Apr 23, 2015

    Bringing new life to Japan's fashion scene

    FASHION speciality boutiques, known as serekuto shoppu (select shops) in Japan, are highly popular in the country. The shops, which can also be described as independent fashion boutiques, are distinctive because they sell only brands or goods that match the owners' tastes.

    Said to be much more sensitive to trends than conventional clothing stores, select shops became widespread in Japan in the 1980s.

    Currently, the United Arrows chain is regarded as the best-selling fashion speciality boutique in the country, with annual sales of as much as 100 billion yen (S$1.1 billion). But nearly 70 per cent of its sales come from private-brand products, or items designed and made by United Arrows itself.

    That means United Arrows is now like companies known as speciality store retailers with private-label apparel, which plan, produce and market their own clothes.

    Having almost entirely lost the strong appeal that fashion speciality boutiques hold for highly fashion-conscious consumers, United Arrows seems to have become a mere sales- and profit-oriented company.

    Meanwhile, unique indie boutiques run by fashion specialists are springing up.

    The triangle of land framed by the Omotesando, Aoyama-dori and Meiji-dori roads in Tokyo is dotted with small fashion speciality stores throughout the residential area. At the very centre of the triangle, near Onden Shrine, the unique store Graphpaper opened on Feb 27.

    Owner Takayuki Minami is a well-known figure in the industry, who says he "curates" the shop. Mr Minami has been involved in the opening of popular indie fashion speciality stores including 1LDK, which now has three stores in the Nakameguro, Harajuku and Minami-Aoyama areas in Tokyo. A Paris branch was opened earlier this year.

    Many fans of Mr Minami gathered on the opening day of Graphpaper, his first shop.

    Located on the first and second floors of an old apartment building in the Harajuku area, the shop is easy to miss due to the lack of signage at the entrance. Even if you find the shop and enter it, you will see only about 10 big black wall panels. However, there is more than meets the eye.

    If you pull at one of the wall panels, a garment rack or set of shelves hidden behind them will be revealed, laden with merchandise such as clothes, handbags and ceramics.

    The "black jack-in-a-box" set-up, so to speak, helps hide away the "jewels" Mr Minami has found after searching throughout the nation.

    The shop is not designed to encourage buying things through the beautiful display of goods. Instead, it challenges customers to believe in Mr Minami's selections by opening the black boxes. This mischievous gimmick is irresistible for those who love fashion trends but have become weary of overt commercialism at more conventional speciality boutiques.

    Graphpaper also runs a bar on the second floor of the building, where the Utrecht speciality bookstore is also located. The Tumbler & Flowers florist shop can be found on the first floor.

    With its comforting, timeless atmosphere, the building makes you feel like you have found highly developed Japanese fashion culture.