Japanese entrepreneur revisits nation’s golden apparel era with Factelier

Toshio Yamada, founder of Factelier, is a young Japanese entrepreneur who wants to preserve the craftsmanship of his country’s apparel industry.

Yamada has created his own uniquely Japanese brand Factelier which designs and sources clothing and accessories for men, women and babies from experienced, typically family-owned, clothing factories spread all over the nation. They are sold online and shipped to 100 countries, through a small network of boutiques in Japan and Taiwan, and in selected department stores.

Yamada’s vision is to preserve the rich heritage of apparel manufacturing and let the suppliers he works with emerge from the unavoidable anonymity that comes with supplying global brands.   

Thirty years ago, Japan, one of the world’s largest apparel markets, used to produce 50.1 per cent of its domestic sales. Today, thanks to the rise of fast fashion and the outsourcing of manufacturing to countries like China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, that share has slumped to just 3 per cent. More than three quarters of the companies manufacturing clothing in Japan in 1990 are no longer trading today. 

Yamada was born into a family which ran a women’s clothing store for 100 years in Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu. Living upstairs, he helped out on the shop floor from early childhood, surrounded by quality locally made clothes in an era when ‘made in Japan’ was familiar.  

Later, as a student, Yamada interned with luxury label Gucci in Paris. There the realisation dawned on him that labels like Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton were all born in factories. “So they respect craftsmanship. Now I’m hoping to revive the local craftsmanship in Japan.

“Our dream is to create world-class brands made in Japan, and build a sustainable and profitable link between these local artisans and consumers around the world, by selling clothes from Japanese factories directly to consumers, cutting out the middleman,” he told Inside Retail Asia.

Factelier was created via an astonishing commitment to researching the industry. Yamada personally visited some 600 factories the length and breadth of Japan before selecting 55 of them as suppliers, all of them with experience in supplying top international brands. 

“A lot of these companies did not have a homepage, right, and Google did not know about them. So I would take a train and get off at a station and go to a telephone box and use the telephone book to find them.” He would then phone the factories he found listed and ask if he could stop by. 

Somewhat surprised, they invariably welcomed him. “It was a very old style approach,” he recalls.

Having built the network he not only maintains constant personal contact with his suppliers, but their company names appear beneath Factelier on the clothing labels. The connection between craftsmanship and consumer runs even deeper: Yamada’s company runs regular factory tours for customers so they can see the art and commitment that goes into the clothing they buy. 

“We know the stories behind the factories, how they make the products, and it’s very interesting – when our customers go to the factories and they see the craftwork behind the clothes they become loyal customers.”

It took Yamada three years to build the base of the business, living off a part-time job as he travelled from factory to factory and developed designs and products. Eight years since his mission began, Factelier has grown to a 50-strong team with four stores and a warehouse in Japan, two stores in Taipei – and even a cafe. Sales are currently doubling twice a year with 80 per cent of orders from Japan. The largest overseas markets are the US, Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

“Fashion manufacturing used to be a declining industry in Japan, but I think if we have the passion and the vision, I think we can revive it. And more importantly, [our customers] will spend more for better products.”

Factelier’s garments are of similar quality (but not design) to those being supplied to the likes of Gucci or Hermes – but sell for about half the price. It helps, of course, that Factelier is not paying for massive international advertising budgets and other overheads associated with luxury brands. Typically the factory gets a higher price for the clothing it produces for Factelier because the two parties jointly decide on the retail price, rather than the label dictating pricing and how much the factory gets for making it. 

“It’s a very, very different business model from traditional brands,” says Yamada.

That said, the factories could not survive on Factelier alone – the Japanese label typically only accounts for between 5 and 10 per cent of a partner factory’s production. But they are getting a better deal and Yamada says many are finding themselves able to employ more graduates to expand their business. 

The closer relationship between brand, manufacturer and customer has produced an unexpected spinoff: consumers are starting to influence the range and style of clothing being produced, especially in the field of functional clothing. 

“One day a customer asked us to manufacture clothes that would repel mosquitos. That’s a very, very difficult request.” Diligently working with factories and textile suppliers Yamada’s team succeeded, by incorporating a herb in the fabric that sends the mozzies packing.

During our conversation Yamada wore a stylish blue wrinkle-free jacket. “If I pack it in a trunk, it does not crease.” Another product uses baseball-uniform techniques to create 3D pattern effects.

And Factelier sells stain-proof white jeans. Spill soy sauce, wine, coffee or ketchup over the denim and it comes off immediately without leaving a stain. This was another product designed to fulfil a customer’s request. 

Besides his interest in functional clothing, Yamada is committed to sustainability. The company uses natural fibres and biodegradable fabrics and it recently planted an organic cotton farm near Mount Fuji. Japan imports 99 per cent of its cotton and he wants to change that reliance on other countries.

Yamada is optimistic there is a strong future for direct-to-consumer brands. “The size of the B2C market in Japan expanded to US$180 billion in 2018. It grew by $160 million, or 9 per cent, in that year. 

“Yes, craftsmanship is very big. I want to spread the idea of craftsmanship all over the world.”

This feature originally appeared in Inside Retail Asia’s magazine edition. For information on subscribing visit our shop.


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