The (Still) Sweet And Gentle Side Of Japanese Fashion

If you think that Japanese fashion is the global sway of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, then the newly opened Lumine will offer you the side of nihon no fasshon that is the antithesis of edgy


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By Mao Shan Wang

Collectively, Japanese designers have been so effective at marketing themselves as avant-gardists that many consumers sometimes forget that the Japanese have a softer, more saccharine, and clearly conventional side. Two days ago, Japanese mall operator Lumine opened its first overseas retail space at Clark Quay Central, showcasing Japanese fashion that Nanase Aikawa would love, despite her rock-chic leaning: clothes that, when worn, will get army boys go weak in the knees.

Lest I am mistaken, I am not saying Lumine’s offerings here are not up to scratch or plain conservative. They cater to women—and there are many of them—who do not, by any means, want anything other than to enhance their femininity, and in obvious ways. Girl—or little girl—power is well and alive. Even post-modegyaru, these clothes have not entirely shed their ‘cool’-meets-‘cute’ appeal. Truth is, there are really Japanese styles that celebrate this aesthetic, and they are awash with a sweetness that, for those not planning to form a girl band, may be a tad too lovable. Or, syrup-drenched, like ice-kacang.

In other words, if you are inclined to think that this may be a more commercial version of Dover Street Market, think something else—maybe the romance flick Narratage’s city-centre/suburban conventionality or you’ll get your knickers in a knot. My visit when Lumine in Clark Quay Central opened two days ago was met with a mix of mild disappointment and weak surprise. It is approachable a store as, say Iora (in any mall), but, to be fair, it has better visual merchandising, and warm and helpful service that, at least for now (the presence of their Japanese minders?), do kind of remind me of my Tokyo Lumine experiences.

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It is indeed a pleasant shopping space although, by the standard of Lumine in Tokyo’s Shinjuku alone, is disappointingly small. Covering a humble 10,000 square feet of the former Naiise space, it is stamp-sized, as opposed to Lumine’s Shinjuku presence, comprising five glittering shopping centres that are laid out around the world’s busiest mass transit station. And the best part is, there’s a Lumine for every shopper, from the teen bargain hunters who flock to Lumine Est (once known as My City) to mature women (as identified by the mall) of the swanky, barely two-year-old NEWoMAN, situated between Shinjuku station and Takashimaya department store.

That Lumine’s various incarnations sprout like bamboo shoots around train stations, especially in Shinjuku, is very much linked to its ownership. Lumine belongs to JR East, a train operator that’s part of the Japan Railways (JR) Group, the company that has put Japan on the world high-speed transportation map with their Shinkansen bullet trains. The various Lumine malls, or ekibiru (station building) that front Shinjuku station give the otherwise mass-of-steel, 10-platform, 20-track station not only a more palatable façade, but also generate incredible hustle and bustle, as commuters do spend time (and money) in these vertical shopping hubs. While the various Lumines aren’t where you’d go for Japanese labels that show in Paris, they do offer a staggering variety of home-grown brands through multi-label retailers such as United Arrows, Tomorrowland, and Urban Research.

While those familiar with the Lumine name could not quite grasp the Singapore store’s location choice, those who have become tired of Orchard Road’s predictable selection of brands and the shopping belt’s general sameness are quite pleased to visit, for a change, a mall not known for its fashion tenants. Sitting on top of the ground level of Giordano, L’zzie, BYSI, and Island Shop, Lumine does appear a cut above, never mind it isn’t an ekibiru, and the nearest MRT station, Clark Quay, is 250 metres away, below Hong Lim Park.

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I bumped into my friend May, a HR professional, whose first words to me were, “How? Disappointing, hor?” She was hoping to see more from the label and ‘select shop’ (as they are known in Japan) Tomorrowland, her favourite, and where she would shop without fail when in Tokyo, especially the Marunouchi store and the one in Lumine 1. “I am hoping to see Edition (a Tomorroland brand),” I said, “but it isn’t here, Still, it is a good start.” But she seems a little skeptical, saying, “I don’t think many people care about Japanese labels anymore. Look at Lowry Farm.” She was referring to the Japanese chain store that, at its peak, had eight outlets here. It shuttered in 2015, just three years after it opened, with the desire to offer shoppers youth-oriented Japanese styles that would not strain the wallet. The problem was, we didn’t look enough.

Shortly after we parted, a mother was heard telling her grown-up son, “都是女孩子的,没有男孩子的” (“All for girls; nothing for boys”). The poor chap looked like he was going to cry. Seriously! It is rather odd that the Lumine here has decided to omit men’s wear. Perhaps the space is just too small to cater to guys as well. I did see many leaving the store somewhat disappointed. Those who came with their girlfriends/wives/sisters and did not want to hang around racks of lacy prettiness chose to browse in the eyewear corner of Japanese chain Zoff, whose Lumine Est shop in Shinjuku is always swarmed with boys (and girls) in need of prescription glasses that can be had in less than 30 minutes. Yes, much like what are offered at first-to-market Owndays. Shortly past noon, Zoff was busy, and the low staff numbers barely able to cope. Unsurprisingly, it was filled with mostly male customers.

The other corner where you’ll find a disproportionate number of guys is at the Lumine Café, a surprisingly gender-neutral space that serves coffee, tea, and other beverages, and highly Instagrammable towering parfait-like desserts. I saw many chaps, who were likely office staff of Lumine, conducting meetings. Quite a few looked like they were abandoned by their still-shopping companions. The place felt like tea time at one of the coffee places in Raffles Place. The near full-capacity was surprising as Lumine Café does not serve food such as pastries, sandwiches, or salads.

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The retail concept of Lumine is not entirely new to our island. In the mid-’80s, at a time before Japanese fashion and pop music were overtaken by everything with a prefix K, shoppers here were hungry for clothing and kin from the Land of the Rising Sun. I remember the initial tenant mix of Liang Court, opened in 1983, which had positioned itself as a Japanese-centric mall, with Diamaru as anchor tenant. It was an orange—colour, not shape—building and I was not able to see what the chromatic choice had to do with Japan.

On the other half of the mall opposite the department store, below what was then Hotel New Otani, shops not divided by walls were selling Japanese merchandise that, at that time, where eye-opening rarities. Muji and Kinokuniya both debuted here. But it was the new conflux of Japanese stores that had fashionistas of the day flock to the not-quite-conveniently-situated mall.

On the second floor, I remember that there was an open-concept emporium called Marusho, which sold, apart from the girlish clothes that looked like they were transplanted from ’80s TV/movie/music star Momoe Yamaguchi’s wardrobe, some rather cute/crazy accessories/trinklets and pretty-as-confectionery bags. The merchandise here, while different from what shoppers had seen and gotten used to at the most popular mall of the time, Plaza Singapura (also anchored by a Japanese department store: Yaohan), wasn’t anything like the unusual offerings of the Japanese-labels-only Banzai, happily attracting followers in Lucky Plaza, which was a lot swankier than it is today.

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I don’t remember having bought anything at Marusho, but some guys I was hanging out with then were regularly improving the bottomline of the adjacent men’s space Mitsumine. My relationship (it was more of that than with those fellows!) with Marusho was clearly that between shop and window shopper, as their merchandise was too pricey for me, even when, occasionally, that had an irresistible pull.

Elsewhere in the mall (it could be on other floors, I can’t quite recall now), there were retailers selling frilly, floral, even more girlish clothes. There was a Tokyo Style, although neither Tokyo nor style comes back to me now, and a Tanako Accent Palour with demure clothes that was probably dessert for Japanese expat wives who convened at the many Japanese restaurants in Liang Court for lunch, but wasn’t able to tackle the end-of-meal sweets although they wanted to, which wasn’t a craving that retail therapy can’t satiate.

Marusho and co’s success paved the way for other Japanese emporiums, such as Meitetsu, which, in 1984, opened its flagship store in Delfi Orchard, in the same building the first entirely-dedicated-to-Singaporean-designers, Hemispheres, wowed young fashionistas. I do recall that the Nagoya-based Meitetsu was known as a “working women’s store”, which meant clothes—lots of white shirts or beige blouses with lace or crochet Peter Pan collars—that the customers picked to feminise otherwise overtly mannish corporate attire. In 1989, Meitetsu closed for renovations and when it re-opened, half of its original space was sub-leased to international brands such as Christian Dior, Mila Schon and Escada. Before the end of the ’80s, the interest in Japanese fashion had waned.

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Back to Lumine. I looked at every rack and was not able to see anything that wished to look back at me. Sensing that perhaps I may prefer something different, a cheerful sales staff directed me to the front of the store that faces the concourse of the mall. In this area, quite apart from the rest of the space, and zoned as Lumine Lab, distinguished by its bright blue accents and yellow (!) mannequins, customers may acquaint themselves with some of Tokyo’s design-forward pop-culture brands. Two women in front of me were going through the racks enthusiastically. One of them told the other, “The pieces here are more fashion.”

Lumine Lab is reportedly a “testing ground for experimental brands”. But at launch, there were gyaru staples, such as Emoda (mode gyaru’s motherlode of a brand), Mercuryduo (popular enough that in 2014 Sony collaborated with them to release a premium, limited-edition, and very pink PlayStation Vita), and Murua (another classic gyaru name), all interestingly not-new product lines of the Japanese mass manufacturer Mark Styler, whose many labels are now making major inroads into China, possibly to keep mode gyaru alive. The names may perhaps be unfamiliar to post-post-Noughties consumers here, more enamoured with K-fashion, but if you are into the mindless miscellany that is Exhibit, then perhaps you have found your playground.

To me, the really nice touches thoughout Lumine, including the café, were the clear glass vases in which assorted fresh flowers were bunched to evoke an air of insouciant femininity. Perhaps that was all the prettiness and sweetness needed. Lumine thought of spring even when it’s approaching winter in Japan.

Lumine is at level 2, Clark Quay Central. Photos: Galerie Gombak