Modesty in fashion

By Richard Smith

The market for Muslim fashion, or modest fashion, in Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, may not be huge right niw but there are increasing opportunities for exporters,

TOKYO // Muslim fashion exporters are vying to enter the Japanese market for “modest” clothing despite the relatively small local Muslim population. And they think they can succeed here. Estimates of the Muslim population in Japan vary between 70,000 and 150,000 among the country’s total of more than 126 million people. The Japanese general fashion market, however, is not small – and forecast to grow to US$72.72 billion by 2020 from $63.72bn last year , according to the data compiler Statista.

The Japan Muslim Fashion Association (JMFA) president and chief executive Shinichi Orita says there is sound potential for Muslim fashion exporters to Japan . The 25-member association was founded in April 2015. “Through Muslim fashion, we aim to have Japanese understand Muslims, as well as to have foreigners understand the Japanese,” Mr Orita says. Among the reasons for his optimism about Muslim fashion exporters’ chances of success in Japan, Mr Orita cites the Japanese government’s Visit Japan Campaign, the interest in Japan brought on by the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and the easing of visa regulations for countries with a large Muslim population, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. All this will increase the number of Muslim visitors and, therefore, consumers, he says. “The environment for Muslims is steadily improving here. In addition, the Japanese kimono has an affinity with ‘Muslim fashion’, as there is a [traditional] culture to cover the skin ” among Japanese people, he says.

The Dubai-based Islamic Fashion and Design Council is increasingly seeing a demand from Japanese consumers for a more modest trend, says its chairwoman, Alia Khan. “So we need to explore the Japanese market a little better,” she says. There is a very big overlap between modest and Muslim fashion, Ms Khan says. For example, the abaya is often used as an overcoat or trench coat in western countries. “In Japan, there is akimono version of the abaya,” she says. Underlining the growing interest in the country’s Muslim fashion market, the fi rst Muslim fashion show was held here in November. Organised by Halal Media Japan, founded in 2014 with a mission to make the country “Muslim-friendly”, the Tokyo Modest Fashion Show ran concurrently with the third Halal Expo Japan.

The Malaysia-based Rina Salleh Clothing was among the exhibitors at the fashion show. A modest casual wear and hijab brand launched online in 2009, the business now also runs five outlets in Peninsular Malaysia. During the two exhibition days, the company talked with those interested in bringing the brand to Japan, the fi rm’s director Afi q Iskandar Razizad says. Mr Razizad says he met operators of retail chains who expressed interest in placing his company’s products in some of their outlets in Japan’s subway stations, and some who were interested in becoming a Rina Salleh Clothing agent in Japan. Not long after the show ended, the company appointed a Japan agent to market its products online in the country.

“We are also looking for a bigger opportunity to distribute our products in Japan,” Mr Razizad says. Another company, Meem Clothings of Singapore, which specialises in designing jubbahs and dresses for events as well as everyday wear, also exhibited. Although the company did not land any contracts, its owner says the experience and media exposure its team of designers got was beyond what they expected . “Being featured on [Al Jazeera’s] Aj+ [TV station] got a lot of people interested in my brand and there are people here who are interested in working” with the company, says Meem’s founder and designer, Nur Hanis .

“Being the first to enter Tokyo would benefit us, as this is an untapped market that I believe will be growing,” she says. Also from Singapore, Fatimah Mohsin specialises in bridal dresses, also creating ready-to-wear modest items.

Ms Mohsin participated at the fashion show for the fi rst time last year and says she was focused on raising the image of her brand. “The halal market is growing extensively in Japan of late, with growing awareness of modest fashion being part of that,” she says. “As my designs are mainly within the modest fashion sector, Japan would be a good stepping stone in my plans to expand my business overseas,”

Ms Mohsin says. However, Japan’s sluggish economy could make it more difficult to boost profits for exporters. In the first eight months of last year, the value of total apparel imports to Japan was down by 8.5 per cent compared with the same period a year before, according to the trade website apparelresources.

Yet, the volume registered a year-on-year increase of 3.1 per cent . The value in the knitted segment was down by 8.7 per cent, while in the woven segment value fell by 8.3 per cent. But, in terms of volume, both knitted and woven segments registered an increase of 3.4 per cent and 2.5 per cent, respectively. To succeed in the Japanese market, exporters must also understand the peculiarities of the Japanese fashion distribution system,

Mr Orita says. In Japan, small and medium enterprises make up the majority of companies. There is also a big language barrier, so hiring an agent is a strong requirement, he adds. But considering the small number of Muslims in the country, success will also rely on acceptance – and purchases – by female non-Muslim s , says Mr Orita , adding that the traditional Japanese kimono has an affi nity with Muslim clothing.

“There are few Muslims among the Japanese, but their [traditional] way of thinking is closer to the teachings of Islam” regarding proper attire, he says. “In Japan, there are few people with specific religious beliefs, but the will to understand religions is very strong” among the Japanese, Mr Orita says. Yo Nonaka, who specialis es in Islamic studies and is the faculty of policy management professor at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance, echoes Mr Orita’s sentiments.

Many Japanese women do not think that revealing skin is acceptable, Ms Nonaka says. “I think that Japan, like other Asian countries, has traditionally had a culture that hides the skin,” she says. “So, in fact, Japanese women’s affi nity with Muslim fashion is strong,” she says. But Ms Nonaka is less certain of the potential for exporters of Muslim fashion to Japan.

As the Japanese market is still small, she thinks it would be prudent for companies to look elsewhere also. “It may be possible to sell online for Japan while focusing on developing business in overseas markets,” she says. Although she focuses mainly on foreign markets, the Japanese designer Rieka Inoue has found a middle road, designing clothes that can appeal both to Muslims and non-Muslim Japanese women. In Japan, many women consider untanned skin beautiful, so they wear long sleeves even in the summer,

Ms Inoue says. “Modest fashion does not mean Muslim fashion, it is a new fashion category,” she says. Her fellow Japanese designer Noriko Murakami makes only hijabs.

She found an interest in the clothing some years ago when she was making frequent trips to Malaysia. Women there were complaining about the discomfort of wearing polyester hijabs in the summer heat.

“So I decided to start by fi rst introducing overseas people to hijabs made with good Japanese materials,” Ms Murakami says. “Following my launch into foreign markets, I think I will be able to penetrate little by little the Muslim market in Japan,” she says. Ms Nonaka says big Japanese brands such as Uniqlo are now using the term “modest fashion” and she believes that is something exporters and local designers should consider. “I think that using the term ‘modest’ is a declaration that the market is not limited to just Muslims, and that would make the fashion more appealing to non-Muslims.”

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