needed for the market, the common denominator is always good clothing, Prendergast says.Duffer in its new entity namely, stand-alone retail will have a full offer: tailoring, fashion and sportswear all sold as a monobrand but with the look of a select store (Beams, United Arrows, Ships, etc) democratically priced but still very desirable.
With our partners Itochu/Joix Corporation, we would like to open 40-50 stores in Japan over the next five years, he adds.The interiors of the stores in Japan will be a cross between two styles, fusing English Georgian (with wood paneling and bookshelves, etc) with a modern contemporary feel.
Coordinating the Duffer/Itochu/Joix Corporation PR operation in Japan is Atsushi Yamauchi himself a firm proponent of British fashion, who is confident about Duffers transition to stand-alone retail in Japan, as he explains.
We plan to open the first Duffer shop on February 9 in Namba, Osaka, and in Diamor, also in Osaka, he says.In the first season we are going to open 11 shops in Japan, including ones in Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kichijoji, Kyoto, Tachikawa, Fukuoka, Takamatsu and in the Marunouchi area.
The Japanese have been significantly influenced by British music the Beatles, Culture Club, Blur, Oasis and so on and culturally our countries have many similarities, so we tend to lean toward British brands such as Paul Smith, Burberry Black Label, Vivienne Westwood, Fred Perry and, of course, Duffer, Yamauchi says.In Japan, Duffers sophisticated print designs on T-shirts, for example, will be particularly popular. Because Duffer is so good at catering to modern tastes with their own products, they are always one step ahead of the market. Better still, our contract with Duffer allows us to reproduce lines in Japan, thereby keeping prices affordable.
There are, of course, inherent pitfalls that must be considered when attempting to create a loyal client base from an audience that are quick to follow new themes and trends first, and brand names a very close second. In other words, consumers in Japan can be notoriously fickle.
Take Paul Smith, for example, who has been in the Japanese market now for almost 25 years. Over that time he has been constantly relevant and has adapted his style to suit the times, explains Prendergast.On the other hand a brand like [Katharine] Hamnett, which was best known in the early to mid-eighties for a couple of ground-breaking fashion statements did not necessarily appeal to Japanese sensibilities after that. The types of people drawn to Duffer clothes in Japan are fairly early adopters people that are normally the first to have a new product, whether it is gadgets, clothes or the latest band. Due to the size of the Duffer offer this spring, there will be lots for everyone to choose from without us having to dictate to our customers style-wise.

The Composer

Traditional British styling has always tipped its cap to conservatism and although some celebrated designers have and continue to opt for more extravagant creations to create a buzz on the runways, theres a hardcore faction of die-hard traditionalists who simply produce high quality, ready-to-wear collections season after season. One such exponent is designer Paul Smith, whose venerated designs can be found on the shelves in fashion districts the world over. Known for his clean, slim, idiosyncratic lines, this architect of urban-chic consistently outsells every other European designer in Japan making Smith one of Japans hottest fashion imports.
In fact, Paul Smiths clothes and accessories are sold in more than 200 shops and through 500 wholesalers in Japan alone, meaning the brands presence in Japan actually rivals if not surpasses that of Britain. Further proof of the brands popularity in Japan can be found in the fact that the revenue generated per square meter at the labels flagship store on Meiji Dori, Tokyo, places this store in the top 10 of all fashion retail stores in the lucrative East Asian sector.
The hardest thing was justifying the name designer for myself when I only made such simple clothes, claims Smith in an interview with Design Museum.I ended up designing clothes that I wanted to wear myself and felt good in. Well-made, good quality, simple cut, interesting fabric, easy to wear. No-bullshit clothing.
Smith has coined a phrase to describe the lines that his impassioned Japanese followers, both male and female, simply cant get enough of:classic with a twist.
I take ingredients from upper-class tailoring, hand-made suits and so on, and bring them together with something silly, he explains in Design Museum.So I might bring together a beautiful suit with a denim short, or use floral prints inspired by old-fashion seed packets for mens shirts, or line tailored jackets with flamboyantly colored silks, or ask a factory which specializes in V-necked school sweaters to knit them in crazy colors.
Paul Smith owes much of his international success to a level head and a humble, grassroots beginning back in the seventies. It was at this time he decided to produce his label, Paul Smith Vetement Pour Homme, on his own from a shabby back alley in Nottingham. As a result, he was responsible for a great deal more than just designing.The reason Ive been successful is because Ive just got on and packed boxes and I know that VAT means Value-added Tax, not vodka and tonic, Paul Smith writes in his book You Can Find Inspiration in Everything.Ive sold on the shop floor, Ive typed invoices. At some point Ive done everything and Ive always kept my head above water financially.
The basement of Paul Smiths first unisex Space shop in Jingumae, Tokyo, is another testament to Smiths hands-on approach. Along with denim lines, the basement houses a number of curiosities handpicked by Smith in order to add to the stores alluring ambience.
Paul remains fully involved in the Japanese business, according to his website.Designing the clothes, choosing the fabrics, approving the shop locations and overseeing every development within the cimpany.

Story by Jon Day
From J SELECT Magazine, February 2007