From First Class to Coach: Beginnings of Taste Deflation in Japanese Fashion

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In the middle of the 1990s, beer alone made up something like 75% of the liquor market in Japan. No surprise, really: Most everyone around the world loves a cold tall one no matter whether the occasion is celebrating a rise in mutual fund portfolio value or suppressing the despair of losing a white-collar job to restructuring. Despite the fact that Japanese beer is excellent almost across-the-board, Japanese consumers have recently abandoned it in droves for fake “beer-flavored” malt-beverage substitutes: happoshu and fake-happoshu “third-category beer.” These fake beers now command about 25% of the alcoholic beverage market.

This is taste deflation in action: Consumer budgets go down and sales of inferior goods go up. Pure-and-simple. (This has now led to a market gap at the top exploited by premium Suntory Premium Malts, but we will leave that topic for a different day.)

Fashion, however, has been different. These are not items that you put in your body but externally represent your social status and hierarchical ranking to society at large. Thanks to rising consciousness about socio-economic strata, the major European superbrands — Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Burberry, Christian Dior, and Hermès — have dominated the Japanese fashion scene for the last decade. But instead of being able to go head-to-toe in one brand like the ’80s — or even mid-’90s — young women can only afford to go generic for the shirts and skirts and then “class it all up” with a $2,000 bag. But whether the appeal of these brands is “rational” (dependable and classic!) or “aspirational” (Roppongi Hills/Paris Hilton plastic-fantastic), paying $2,000 or more for a bag has been the de facto standard for a very long time. Maybe this year it’s Chloé and not LV, but still: Get ready for years of credit card installment payment.

But watch out super luxury: Last week’s issue of Weekly Toyo Keizai featured a long feature on “The Coach Miracle.” Many members of what used to be called the “middle-class” are now happy to buy a $400-$500 bag instead of shelling out for a $2,000 one. Although the accompanying pictures to the article illustrate a much less fashion-forward, less glamorous crowd, Coach’s growth in the Japanese bag market is unquestionably strong: currently a 9% share, above Gucci, Hermes, and Chanel (LV is still 25%, natch).

Important to note that Coach is not seen as a classic luxury brand, but as “accessible luxury” (アクセシブル・ラグジュリー). Much more Polo than Prada in terms of cachet, with prices to match. More America than Europe — which is almost never a good sign of things to come.

Surely there are strategic business decisions and changes in fashion/taste that explain Coach’s rise, but one cannot help but think back to simple economic realities: buying a $2,000-$3,000 bag is a bit of an extreme investment at this point in time for a large class of people who have moderate incomes and little chance at wage raises. “Accessible” means having a “nice” bag and money left over to live life with the bag you just bought. And since boys do not care about brand labels anyway, why bother?

If Japanese men can accept that their 21st century life will involve the daily imbibing of vile forms of fake beer, why can’t women come down from fantasy land and stay within the price ranges of their budget limitations? With the economy sluggishly moving as it is, taste deflation for middle-mass fashion is bound to happen at some point. And since LV is now so overexposed, the time has never been better for going “one-rank down.” I doubt, however, that things will stop at the Coach level. Bape destroyed the fashion market for men by making “fashion” into t-shirts and jeans, which ultimately opened the market for Uniqlo. If Coach says that “dressing up” can be mid-level luxury, then there goes the neighborhood.

W. David MARX
September 26, 2006

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

28 Responses

  1. clarence Says:

    This is the first time I’m seeing the theory that Bape laid the foundations for Uniqlo’s success. Would you care to elaborate?

    Also, would you consider the public’s enthusiasm about the return of 牛丼 at Yoshinoya to be another example of 下流 from First Class to Coach (and whatever happened to business class)?

  2. marxy Says:

    This is the first time I’m seeing the theory that Bape laid the foundations for Uniqlo’s success. Would you care to elaborate?

    From a Hegelian perspective:

    Thesis: 80s – fashion means “high fashion” (designer brands, European, black)
    Antithesis: late 80s – “shibuya casual (shibukaji)” goes anti-fashion (sloppy shirts, baggy pants, loafers)
    Synthesis: mid-90s – Ura-Harajuku-kei (subcultural jeans, t-shirts, sneakers are exclusive fashion)

    The atmosphere wasn’t conducive to people moving back up the ladder, but the logic continued that if jeans and t-shirts are fashion, then unbranded, unexclusive (Uniqlo-esque) versions are not so far off from being fashion. Issey Miyake to Uniqlo is less of a jump than Bape to Uniqlo.

    Also, would you consider the public’s enthusiasm about the return of 牛丼 at Yoshinoya…

    Food and drink seem to be less about conspicious consumption in Japan. Hell, you eat Yoshinoya so you can buy LV.

  3. Mulboyne Says:

    Fashion isn’t my strong point but the line from Coach Japan has always been that consumers buy several bags for different occasions and so their average customer spends in total about the same as the LV customer.

  4. clh Says:

    Hegel can simply be used on every occasion. Just like the right bag (which would form the antithesis to coachs USP)
    Oh, and thanks for taking me up on that Chloe-LV-argument.

  5. alin Says:

    Bape laid the foundations for Uniqlo’s success.

    that’s chronologicaly wrong – bape was still too obscure when uniqlo was already big , especially outside tokyo, and ridiculously reductive , have you done a rough count of say comme de garcons ‘PLAY’ tshirts (as the most visible item of that label and , what, 5-6 times the cost of a uniqlo tshirt) seen around this spring and summer; – kind of neat though.

  6. marxy Says:

    that’s chronologicaly wrong – bape was still too obscure when uniqlo was already big , especially outside tokyo, and ridiculously reductive

    Har! Give me some dates and I will prove you wrong.

    have you done a rough count of say comme de garcons ‘PLAY’ tshirts

    The polo shirts are all over the place. This is either “avant-garde brand embraced by the masses” or “avant-garde brand goes down to their level” – I can’t tell which.

  7. Teman Says:

    On a different note, why is the Japanese beer market so fucked? I can get a fifth of Bombay for as much as a six-pack of Asahi half-liter cans at the little corner store.

    I went back to the US a little while ago, and my friends taunted me with tales of 24-packs of Pabst for 11$.

  8. Chris_B Says:

    Teman: part of the switch from beer to beer like drinks is that there is a tax advantage to the brewers to make unbeers.

    marxy: It looks to me like this is another episode in the “terminal decline” series. I however see this as supporting my pet theory of “return to normailty” (though return may not be correct since I dont think that consumer markets here have ever been “normal”). Point being is that the go-go bubble days and the hangover reched excesses of spending are the fisheye lens and not the point to compare to as a normative reference.

    I cant see LV as being “middle class” to begin with, perhaps upper middle class, but not middle for sure. Perhaps were now seeing the development of an actual middle class as opposed to an inflated one? After all its my understanding that the myth of everyone being middle class long predates the bubble years so to see LV in those terms is wrong to begin with.

    BTW is the Momus-bot out of commission?

  9. Teman Says:

    The confusing thing for me is how beer is taxed higher. I’m used to the US model where hard alcohol is taxed at a very high rate (it’s a sin!), but beer is very cheap.

    I guess I’m more curious about the policies that led to this reversed state of affairs.

  10. nate Says:

    I can’t speak so well for the Japanese market, but didn’t calvin klein jeans “destroy the fashion market for men by making “fashion” into t-shirts and jeans” earlier… and rock and roll before that?

    Isn’t CKJ also the model for the reduced status, reduced price product lines from various companies, and consequently the high end lines as well?

  11. trevor Says:

    you can get 24 packs of 12oz can of pabst for cheap in the US ’cause its shit ass beer.

  12. marxy Says:

    ape was still too obscure when uniqlo was already big , especially outside tokyo,

    Just for the record, nothing in Japan can be “big in Japan” without being big in Tokyo, and I know this sounds like I am asking to be flamed by all the good people living outside of Tokyo, but this is a Confucian nation and a well-intended Confucian state has ONE center. Uniqlo may have been around pre-Bape, but the brand never really took center stage as a “phenomenon” until 2000 or so, right?

    line from Coach Japan has always been that consumers buy several bags for different occasions and so their average customer spends in total about the same as the LV customer.

    Yeah, but you can fake “owning a lot of Coach bags” by owning 1 and paying $400. You cannot do that with LV.

    I however see this as supporting my pet theory of “return to normailty”

    Yes, you are absolutely right. This is a “return to normality.” Coach is only deflated taste in a very overinflated market. The problem is, Japan is a lot more interesting when tastes are overinflated. Unless a kind of productive, non-consumptive DIY boom starts up.

    I can’t speak so well for the Japanese market, but didn’t calvin klein jeans “destroy the fashion market for men by making “fashion” into t-shirts and jeans” earlier… and rock and roll before that?

    Fashion elite are going to be fashion elite and sell to the well-endowed and fancy. Bape never meant anything to the fashion elite, and I don’t want to make that claim.

    But in Japan and almost nowhere else, “fashion” is a mass phenomenon, and for a while in the 80s, the implied standard for “fashion” was designer clothing. There is ONE narrative of youth fashion – as understood by the Japanese – and in this narrative, the same kids who would have worn Issey Miyake in 1986 were wearing Bape in 1996. Check out the 20th anniversary issue of Hot Dog Press to see how this historical narrative is constructed. By 2000 or so, the inheritors of this narrative were wearing Uniqlo.

  13. lacadutadegiganti Says:

    “Yeah, but you can fake “owning a lot of Coach bags” by owning 1 and paying $400. You cannot do that with LV.”

    Not really. Among my wife and her circle of friends, whom I take as fairly representative of professional women in Japan, ownership of a lowly one Coach bag would become obvious almost instanteously. I’d be like wearing the same shirt every day. Indeed, not only do they buy multiple coach bags, they also by all this Coach accessory crap – keychains of 18,000 at Sogo (I get them on eBay from the US for my wife for $70), wallets, credit card holders, ad nauseum. Mulboyne is exactly right.

    And by the way, I think Coach is actually a good deal MORE tasteful, and far less narikin-ppoi, than Vuitton, which to me reeks of ostentatious Eurotrash gauchisme.

  14. nate Says:

    the LV bags that rich people carry arent smeared in logos.

    “return to normality”: my gf, a decidedly non-LV consumer has a habit of buying bags with 5 digit prices. The first digit as a four is the top of her range, but it’s about the top of the range for any bag that accomplishes anything more than conspicuousness.

  15. check Says:

    “[Japanese Economics and Financial Services Minister Kaoru] Yosano added that Japan’s bubble economy is unlikely to occur again because businesses seem to have learned a lesson from the bursting of the asset bubble in the early 1990s.”

    True/False?

  16. Chris_B Says:

    marxy say Japan is a lot more interesting when tastes are overinflated

    you wanna qualify that one a bit?

    I’ve never been really fond of the wreched excesses of the nuveau riche. I guess I used that phrase before but I cant think of a synonym right now. Please tell me if I missinterpreted you and there really was some other point to that line or if I missed the context.

  17. Laotree Says:

    I tried the “top shelf” Asahi beer in the blue can the other day (forget the name) cuz I had received a Kuo konbini gift card and wanted to see how the other half lives, and I can’t say I was impressed. At first the slightly flowery aroma reminded me of Spaten Optimator, but by the end, it was about as flat as the その他の雑酒 that I slum it with. Ultimately an empty consumer experience; I’ll stick with Kirin Classic when I can afford it. Why can’t there be more imported or microbrews on this rock?

  18. marxy Says:

    Why can’t there be more imported or microbrews on this rock?

    Oligopoly capitalism. Get used to it.

  19. marxy Says:

    “[Japanese Economics and Financial Services Minister Kaoru] Yosano added that Japan’s bubble economy is unlikely to occur again because businesses seem to have learned a lesson from the bursting of the asset bubble in the early 1990s.”

    Well, are banks really going to let companies make all those ridiculous loans on inflated land prices? This is not my field of expertise, but if there is a Bubble, it will probably be of a different nature, no?

  20. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    Laotree,
    Have you tried YonaYona Ale?
    At 260 for a small-boy it ain’t the cheapest, but it’s probably my favorite Japanese beer.
    Although those two brews that SuperDeluxe sells are really tasty too.

  21. Teman Says:

    I agree – YonaYona is the best store beer I’ve found.

    If you are really motivated (and wealthy), you can make a pilgrimage to the beer shrine – Popeye Beer Club.

    They’ve got an amazing selection of Japanese microbrews I haven’t seen anywhere else. Fair warning though, they tend towards the 1000-1200 yen pints.

    http://www.bento.com/brews.html can be a good resource as well…

    This thread is a little schizo – japanese consumer behavior mixed with gaijin drinking tips. :)

  22. Laotree Says:

    Oligopoly capitalism to be sure, it’s even supposedly illegal to brew your own beer! Or as my father-in-law put it, “黙って飲んだら大丈夫やで!”When you mentioned oliogpoly I couldn’t help but think of the law that made it illegal to sell used electronic items made before 2001, and the 2011 national switch to digital broadcast, requiring everyone to buy a new TV. (And that good shit’ll cost ya) A collusion of the giants of industry to restrict consumer choices all the way down the social ladder, effecting a mass transfer of wealth into their coffers? Hell, these same conglomerates created the Japanese Fascist war machine, so I guess this is small potatoes in the broader historical context.
    Just one man’s opinion, but I think that analog broadcasts look like total shit on a digital TV, it makes everything look super-grainy, especially people’s skin. (Maybe all these celebs really do have orange-peels for faces and that’s why they want to force a switch, to save the upper echelon who already bought digital from the horror of seeing the ぶつぶつ in its raw form…)

  23. Laotree Says:

    Oligopoly capitalism to be sure, it’s even supposedly illegal to brew your own beer! Or as my father-in-law put it, “黙って飲んだら大丈夫やで!”When you mentioned oliogpoly I couldn’t help but think of the law that made it illegal to sell used electronic items made before 2001, and the 2011 national switch to digital broadcast, requiring everyone to buy a new TV. (And that good shit’ll cost ya) A collusion of the giants of industry to restrict consumer choices all the way down the social ladder, effecting a mass transfer of wealth into their coffers? Hell, these same conglomerates created the Japanese Fascist war machine, so I guess this is small potatoes in the broader historical context.
    Just one man’s opinion, but I think that analog broadcasts look like total shit on a digital TV, it makes everything look super-grainy, especially people’s skin. (Maybe all these celebs really do have orange-peels for faces and that’s why they want to force a switch, to save the upper echelon who already bought digital from the horror of seeing the ぶつぶつ in its raw form…)
    A little more schizo, sorry.
    I’ve never seen Yona Yona in Kansai, but I’ll check around. Thanks Wavekrest!

  24. Laotree Says:

    Sorry I did something weird and that ended up on there twice, I’m sure marxy will take care of it…

  25. Mutantfrog Says:

    I know of at least one store in Kyoto that specializes in home-brewing equipment, so even if it is technically illegal, it certainly can’t be VERY illegal.

    As for the law about making it illegal to sell used items, there is no such law. I wrote about this extensively on my blog, for example here
    http://www.mutantfrog.com/2006/03/16/update-on-used-electronics-restrictions-some-good-news/

    PSE was not the most consumer-friendly of laws, but it was also not nearly as bad as a lot of people said, particularly after the government exempted broad categories of items after protests.

  26. alin Says:

    Just for the record, ..uniqlo

    man, you have some really interesting thought then try to turn it into a ‘Theory of Everything’ and it gets hilarious.

    the point about CK before was a good one. also rather than some (again near consopiracy-like) Bape – uniqlo link, as just one more alternative theory, you could think of the uniqlo, new balance etc as well, popularity as a direct result of MASSES of people in their 20s and generally not from tokyo actually living the no-wave, sweatshirt life in the US, Australia, new Zeeland etc. at the time (mid – late 90s)
    and there’re a whole lot more vectors at play for goodness ..

  27. nate Says:

    for some reason, I’ve only just now properly read the title of this post.

    That’s funny… my nominee for best realized title to a post on a private blog.

  28. marxy Says:

    It’s actually the second title, but I change to this one within the first hour or so.