Are we Obsessed with Japan? Yes!

Tapping into the art, craft and innovation of Japan, recent evidence indicates that global luxury brands’ historical fascination with everything Japanese will just keep growing.

By: Suman Tarafdar

Posted on: March 13, 2023

Japanese Kimono screen 

A Japanese Kimono screen. ©Wikimedia Commons.

Japan - one of the largest consumers of luxury, was, for long, a relatively isolated archipelago. It is only in recent centuries that countless touchpoints of its culture have become much sought after globally, setting off worldwide trends, even crazes. Japan’s uniqueness is not just in its aesthetic – distinct and instantly recognizable as it is. The question is that why and how did this outsized influence in recent times come about – in technology, in culture (high or popular), food, fashion, and yes, luxury consumption. 
The answers could, of course, take volumes to answer comprehensively. It wasn’t that long ago that fears of a Japanese global hegemony dominated even US domestic politics (mirroring the country’s current apprehension about China). Yes, the 1970s and 80s were the era of Toyota, Honda, Sony, Canon, Nissan, Nikon, Mitsubishi, Yamaha, Mazda, Suzuki, Nintendo, Panasonic, Uniqlo, Subaru, Suntory, Asahi, Shiseido, Daikin, Hitachi, Muji, Fuji, Fujitsu, NTT, Seiko, Yakult even 7-Eleven – they and many, many more brands became household staples. When life was incomplete without the Walkman, VHS, CD, when sushi and sashimi entered the global vocab, as did tofu, kimono, karaoke, samurai and origami, when vending machines became default, and we learnt about Manga and Anime, adapted to green teas and wondered at the speed – and safety – of the first bullet trains… Japan’s innovative streak continues – it has pioneered car navigation, QR codes, Blu-Ray, laptops, 3D printing, the selfie stick, and of course, emojis 😊.

In 2021, the Japanese luxury goods market generated over $25.98bn in revenue.

There are numerous quantifiable and not-so-measurable aspects that make Japan unique. It has the planet’s oldest citizens by country average and the lowest gun-related deaths. In fact, its law and order a global envy. Efficiency and innovation seem to go hand in hand. Its customer service is legendary. Politeness and consideration for others seems inbuilt (remember the way Japanese fans cleaned up stadia in Qatar recently?). Of course, luxury hotels across the world already knew this – anecdotal evidence suggests that they not only leave rooms clean, but they tip well, and are unfailingly polite! 
As a 2017 McKinsey report puts it, “For many luxury brands, Japan is often contemplated as their first market in terms of sales, and more importantly, in terms of profits: over half of local luxury executives report that Japan is seen by their headquarters as a growth engine and a profit generator. Indeed, Japan accounts for up to 30-40% of some global luxury brands’ profitability.” Showcasing ‘luxury democratization’, or how Japanese society doesn’t necessarily link fashion to social background, a research conducted by Howard et Al said that 44% of Japanese women owned a Louis Vuitton purse in 2007. Per capita, no other large economy came close.

A studio at les batignolles
'A Studio in the Batignolles' (1870), by Henri-Fantin Latour, shows a vase done in Japanese style by ceramist Laurent Bouvier.

In 2021, the Japanese luxury goods market generated over $25.98bn in revenue. So considerable is the market’s scale that almost a quarter of all LVMH’s physical stores across Asia are in Japan. After witnessing a dramatic downturn between 2007 and 2012, the country has since returned to strong growth. So when Bernard Arnault of LVMH tells CNN that “for us, as a luxury group, the Japanese customer is very important” – it is an understatement.

Japan’s journey to popularity

Yes, luxury is a way of life in Japan, though unlike many other societies, luxury consumption is often for oneself, and includes concepts such as solitude. Think forest bathing. Or minimalism (and not just the Marie Kondo way). It is, of course, one of most expensive countries to stay in, not surprising given the amount of trends it sets in standards of living. Given its far reaching influence, it is not surprising that Japanese aesthetics have consistently inspired brands and creators from distant corners.

Kenzo TakadaKenzo Takada, a well-known designer from Japan, taking a bow after a 1998-99 collection.

Of course, fashion followed paths pioneered by art. Henri Fantin-Latour’s “A Studio in the Batignolles” (1870), depicted giants of the French cultural scene - Édouard Manet, Zacharie Astruc, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Émile Zola. Also prominent in the painting was a vase done in the Japanese style by ceramist Laurent Bouvier – in a major nod to the growing influence of Japan’s aesthetic on France, then the west’s leader of ideas, fashion and luxury. Gathering speed, these influences were soon making themselves felt in two aesthetic movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In fact, it is said that Louis Vuitton’s famous floral and star monogram was influenced by the Japanese “mon,” a traditional, family crest.

While Dior was an early entrant to the Japanese luxury market in 1955, it was largely western attire that went on sale for the brand, and others that followed soon. Luxury brands have often been inspired – witness Louis Vuitton’s decorations for its trunks, tea sets by Hermès, silver and cloisonné centerpieces by Boucheron, glass by Lalique, lacquer work for Chippendale chairs… However, the flow soon became an exchange as more and more Japanese design influences and then designers began to emerge on the global stage. 

Sean Connery for Suntory Whisky
Sean Connery endorsing Suntory Whiskey in a print ad.  

Designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons were early to showcase Japanese aesthetics. Kenzo Takada, who went to France in 1964, achieved acclaim and in 1970, he started his own brand. He was followed by Issey Miyake, who in turn influenced many contemporary designers into incorporating Japanese elements and materials in their creations. Meanwhile other arts played a role too. James Bond aka Sean Connery promoted Suntory whisky. David Bowie was an avowed Japanophile, especially of designer Kansai Yamamoto, who created some of the most iconic stage outfits of the British singer-songwriter. Western brands followed soon.
“The practical and relatable quality of Japanese philosophy as well as its similarity to Indian and Buddhist philosophy in many ways drew me to the subject,” says Wish Deo, artistic director of Vishruti, a New York-based fashion brand.  “The complexity of Japanese culture and the simplicity of their philosophy is what I have attempted to capture in the SS23 collection, ‘Rebirth and Regeneration’, not a literal interpretation but rather a derived one,” explains Ms. Deo. “The colors bring to mind the beautiful contrasts of colors in Japanese landscapes with the glacier blues against stark reds juxtaposed against pink cherry blossoms. With other subtle references to the Japanese art of Origami, which mimics my own style, and the medicinal and spiritual power behind Mushrooms, as well as certain organic silhouettes predominant in Japanese costume, I attempted to bring the collection into a more progressive and futuristic realm. The sense of balance, serenity and beauty that they bring to their work makes it a true art form and true art is the ultimate luxury. Overall, I think everything in Japanese culture is carefully cultivated with great attention to detail, expertise and precision. The things they are best known for, like their cuisine, costume and art, has a sense of elevated artistic sensibility which translates effortlessly to a luxury experience.”

David Bowie
Performer David Bowie wearing a Kansai Yamamoto jumpsuit - inspired by Kabuki theatre - in 1973. 

Of late, the trend of Japanese influences has only accentuated. Giorgio Armani, who once said 'Japan always keeps its soul', was an early adherent with his 1981 collection, ‘Hommage au Japon’. For Prada's Spring Summer 2013 show, Miuccia Prada wrote an ode to Japanese femininity, and the entire collection by ‘Harajuku girls’ showcased origami folded satin tops, kimono wraps, tunic dresses, cycling shorts, boxy fur coats and geisha inspired metallic zip-up socks. Karl Lagerfeld’s Japanese influenced collection for Chanel in 2016 included balloon sleeved jackets, long length pencil skirts and cork wedges, a nod to okobo shoes. Balenciaga is known not just for its ‘kimono sleeve’, but also fabric sashes and tapered necklines - a nod to the mastery of Japan’s oriental styles. 

The continuing influence of Japan

Japan’s hosting of the Olympics in 2021 once again put the spotlight on the country, and luxury brands rushed in with their individual takes. In 2021, Hermès collaborated with Japanese designer Daiske Nomura to showcase its famed silk scarfs inspired by the designer’s native land’s inspirations. The same year, Gucci hosted the Gucci Bamboo House, a pop-up experience in Kyoto, for Gucci’s iconic Bamboo handbags. 

A look from Vishruti's Spring Summer 2023 collection. 

Today, as we fall in love with Japanese philosophies such as ‘wabi-sabi’ and ‘ikigai’, Faberge is creating maki-e watches, and Aman is expanding its love affair with Japan by not only opening resorts, but also collaborating with KOSE – a Japanese company – for its skincare range.
When Montblanc released a collection inspired by Naruto – a Japanese Manga series – the German brand’s creative director, Marco Tomasetta, told V Magazine: “I was always fascinated by the depth of Japanese culture that I discovered through manga, and the influence it had on other countries around the world.”

Prada SS 2013
A look from Prada's Spring Summer 2013 collection.  

Louis Vuitton, which has had a long association with Japan, including the 2008 Party Bags collaboration with legendary Japanese artist Rei Kawakubo, unveiled the second installment of the LV² collection, in collaboration with Japanese streetwear designer Nigo, which includes a range of items, from apparel and bags to footwear and even crockery. Of course, Vuitton had a long-running partnership with contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Japanese models are striding the runways for Western luxury labels such as Hermès, Gucci, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton, while luxury boutique attendants behind the counters in Paris, Milan and London continue to brush up their Japanese to cater to customers from the land of rising sun.

LV X Nigo LV2
A look from Louis Vuitton X Nigo's LV2 collection. 

Yes, Japan is trending, and luxury brands are going all out. Luxury conglomerate Kering recently opened its new headquarters for Japan in Tokyo. Christian Dior recently had Designer of Dreams exhibition in Tokyo. Chanel will host its Metiers d’Art fashion show in Japan this June. As the Japanese economy rises and luxury brands’ enthusiasm for the Chinese market dips in a post-pandemic landscape, the country will only increase its influence over the world, albeit in the soft, zen way that is characteristic to them.  

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