Craft, Heart And Soul

cpcm-1CPCM in Tokyo, touted as the city’s first “craft and culture shop”

By Raiment Young

There’s a general lament that fashion retail is so boring in Singapore that it is, in fact, quite dead. When I ask friends to go shopping, the response invariably would be downbeat. Why? “So sian” is the top refrain. “All the same” takes second spot, followed by “What’s there to buy?” Are we as consumers really jaded by the offerings here or have retailers willingly placed an equal sign between them and the achingly dull?

I sometimes wonder if it really just boils down to our business owners’ lackadaisical approach to retail. I say this because the retail slowdown is not unique to Singapore. In Tokyo, the scene is clearly not rosier than ours. Bloomberg reported in June this year that Japan’s second quarter sales were “flat” and that “consumers aren’t loosening their purse strings.” Sounds familiar? Yet, if you walk down any one of the city’s major shopping thoroughfares, you’d think that people are spending and the shops have not given up on wooing.

Case in point: CPCM or Craft and Permaculture Country Mall. The 10,000 square foot behemoth of a space took me my surprise when I encountered it two months back, during what the locals told me was once of the hottest summer seasons the city has experienced. This isn’t so much a “mall” as a store on steroids. It’s huge, for sure, but it has conceptual heft—a point of view that clearly, deftly, and vividly says to consumers: “We are introducing a new shopping experience that everything you see in the store is for sale,” as they have expressed to the Japanese media.

CPCM 2.jpgThe wooden signage on the shop front of CPCM, reflecting the store’s country and craft theme

Dubbed a “craft and culture” store, CPCM is conceived by Takashi Kumagai, a photographer, a stylist, an art director, and a fashion impresario—essentially a multi-hyphenate who, together with the likes of Hiroshi Fujiwara, has paid much thought to how retail, as an experience, can be energised. And it is through efforts of these forward, risk-taking individuals that the retail landscape in Tokyo has not given in to the defeatist belief that the selling of fashion is presently a bleak business, a position so many store and mall owners in Singapore seem to adopt with resignation.

To be honest, I nearly missed CPCM as I walked down Meiji Dori, on the Jingumae side (considered to be part of Shibuya), in search of the Japan-only North Face Standard store. The heat was getting to me, and the smell of coffee-in-the-brew lured me into CPCM, where on the left side of the entrance, a coffee bar wuth the unlikely name of Garden House Crafts was set up. Once inside, I thought I was in a trading-post-as-Hawaiian-gift-shop, put together by some textile designer who has lived too long in John Wayne’s Wild West.

It was such a jumble inside that I wasn’t sure at first what I was confronting. Yet, there was a visual appeal that soon became apparent once the ripples calmed: craft and folk was clearly a main theme. It was also unmistakably Japanese, or an insouciant muddle that only the Japanese could pull off. Apart from their own CPCM label, there were other indie names that, in some cases, happily melded the forward and the country with hippy edge. For some reason, I thought immediately of Tangs’s failed label Island Shop—this is what Island Shop should have been, but could never be: a joyful melange of yesteryear details such as fagoting and smocking and easy-to-wear shapes such as tunics and pyjama-pants. Why, even the label has a joyous name: Happy!

cpcm-3In CPCM, a part of the store is apportioned to the American brand KTH

CPCM is not, despite its native vibe, solely a showcase of Japanese labels. Like most “curated” spaces in Tokyo, American labels are included and they sit seamlessly with their Japanese equivalent. Two names stand out. One is Simon Miller, with their Old West and Navajo sensibility, but interpreted in such a way that it won’t stick out in the coolest corner of the world. Designed by the duo Daniel Corrigan and Chelsea Hansford, the line, with its tough-wearing fabrics, offer softness that seemed to be squeezed from a hard place.

The other is RTH, an LA-based (surprised I was) line developed with details and techniques and fabrics that pays homage to the past. Conceived by René Holguin (whose hometown El Paso probably influenced the brand’s DNA), RTH’s design direction is so obviously special and unique that for its current season, they’re able to entice the equally inimitable Erykah Badu to front its campaign.

This was my third day in Tokyo, and what I saw in CPCM brought lucidity to my earlier sensing that something refreshing, if not entirely new, was afoot. A couple of hours before, I had visited Ships and Journal Standard in Harajuku, and both shops were interspersed with clearly craft-like styles—a bit Japanese rural (45 RPM comes to mind) and a bit 19th century Californian gold rush (Ralph Lauren’s now defunct Double RL?), with 1950s Ivy League-preppy thrown in for good measure. I was not sure if what I saw constituted a retail/design trend. Then I stumbled into CPCM.

shirt-and-teeLeft: Clip-spot cotton used in a RTH shirt. Right: Bandana print on a Rage Blue T-shirt

It was not just the trims and decorative elements that I had observed in these shops. There were also the fabrics: one of them, clip-spot cottons that I had not seen for a very, very long time. When I brought this up with a Singaporean product development and textile specialist based in Hong Kong, he said to me that such tactile fabrics “are the current trend, especially the clip jacquard.” Why then do we not see them on our shore? A buyer with a department store later filled in: “Here, we do not think of fabrics in terms of texture, only print.”

If that is the case, why then are we not seeing this print that is prevalent enough in Tokyo to constitute a trend: that of the bandana? The actual neckwear does not appear as a trendy item, but the square in which the paisley pattern appears in swirls or as repeated dots is adapted on many garments. The bandana print seemed to be the print of the moment, appearing on tops as well as bottoms. What surprised me was a T-shirt at the mass-market label Rage Blue, which, at its Jinnan store, is far from mass-looking. That T-shirt is, in fact, a cotton Fruit of the Loom crew-neck on which a bandana print is silk-screened across the chest, over the breast pocket, using actual Japanese indigo dye, aizome (which, because of its tendency to fade, requires the T-shirt to come with an extra, care hang tag.)

It looked to me that Tokyo’s fixation with craft was less to do with the arts and crafts movement that emerged in Japan in the 1920s, and more to do with the re-adopting of simple forms on which folk styles of decoration could be applied. This was possibly an extension of their designers’ near-obsession with work wear and classic styles of old America or a deliberate contrast to the avant-garde (still strong in Japan), or a romantic remonstration against the machine-made/dominant world of athleisure fashion.

visvim-gyreVisvim flagship store with its solid-wood cupboards and fixtures. Photo: Visvim

good-design-shop-cdgGood Design Shop and Comme des Garçons in Gyre Omotesando

I found it all very alluring. It reminded me of things from long ago, of life not defined by things digital, of circumstances that had soul. It was a return to simplicity, but not simplicity devoid of sophistication. These clothes were not minimal in styling, yet they were not bombastic in expression. It recalled Sunday best, dressing up for dates, and the extra but not outrageous bits that encourage the response, “that’s beautiful.”

A store that has a sense of craft about it is, however, not a new idea. One of the earliest brands to speak the language of craft was Visvim. At its handsome and solid flagship (timber aplenty) in Gyre Omotesando, a small, MVRDV-designed shopping centre on one of Tokyo’s swankiest streets, Visvim has showed successfully designer Hiroki Nakamura’s modern interpretation of craft and old-clothing style, such as the yukata, which is reiterated as the highly coveted ‘Lhamo’ shirt. Visvim, despite its failure in Singapore (closed about a year after it opened in 2012), Visvim is highly sort-after by stars such as John Mayer, dubbed “the Visvim king” by Complex.

Craft-centric as well is Comme des Garçons’s Good Design Shop, also in Gyre Omotesando. This is a veritable zahuo dian (provision shop), as SOTD’s editor likes to call it. Opened in 2011, Good Design Shop is as oddball as its neighbour Maison Margiela is asylum-like. Co-curated with Kenmei Nagaoka, whose own D&Department Project is a home ware store that combines craft, retro-styling and modernist leaning with infectious charm, Good Design Shop broadens CDG’s own predilection for the quirky. What you get are pieces of furniture and home accessories that would not be out of place in a HDB flat, circa 1972, and CDG’s fashion that are not shy of trims that seemed to be picked from the hill-tribe costumes of the Guianas.

super-tml-market-newomanSuper TML Market is anything but a supermarket. Photo: Super TML Market

Among the newly opened retail enterprises in central Tokyo, another enchanting space is the new concept store by Tomorrowland inside the spanking complex opposite Shinjuku Station, NEWoMan, opened in April this year. Odd name notwithstanding (but not un-Japanese), NEWoMan is unlike what for many are already Shinjuku’s ultra-sensory malls: Lumine 1 and 2. The latest addition (interestingly, also conceived by Lumine, and targeted at those in their thirties and forties) to the neighbourhood encourages tenants to offer what isn’t yet seen in the vicinity. And the result is a store such as Tomorrowland’s intriguing Super TML Market.

Curatorial finesse characterises Super TML Market. Jumble, too. Like the parent store, the Super TML Market is not only a showcase of their own goods but those selected locally as well as from abroad. What I found utterly beguiling is a capsule of women’s wear that gives fairly basic clothes—such as a white shirt—a delirious spin. It was as if a child was entrusted the garment and allowed to run amok in a haberdashery! The result: trims and decorative bits that are given pride of place on garments with seemingly no consideration to symmetry or orderliness.

The need for innovation and newness in times of dreary retail performance is now more urgent when shoppers are happily ensconced at home and buying via the smartphone. I am not sure if online shopping can be considered enjoyable, but it is, for so many, certainly addictive. Japanese brick-and-mortar stores are not unaware of the competition; they are willing to take on the competition by staying awake to what can be churned out to capture the attention of the curious. Clearly, Japanese retailers are more conscious than their Singaporean counterparts that when you snooze, you lose.

Photos (except where indicated): Jiro Shiratori

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