Japan Embraces Forever 21, Fast Fashion

06/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

TOKYO — Move over Gucci. Here comes Forever 21. Trend-conscious Japan is outgrowing its longtime love affair with luxury brands and turning to a new passion: Fast fashion.

The star brand of American mall-style clothing – reputed for delivering runway looks at cheap prices – opened Thursday in Matsuzakaya department store in Tokyo's upscale glitzy Ginza district.

In a move symbolic of the shift to bargain hunting in slowdown-struck Japan, Forever 21 is replacing what was a Gucci boutique, packing five floors with colorful racks of 350 yen ($4) tank tops and 1,580 yen ($17) frilly skirts.

"It's a surprise to find good bargains in a department store," said Fusako Suzuki, one of the first customers, clutching her purchase of eight items, including socks and summer tunics, adding up to a thrifty 10,000 yen ($100).

"I used to go to expensive brands when I was single but not any more, now that I'm married," the 33-year-old pharmacist said of former favorites like Burberry.

The department store replaced Gucci with Forever 21 in the hope of drawing more business and is offering freebies and discounts to those who buy merchandise worth 2,100 yen ($22) at Forever 21.

The new Forever 21 store is just its second in Japan.

The first opened in the teenybopper Harajuku district a year earlier, drawing a line a kilometer (half a mile) long. Its aisles are still overflowing with shoppers, who are buying up Forever 21's street-style wear with the same frenzy for local brands famous for "kawaii," or cuteness.

The second store seeks to cater to an older but young-at-heart crowd in Ginza and has a children's section. It drew a shorter line for the opening but it was packed compared to the rest of the department store.

Ginza still boasts its established European brands such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Hermes, carrying price tags of thousands of dollars (millions of yen), including a Gucci store around the corner from Forever 21.

But its landscape is changing with the arrival in recent years of Swedish chain Hennes & Mauritz AB, or H&M, Zara of Spain, and Japan's own fast-fashion retailer Uniqlo.

Analysts say Forever 21, offering 1,680 yen ($18) tops that get marked down to 399 yen ($4) on sale, has a good chance of securing a piece of what Tokyo-based think-tank Yano Research Institute estimates is Japan's 10 trillion yen ($108 billion) apparel business.

Younger Japanese are becoming more frugal than their parents and more confident about how they dress, rather than depending on high-end brands for status.

They also love the variety available at Forever 21, which updates its stock everyday, says Paul McInnes, editor of Tokyofashion.com.

"The stores have copies of luxury brands, but they are produced very quickly – and very cheaply," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

But McInnes and other experts warn foreign brands can fail in Japan, and the key is not only speed and price but also being in tune with local tastes.

In fast food, Krispy Kreme and McDonald's have emerged big winners here while Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's have been forced to leave the market.

Among the imports that appear to be struggling is U.S. preppy brand Abercrombie & Fitch Co., which opened in the Ginza, across the street from Forever 21, in December, analysts say.

Although the skimpily clad male sales clerks drew initial media attention, the crowds have dissipated, partly because some of its clothes are sold at double its U.S. prices.

That's something that may have worked in the past but no longer because Japanese check prices online and more have shopped in the U.S.

The look was also all wrong, given the trend here for androgyny in men – just the opposite from the macho casual attire being pushed by Abercrombie & Fitch, says Timothy Schepis, a fashion expert who consults for businesses setting up shop in Japan.

"Japanese consumers' priorities have changed a lot since the recession. They've become more mature shoppers due to the Internet, where they can find the prices of things easily and multiple places to compare," he said.

The Forever 21 chain, based in Los Angeles, has grown since 1984 to 480 stores in 15 countries. It is hoping to open some 10 stores a year in Japan.

Two are set to open in May, said Executive Vice President Lawrence Meyer, while declining to give Japan profit numbers or targets.

"Japan is our No. 1 market in Asia," he said. "We are very pleased with the way the Japanese customer has accepted our brand."