Revolution of the apparel industry is lead by those who understand both “management” and “creation”.
CHINOIS PLANNING STUDIO CO.,LTD. Tatsuya Hirai , Keiko Hirai
"si-hirai" and "si-si-si" are ladies' brands developed by Chinois Planning Studio Co., Ltd. I have asked this unique brand about their perception towards the changes in the apparel industry, as it shifts to large-scale, low-priced SPAs and major select shops.
When I joined a textile industry publisher in 1997, the industry was going through a boom of young designers, or independent designers with their own brand which does not belong to an apparel company. During this time, I met a number of young designers, but most I have gotten out of touch with. Many went out of business after the boom passed, and ended up joining an apparel company, or became teachers at fashion schools. Only a few have succeeded in maintaining their brand.
I would like to feature two of the few designers whom I still keep in touch with. They are Mr. Tatsuya Hirai and Mrs. Keiko Hirai, the establishers of Chinois Planning Studio Co., Ltd. which launched the ladies’ designer brands “si-hirai” and “si-si-si”.
hey graduated from a fashion school in Osaka and got employed on 1989, the same year that I entered college. They joined the planning division of a famous designer brand in Tokyo.
As a college student at the time, I was clueless to the situation of the industry. However, I recall that after the peak of the DC (designer’s character) brand boom passed, there was still a lingering vibe which remained. I am sure that normal consumers felt the same.
Mr. and Mrs. Hirai, who actually entered the scene, says “When we just moved to Tokyo we were filled with excitement, but the seniors of a company in the center of Tokyo said to us that the DC peak is over. We were very surprised.” It was a moment that taught them how the situation is not always how it looks from the outside.
Tatsuya Hirai says, “After a while, the first Spic & Span store opened in Jiyugaoka. When I first visited it, I was quite shocked.”
The DC boom and body conscious fashion during the economic bubble were very extravagant and overwhelmingly avant-garde. Though officials of the apparel industry were living off of cup noodles, they were looked up to as stylish and luxurious people because they kept their private lives hidden, disguising themselves in artificial glamour.
Spic & Span and other newly born select shops had a completely opposite approach, proposing a lifestyle instead of just fashion. Their clothes were simple and basic, and they also produced furniture and other goods. For young people who only knew DC brands, this was a culture shock.
Inspired by the new style selects shop that they encountered, Mr. and Mrs. Hirai later retired from the designer’s brand and transferred to an apparel planning company. After a few more years, they moved to a planning company in Hong Kong, which had not yet reunited with China at the time. This was in the mid 90’s. During this time, Hong Kong movies were popular in Japan, and there was a strong interest in Hong Kong culture. Not many Japanese designers worked in Hong Kong, so the experience was very valuable.
After returning to Japan in 1998, they launched a ladies’ brand called “Si”. I met Mr. and Mrs. Hirai at their first exhibition. Their base of their designs were European taste, but there were Chinese features in the details and patterns which were influenced from experiences in Hong Kong. The brand name “Si” is the Chinese pronunciation of “su” which means yarn in Chinese. It is the same character used in the famous Chinese dish, “Chinjaorosu”.
Later, the Chinese features gradually faded from their design, and the main style of the brand became a natural and casual European style. Although the style is not extravagant or flashy, the brand is supported by a steady base of customers. Their sales channel is specialty shops. It is very rare for a designer’s brand to survive so long solely through wholesale. Ever since UNIQLO ‘s fleece trend in 1998, prices of clothing have continued to decrease. This lead Keiko to launch “si-si-si”, a line with a more affordable price range, although not as low as UNIQLO.
As the clothing industry shifted to large-scale, low-priced SPAs and major select shops, many designer brands adapted by opening directly-managed stores and online stores, instead of just wholesale. Small-scaled specialty shops went out of business, and there was no way to maintain sales by wholesale.
However, Mr. Hirai still does not have an official online store. It was only 4 years ago that he opened a directly managed store in their atelier, and it is not a large source of their sales. Their business is still based on wholesale, which is a pretty rare case in this industry. In recent years, young designer’s brands are beginning to increasing again. However, though many are well acknowledged, the business scale is low due to handmade manufacturing. At peak, Chinois Planning Studio has reached 500 million yen in sales through wholesale only, making a distinction from handmade brands.
There are various factors as to why Mr. and Mrs. Hirai’s products have been supported by many, allowing them to maintain their business based on wholesale for such a long time.
Personally, I feel that the traditional European style products (I do not like to call ready-made clothes “works”), which is loved by many, is one of those factors. The style is not daily casual, but it is not too “mode” or “avant-garde” either.
Another factor is in the price setting. Some independent designers have a misperception that appreciation and value increases when the pricing is higher. For example, there are many brands that release spring coats, which are usually worn for a short period, for high prices such as 60,000 to 70,000 yen. On the contrary, Mr. Hirai releases spring coats at around 39,000 yen. His reasoning behind this is that “70,000 yen for a spring coat is the pricing of super brands in the US or Europe. The status of our brand is different from these super brands, and we would lose if we try to compete”. I feel that this is a very logical analysis. Even for their winter coats, they are careful to select materials and sewing methods in order to keep the price under 100,000 yen.
Since ready-made garments are industrial products, minimum lots are set by factories for each process, including fabric purchasing, dyeing, and sewing. If the quantity does not reach the minimum lot, prices will increase. Conversely, the cost per item decreases for larger amounts. Designers who have not succeeded in business have a tendency to call their products “works”, and claim that production lot is irrelevant. They order minimal quantities, which results in expensive selling prices, which often do not match the quality. Therefore, sales do not increase, and a vicious cycle is created.
Mr. Hirai summarizes orders at exhibitions in order to reach the minimum lot, and when the order is small, he approaches factories during slow periods to suppress the cost. Through these efforts, they are able to set low prices, not necessarily super cheap, but reasonable considering the product quality. Customers appreciate the results of these steady efforts.
“I witnessed a turning point of an era when lifestyle-based select shops stared to appear in 1989. Domination of major companies is progressing in the current industry, and changes are doomed to be made. Until now, most people in the industry could only either create or manage. Now, it is believed that those who understand both have potential to change the industry. Such talent is likely to emerge from the younger generation, instead of my generation of people in their 50s. I believe that it is our role to maintain the declining fashion industry, until the emergence of such talent.” As a person of the same generation, I was very convinced by these words spoken by Mr. Hirai. It has been 18 years since we’ve known each other, and we both feel the importance of making use of our time which is running low.
Text: Mitsuhiro Minami
Picture: Koichiro Sato
Translation: Yukie Haneda
Yasuda Building 1F,1-8-31,Kyomachi-bori,Nishi-ku,Osaka