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Japan's Meticulous Approach to Fashion and Functionality

Interview - April 16, 2024

The transcript delves into the growing allure of Japanese clothing on the global stage, driven by factors like a weak JPY and a surge in inbound tourism. With brands like Uniqlo and Muji leading the way, Japanese apparel is gaining popularity both domestically and abroad. The discussion highlights Japan's meticulous approach to product design, emphasizing functionality and comfort. 

AKINORI BABA, PRESIDENT OF CHACOTT CO. LTD.
AKINORI BABA | PRESIDENT OF CHACOTT CO. LTD.

Due to a weak JPY, the growth of inbound tourism, and tax-free reductions, we believe that Japanese clothes are very attractive on the international scene. Many brands including Uniqlo and Muji are taking advantage of these factors to sell to tourists coming to Japan, and vice versa, tourists coming to Japan are also taking advantage of the situation to bring back some very high-quality and unique clothes from Japan to their home countries. What do you feel are the key attractive points of Japanese clothing in general and what business trends do you foresee your firm taking advantage of?

This is not limited to the apparel industry, but Japan's strength lies in its diligence and mindset. We always do our best to put ourselves in the consumer's shoes and discover what they want. This attitude has led to the creation of Japanese apparel that combines comfort and functionality.

Think about how Japanese toilets are famous worldwide for their high functionality. It may sound a bit strange, but I think this is a convincing example to show how our mindset is ingrained in almost every field of Japanese products.

On the other hand, you can say Japanese products could use a bit more playfulness because we tend to focus on functionality very strictly. But, in my opinion, seeking the maximum function is exactly the aesthetic sense of Japanese people, which is called “Zen Philosophy”

 

One of the biggest trends happening in Japan right now is, of course, the changing demographic situation. Japan is the oldest society in the world with a rapidly declining population. Experts are predicting that the population will drop to under 100 million by 2050, with one in three people over the age of 65. This is causing several issues including a labour crisis you mentioned and a shrinking domestic market. Having said this, what is your firm doing to ensure business continuity and to what extent do you believe that you will have to look overseas to ensure long-term business success?

Our main business is related to classical ballet, and “From Close to Open” is our concept.

This means that we are trying to expand our rather closed market to have more open. Of course, we are going to expand our business overseas, but we are focusing on inbound tourists as well.

Secondly, our concept of “Open” includes creating new categories in our product portfolio such as cosmetics and gymnastics. Our company originally started as a manufacturing business with a single pair of pointe shoes, but in recent years, we have expanded our business by offering experiences to our customers. For example, in addition to running ballet studios, we started a photo studio at our global flagship store in Daikanyama in March 2022. Customers choose their favorite costumes, a professional makeup artist puts a makeup that matches their costumes, and a professional photographer takes photos for customers. The whole process of the photo shoot takes about one or two hours, but the feedback has been excellent so far.

Even though we haven’t advertised to overseas customers at this point, 12 customers have already come to experience this photo studio and this amount is approximately 20% of our current customer base.

 Also, some of our overseas customers come to Japan once a year to take dance lessons at our studios. In February 2024, we are planning to start advertising our programs to overseas customers.



You talked a little bit there about providing an experience, and this idea is really at the core of retail transformations right now. There are many reasons for this including the multiplication of digital channels, and for brands to entice consumers back to retail stores they have to offer a unique experience. How do you foresee the evolution of the physical shopping experience for the next five to ten years for your brand?

These days, stores are no longer just a place to buy things. They are now a place where customers can experience something related to the product and purchasing products comes at the very end of these exciting experiences. The key to creating such a place is to make the most of their brand stories.

We, at Chacott pay extra attention to creating a beautiful, elegant, and comfortable environment so that customers can fully enjoy our world and want to stay longer once they step into our stores. We aim to offer a “gallery-like” atmosphere, and I believe that these hospitalities attract customers and lead to an increase in sales.

Speaking of the gallery, we are currently holding a photo exhibition of world-famous ballet dancers. In February, we will hold an exhibition of a prima ballerina Hannah O’Neil from Paris Opera (One of the best ballet companies in the world). We constantly organize these events not only to attract customers to Chacott stores but also to provide them with the opportunity to enjoy the world of ballet. As I mentioned earlier, shopping nowadays is just the final part of the experience. So we aim to provide customers with a shopping experience like a fun event, where they can enjoy the Chacott atmosphere and create long-lasting memories even after making a purchase.

The main difference between buying online and buying in a physical store is the level of communication. The former involves a simple transaction for products, while the latter provides customers with the opportunity to try on products and receive personalized consultations from the staff, which is not possible online. This ultimately leads to higher customer satisfaction, especially considering our niche market.

 

Something I thought was interesting that you mentioned earlier was that you are looking to open up not only your sales area but also your product categories. At its core Chacott is associated with ballet and dancing, which is a very artistic expression that has a lot of mystique around it. What advantages does your background in ballet dancing bring to your company as you look to expand into new product categories?

Our concept is to utilize the beauty and expertise we have gained from our experience in the ballet industry in the daily lives of people. Every brand needs ideology and philosophy, and ours is ballet. We aim to extend our experiences and knowledge regarding body movement and capability to other sports such as yoga, running, and so on.

Our ballet studios have classes for people who want to learn ballet for personal growth rather than pursuing it professionally. Dance, including ballet, is a great way to maintain health, and also have a positive impact on everyday life. For example, learning ballet can make simple everyday actions like exchanging business cards or taking notes more beautiful. Adding beauty to daily movements is also a part of Chacott's corporate philosophy.



Your company has recently launched a range of new products utilizing Seamless Knitting Technology. This technology has a lot of advantages for your firm but also has some limits or challenges to overcome. How do you overcome these challenges when utilizing this technology?

The uniqueness of Seamless Knitting is its fit. It has a better ability to fit the body compared to regular cut-and-sewn knitting garments. To achieve this fit, materials and threads are chosen and the automation is programmed to manufacture this seamless knitting product.

In consideration of sustainability, we create the shapes first using white fabric and dye them later so that leftover materials can be used to make other products. Let’s take top wear as an example. If the lower part of the sleeves is cut off to create a short-sleeved product, the leftover material can be used to make other products such as leg warmers.

The other advantage of programming for knitting is that we can make various patterns on the surface. For example, if you want to make products inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, we can put feather patterns on the knitting. This feature is well received and we believe that it adds extra value to products.

 

Japanese companies are known for their R&D capabilities and always innovate according to the needs of society. I know from personal experience that in particular, your products are well known for their high functionality. Right now what is your main R&D strategy and are there any new products or developments that you would like to showcase for us today?

As the principle of our business, we always prioritize dancers and what they want to convey on stage. Their movements are different depending on the production, and companies are also influenced by eras. Therefore, we do our best to catch up with them through our patterns and designs.

We are constantly pursuing R&D, especially in terms of materials and manufacturing processes. We often collaborate with material providers like Toray as well as machinery manufacturers to develop new types of functional materials and new machines to process those materials.

Point shoe is one of our main products and we are continuously developing new point shoes. We work with professional ballet dancers to better understand their specific needs. We ask them to wear the shoes not only during practice but also during stage performances, and their feedback helps to enhance the functions of our point shoes.

 

In interviews with many key players in various industries, the idea of partnerships and collaborations often comes up. Manny firms look towards creating partnerships as a gateway to overseas regions. What role do partnerships play in your business model and are you currently looking for any new partnerships in overseas markets?

We have always been open to working with companies not only in Japan but also in overseas markets. We have some manufacturing locations across the globe. For example, our denim is a collaboration with a company based in Turkey. We want to pursue working with global companies not only in terms of fabric development but also product development.

 

You’ve mentioned throughout this interview that you are not only focused on the domestic market but also overseas. You expanded to Korea in 2001 and you also just mentioned manufacturing locations around the world. Where would you like to continue your international expansion to next and what strategies will you employ to do so?

The rise of e-commerce has opened up the door for our global expansion as ballet dancers are everywhere around the world. Ballet is an art with its origin in Europe, and we are very honored to work in such an artistic and historically important field.

By combining this art with Japanese monozukuri, I believe that we can introduce unique and high-quality products all around the world.

To achieve this “opening up” vision, we must work with local partners. They inform us about the items currently in demand in the market, and these communications help create a global network to introduce Chacott products worldwide.

We have expanded into new categories, as I mentioned earlier, such as cosmetics and fitness. There is a significant demand for these products in international markets. By leveraging our foundation as a ballet and dancewear company, we aim to promote products in these new categories both domestically and globally.

 

Imagine that we come back in six years and have this interview all over again. What goals or dreams do you hope to achieve by the time we come back for that new interview?

Our goal by that time is to continue expanding our business while maintaining ballet as the main focus of our company. We aim to establish our brand as a manufacturer in the ballet industry, utilizing our experiences and expertise not only to support professional dancers but also to create products that can be used by everyone in their everyday lives.


For more details, explore their website at https://www.chacott-jp.com/ 

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