Rakuten positions itself as a platform for Japanese design in Paris
During Women's Paris Fashion Week, Japanese design not only made its way into the main shows of renowned brands such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Sacai and Comme des Garçons, but was also showcased in a dedicated space at 21 Rue des Filles du Calvaire. Organised as part of the Tokyo Fashion Award 2023, the showroom presented the Fall/Winter collections of emerging Japanese brands such as Khoki, Tanaka, Tender Person, Inscrire, Akikoaoki and the multiple award-winner Fetico.
In addition to shining a spotlight on Japanese design, the presentation marked the "long-awaited comeback" after the pandemic of Asian representatives and buyers at Paris Fashion Week and underlined a broader strategy that has been brewing for several years: the union of e-commerce giant Rakuten with Tokyo Fashion Week to promote the Japanese fashion and design industry abroad.
And what better way to launch this international project than in the fashion capital, explained the Japanese company founded in 1997. "We are one of the largest Japanese companies. We started in e-commerce and have gradually expanded into various product and service areas. Today, we have a large ecosystem and database in Japan, where the number of registered users is already close to the total population," Ryo Matsumura, one of the company's top executives, told FashionNetwork.com.
A graduate of Keio University and with a master's degree in finance from the University of London, he joined the Rakuten Group, Inc. in 2013. Since then, he has held various senior positions and is currently vice president of the trading company, overseeing Rakuten Ichiba and Rakuten Fashion, among other businesses. In 2022, he was also appointed managing executive officer of the Rakuten Group.
Although the company does not disclose the exact weight of each product category, globally, the Rakuten Ichiba online shopping mall carries 57,000 merchants and sells approximately 390 million items, including consumer goods, fashion, cosmetics and home décor. In 2022, the group's gross merchandise sales amounted to 5.6 trillion yen (39.964 billion euros).
"In e-commerce, fashion has become our biggest category," the executive said of the division launched in 2012 with the aim of offering Japanese and international fashion brands. In 2020, the rise of local brand representation on the platform prompted the launch of the Rakuten Luxury category, which was joined a few months later by the "Designers & International" space. Last year, the Japanese giant also launched Rakuten Cosmetics.
Only ten years after its launch, sales of Rakuten Fashion (which also encompasses related categories such as accessories, beauty and sports) have exceeded one trillion yen (about 7.137 billion euros) for the first time. "The 'regular' category, which includes general and domestic brands, is the largest at present," said Matsumura, while admitting that the representation of international brands is currently slightly higher than that of local brands.
Luxury fashion and its potential in the online channel
Rakuten's portfolio includes a wide range of brands, from high-end brands such as Chloé, A.P.C and Maison Kitsuné to luxury labels such as Marc Jacobs and Missoni. The company sets no limits to its ability to compete in this segment. "We try to offer all kinds of brands in our portfolio. Our goal is to continue to expand it and who knows maybe one day we will be able to offer all the brands in the world," added the manager.
This gamble is backed up by data. According to the Yano Research Institute, the domestic apparel market in Japan is valued at 7.61 trillion yen (more than 54 billion euros), while imports into the retail market, which was hit hard by the pandemic, are estimated at around 2.19 trillion yen (15.643 billion euros). As reported by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in 2021, the share of e-commerce in the apparel market amounted to 21.15%, higher than the overall retail sector figures, which limits the online channel to 8.78%.
"In Japan, during the Covid-19 period, there was a shift and consumers completely turned to e-commerce for all kinds of everyday items. Brands and designers had previously focused on physical fashion shows or projects in department stores, but the pandemic prompted them to change and consider expanding into the digital channel," said the Rakuten executive, who emphasised that "from a business point of view, the pandemic was a period of good economic performance for the company."
For the executive, these "changes are here to stay." "Consumers started to go out and shop in traditional shops again. But at the same time, customers realised that they could buy luxury branded products online, so they continued to use the digital channel," said Matsumura, who explained that the company is focusing on "developing a hyper-efficient technology system" with a high capacity to analyse data and consumer behaviour.
"We get detailed statistical data about our customers' DNA that allows us to make relevant decisions or understand the buying potential of certain products in relation to certain consumers. We see artificial intelligence as a completely data-driven element," he explained, noting that the Japanese company nevertheless applies a different business model in each of its markets.
Collaboration with Tokyo Fashion Week and aspirations in Paris
Thus, in line with its international expansion and growth, fashion has become a key element, both for its business potential and for its appeal to the masses. In August 2019, Rakuten teamed up with Japan Fashion Week to become its official sponsor. "This sponsorship is one of our biggest projects. Shortly after the partnership began, we were thrown into the pandemic. Today, we are striving to make the fashion week more and more exciting," the executive said of the partnership, now in its fourth year.
"Many big internationally renowned Japanese brands come to show in Paris. We want to bring them back to Tokyo to hold shows there and attract media attention," he said of the strategy implemented over the past two years. "In the future, we want to launch the second phase of the project, which is to connect Tokyo and Paris and build synergies. We are exploring collaboration opportunities to bring Japanese talent to Paris more intensively by establishing partnerships with Paris Fashion Week and the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode," said Matsumura, who sees Tokyo Fashion Week's mission as "a kind of incubator for talented designers."
Rakuten is thus positioning itself as a business partner in promoting emerging designers. "Paris is still the epicentre of the fashion industry, so it makes perfect sense for us to help our local designers establish themselves here. We know that several Japanese brands are already able to come to Paris and hold their own shows independently. In the future, we would like to support and nurture the talent of a new and young generation, such as some of the designers nominated for the LVMH prize. In reality, even if they won the prize, they would probably have a hard time organizing their shows on their own. We can support them from a business point of view," said the manager, underlining the positive impact that these partnerships could have on the Japanese fashion industry and its fashion week.
Hybridisation of events
"To make Rakuten Tokyo Fashion Week more appealing, we need to create a new fashion week format using the digital channel. This is one of the main reasons behind our sponsorship relationship with Rakuten, which allows us to strengthen our digitalisation," explained Hiroshi Komoda, senior director of the Japan Fashion Week organization. "Covid-19 has pushed us in this direction. In the past two years, many brands have used more digital tools for their presentations. And we expect this trend to accelerate in the future," he added.
For Rakuten, this can only mean opportunities. "We will support developments in this direction. This digital push should become one of the main strengths of Tokyo Fashion Week, combined with the physical presence of international media outlets. This will be the way to communicate better and to reach out to more consumers," said Matsamura, adding that the event needs to merge its original B2B strategy with customer outreach.
During Fashion Week, which is currently taking place and will run until March 18, the hybridisation between the physical and the digital is on the agenda. A Rakuten flagship store is operating throughout the week on both the physical and online channel. Fashion shows are also being broadcast to end consumers online.
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