Our mission is to unmask Japan to reveal the real consumer truths

Marketing Trendscape: Selling Fashion and Beauty in Japan

Japanese market fashion women

by CarterJMRN

So after Kim Kardashian’s recent ill-starred attempt to culturally seize kimono (the word, not the garment) for her own, this seems like a fitting time to talk about the women’s fashion and beauty market in Japan. Consumers in Japan are some of the most sophisticated and hard-to-please in the world, yet with open wallets for products they trust in.

Here are some facets of Japan’s rag trade, beauty trends and beyond—including makeup, youth and senior fashion—that marketers in Japan or those that plan a market entry into Japan should know, as well as how shopping for all this stuff is changing.

The major key is self-expression for those times when not in harness in the working world.

The Japanese fashion market: low-down from ‘Fashion World Tokyo’

Tokyo is a fashion bastion with few equals, and Fashion World Tokyo—Japan’s largest fashion trade show, coming up at the beginning of October—lures many overseas exhibitors to hawk their wares to an audience of discerning Japanese and global buyers, boutique owners and industry observers inspecting new fashion, bags, shoes, jewelry and more.

Exhibitor feedback from the autumn 2017 show reveals that Japan’s consumers have some particular tastes. Accessories and bags with a low bling factor, for one. They also prefer clothes that don’t wrinkle or fade, which makes clothing produced using completely natural materials and dyes less attractive. In footwear, they favor more comfortable, less formal styles. And given the recent #KuToo movement in protest of being forced to wear high heels at the office, that trend will likely strengthen.

The skincare game and other altered states

A few decades back, the gyaru look—deep tans and exaggerated (some might say clownish) makeup and hair—was startlingly popular with a subculture of young urban women. But the bihaku (beautifully white) skin trend, also born in the nineties, has endured and spread. Springing from an old Japanese proverb that “a fair complexion hides seven flaws,” this skin-whitening ethos incorporates countless products that bleach or diminish pigment, but preferably do so using natural ingredients such as rice, kombu seaweed, jabara citrus extract, camellia oil and sake to revitalize, moisturize and enrich the skin.

Bihaku – white skin as the epitome of beauty

Bihaku is an integral element of a sophisticated skincare regimen known as J-beauty, encompassing makeup removal, cleansing, lotion, serums and moisturizers, exfoliators and more. That self-care actually extends to what’s eaten and drunk—collagen-rich and fermented foods, seaweed and oily fish, for example, and green tea—as well as onsen bathing.

Technology also comes into play, with devices such as the VisaPure Advanced home facial device from Philips being hugely successful. Developed in cooperation with Japanese massage experts, VisaPure goes beyond facial cleansing to boost blood circulation and relax facial muscles, simulating 750 gentle finger taps per minute to revitalize the skin.

The mochi skin phenomenon

There’s a definite desire among Japanese women to attain what’s known as “mochi skin”—essentially a complexion that mimics the soft, smooth texture of mochi rice cake desserts.

In vivid contrast to that flawless skin, Japan’s young fashionistas are applying colored eyeliner (yellow, green, pink and more), or maybe under-eye blush or glossy, glittery eye shadow. There’s vibrant gloss for the lips, too, in fruity shades. Younger Japanese women also go in for colorful nail art, including what are known as “nuance nails,” with each nail covered in different colors, designs and decorations.  

Cutting edge contact lenses and hair care

Colored and patterned contact lenses—the latter known as “circle lenses”—hold a particular appeal in the land of manga, anime and cosplay. Want to sport violet eyes, oversized pupils, spoof David Bowie with two different hues, look like a zebra-human hybrid or have Hello Kitty on your orbs? Lenses for all those looks and more (the gaping maw of Jaws, anyone?) are available, and makers and fashion retailers also issue exclusive products for special appearances.

Important to know for overseas marketers is the fact that while some circle lenses are for nearsighted, farsighted or astigmatic folks, most are pure fashion statements.

Japanese manufacturers have also devised some radically new tech for hair care. Louvredo’s Fukugen hair dryer uses a special far-infrared wavelength of 6 ~ 20 μm and negative ionization to shake the moisture out of the hair, eliminating the usual damage to hair proteins that hot air causes. Lumielina’s Bioprogramming range of care and styling products use a new type of ceramic that not only shields hair from heat but also actually improves its smoothness, moisture balance and gloss.

Again, a marriage between cutting edge technology and beauty intrigue the Japanese consumer.

Online fashion buying habits of the Japanese

Buying fashion and beauty products remotely has always been a bit tricky unless you know exactly what you’re getting, especially when it comes to fit/drape and shade. That doesn’t stop many, though. You see ladies avidly scrolling through clothes and accessories online. On a train or in a coffee shop, for example, they may be hunting for bargains on name-brand goods at a flash sale site such as Gilt Groupe or Rue La La.

Smartphone apps are changing the game as well. One called Bodygram uses AI deep-learning and machine-learning algorithms based on just a front and profile photo to size you perfectly, like a master tailor. Augmented reality (AR) makeup mirrors from app developer Perfect Corp. are helping Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and Amway give shoppers the chance to virtually apply products via smartphone as well. New Balance has set up machines in major Japanese department stores and elsewhere to do 3D scans of your foot for an exact fit.

The customer is not king, but god in Japan. Anything you can offer them to enhance their shopping experience might get you into their good graces – and purchasing decision.

The Japanese senior fashion market: A graceful transition into maturity

Older women in Japan are increasingly opting for mature styles in both hair and what they wear, not seeking to duplicate the fashions their daughters and granddaughters pursue. That includes a more natural, personal look and going gracefully gray up top. The desire to stop dying their locks was spurred by photo collections such as Advanced Style, first published in the U.S. in 2012, and Over 60 Street Snap II and Paris Madame Grey Hair Style. All featured older women rocking distinctive styles and dos.

To support that urge, Takarajima Publishing launched a magazine in December 2017 called “Sutekina ano hito no otona fuku,” which translates as “Adult Clothes for That Stylish Person.” Not the most succinct title, perhaps, but the publication does feature plenty of chic, silver-haired seniors wearing striking yet appropriate clothing and accessories—and its debut issue sold 50,000 copies.

That’s one powerful indication that designing for and selling to the senior market is worthwhile.

Functional fashion is not a niche, but mainstream in Japan

For marketers, some other pivots include temperature—such as wide-legged pants to stay cool in Japan’s steamy summertime, and Uniqlo’s “heat-tech” garments for keeping warm in the winter. Other upcoming segments include fashion and beauty addressing environmental, ethical and sustainability issues, like e.g. anti-pollution skincare products.

The eco and cruelty-free gap is yet to be closed

At the moment, the ethical and sustainable fashion and beauty market is still in its infancy in Japan. Global research from Philips also reveals that while nearly half of women (48 percent) in Turkey, Argentina (47 percent) and India (45 percent) might be persuaded to change their health and beauty routine if they found an ethical/eco-friendly/cruelty-free product, only 18 percent do in Japan.

Yet, there is some great potential here for marketers to persuade Japanese women to adopt beauty products and regimes that provide practical results but are also more ethical and sustainable, especially if you tie that in with some of the other factors that appeal to Japanese consumers when making purchasing choices.