NOTE: This article was written by Danielle Demetriou and first published in The Telegraph on 7 June, 2013.
She is a designer who instantly evokes images of Britain – from her artisan cottons and Scottish yarns to her understated white shirts and the mid-century English furniture in her stores. So it is perhaps surprising to learn that Margaret Howell, a quintessentially British designer, has found her biggest successes not on native shores but nearly 6,000 miles away in Japan.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the first Margaret Howell store in Japan, located in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, the start of an unexpectedly fruitful business venture. Today, there are 94 Margaret Howell stores across Japan, as well as a Tokyo café. Nine have opened in the past year and several more are scheduled for later this year. In contrast, she has just four stores and one outlet in the UK.
She employs nearly 300 staff in Japan and sales there have multiplied by 50 since the first store opening, despite recent economic turbulence. She attributes the brand’s runaway success to a combination of consistently high quality clothing, regardless of the economic climate, and a painstaking expansion strategy that has erred on the side of caution.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph from her minimalist showroom in Tokyo, Ms Howell – quietly spoken in a black shirt and clear-framed glasses – said: “A lot of English designers were taken up by the Japanese around the same time as us, and without careful control over expansion it can go wrong.
We’re always communicating about the designs and keeping control over things. There is a tendency here to expand more than I would always like, so it is my job to keep it under control. On the whole, I think we work quite well here.
The range is bigger in Japan compared with the UK. Our team goes over to London as much as we come over here and I’m in Japan normally twice a year.
Ms Howell is not the only British designer enjoying success in Japan. Cath Kidston’s British flower print products are available in 30 stores and the first Cath’s Café has opened in the capital. Paul Smith has 200-plus stores across Japan and bag designer Anya Hindmarch has 25 stores. Recent openings in Tokyo include outlets by Stella McCartney, Ted Baker and Issa London.
Having survived Japan’s financial turmoil – from recessions to the nuclear crisis – these are British businesses poised to benefit from a climate of tentative confidence triggered by prime minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics”.
Ms Howell, launched her eponymous label from the kitchen table of her flat in Blackheath, south east London, in 1972 after being inspired by a jumble sale find.
She began by designing men’s shirts and opened her first store four years later in Knightsbridge. Since then she has acquired a loyal following for her minimalist designs, understated style and high-quality fabrics, such as handwoven Harris tweed and Irish linen.
Her success in Japan came about by accident. Back in the heady bubble-economy optimism of the early 1980s she was contacted out of the blue by fashion importer Sam Segure, who worked there.
Sam was very sympathetic to one’s wishes,
Ms Howell said.
He only worked with people he enjoyed working with and he understood how I felt about things. He was extremely careful not to expand the brand in Japan too quickly and also to keep the high quality of the products.
This consistently high quality of design and fabrics – many of which are created by the few remaining artisan craftsmen at mills and workshops in the UK – is another factor that has led to a growing market of Japanese devotees.
With a quiet, understated modesty Ms Howell said: “I think it’s the quality of the clothes that’s so popular: the comfortable feeling; the attitude; having quality in something that you can wear quite informally.
The business has always been very carefully managed here but, as far as the customer is concerned, I think it’s the fact that the clothes feel nice – that’s why they come back.
An unwavering commitment to producing quality products, despite economic turbulence, was another key factor, according to Kazunori Tomeoka, the managing director and chief operating officer of Japanese company Anglobal Ltd, which operates Margaret Howell in Japan.
The reason why our sales are stable is because we haven’t changed our policies regardless of the climate,” said Mr Tomeoka, who has worked for the brand since the first Tokyo store opening 30 years ago.
We have not changed anything, in terms of what we are producing, even during recessions. Generally, fashion businesses fluctuate but we continue to produce high quality products that people recognise as authentic.
Japanese people have a lot of respect for the British. They appreciate how British people treasure heritage, nature and innovation. Japanese people love these British qualities.
Japan is currently the third most important market for the British fashion industry after Europe and the US, as reflected in the growing number of UK retailers on its streets.
Kae Miyazawa, a senior trade advisor for fashion and retail for UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) at the British Embassy in Tokyo, said:
Compared with many fashion brands which experienced a bad time during the recession, British fashion brands did not change their style. They continued to maintain their brands’ philosophy and high quality.
Other brands might have adapted their production standards to make products cheaper but, as a result, the quality became poorer and Japanese customers left them.
Many British brands, on the other hand, continued their high standards and never tried to replace this with lower quality, cheaper products.
This is very important. Japanese consumers will not buy fashion because it is cheap.
If it is cheap, the quality must also be apparent before they will buy it. If the products are not cheap, they will pay money for the story, quality and originality.
For many British brands, Japan is often the starting point for Asian expansion. Ms Miyazawa’s UKTI department in Tokyo deals with 200 British fashion and retail companies every year.
The Japanese standard for quality is said to be the best in the world. If you have success in Japan, your product’s quality will be accepted by many countries in the world.
Original article on The Telegraph
© Danielle Demetriou - The Telegraph - Telegraph Media Group