People line up days before H&M Harajuku opens

With the global economy’s continuing decline, fast-fashion companies are rapidly ascending. Even Japan’s label slaves have turned to more reasonably priced tags—as evidenced by H&M’s much exulted opening in Tokyo this fall. Japanese consumers have fallen head over heels for cheap clothing and may never turn back.

“As a high school student, I wore head-to-toe Vivienne Westwood,” admits Yoshiko Kris-Webb, now a young mother. Such extravagancies were commonplace following a bubble-era Japan, but the youth must now cope with minimum wages and family scrimping. While top designers such as Stella McCartney, Raf Simons and Neil Barrett have recently opened flagships throughout Japan, it remains to be seen if they will be met with the same degree of popularity. “I wonder if enough people will even shop here?” an attendee at the press preview for Stella McCartney’s store discreetly questioned.

The Japanese belief that “expensive is better” has been replaced with a new shopping ethos. The cash-strapped young lead the change, mixing high-end and low-end clothing into one outfit. But even this mixing and matching style could become rare as young and old alike are given more options in affordable clothing.

Uniqlo UT store

The adolescent-driven 109 mall in Shibuya began the movement early, but was largely confined to a certain flashy and wacky style of dress. Then the Tokyo Girls Collection, a consumer-attended fashion festival, exploded onto the scene with an array of styles for young girls to choose from. Uniqlo targeted families with stylish staples under the banner: “so cheap you can throw it away!” GAP, on which Uniqlo based their business strategy, has 112 outlets countrywide, while Zara boasts 36. Topshop/Topman opened to anticipation in the trendy fashion area of Harajuku in 2006, and recently finished an aggressive expansion to compete with a neighboring H&M.

People lining up to shop at Topshop.

The second H&M complex opened in September to predictably massive crowds, while towers in Shibuya and Shinjuku—practically next door neighbors—are already under way. “We are our biggest competitor,” says Jorgen Andersson, H&M’s Business Director. “The Japanese consumer loves fashion, but has not had the option to get it so readily until now. It’s a long-time coming—the recession is just an added surprise.”

While some still prefer their designer labels, many Japanese consumers have taken the fast-fashion plunge. Rena, a popular model and TV presenter in Tokyo sums it up: “I wasn’t sure about [the clothing] at first, but it’s all super cute,” she says with an armful of goods for purchase at the H&M press party. “I want that dress on the mannequin! What, there’s no more? Will you help me search the fitting rooms for it?”

—Misha Janette, JC Report