ginza dori

Tokyo’s Ginza district has the distinction of being Tokyo’s original upmarket shopping destination, some of the most expensive real estate in the world, the first to feature electric street lighting, the first with modern department stores, the first with stores that allowed customers to wear shoes inside the premises, the first to host luxury European brands. During Japan’s golden ’bubble’ years Ginza was the city’s glitzy playground, its stores raking in phenomenal earnings from cashed up citizens.

Times, though, have changed.

bridges

If you walk along Suzuran Street, you’ll see a pair of bridges, giant lego bricks connecting two buildings in the 6-chome neighborhood. More than a pair of elevated passageways between two department stores, it’s a symbolic connection between Ginza’s past and likely future, connecting as it does the world’s largest Uniqlo store and one of only two Dover Street Market concept stores.

bridge to uniqlo

On one side of the street is Rei kawakubo’s fashion gallery concept store par excellence: seven levels of cutting edge contemporary clothing, quirky accessories and art installations – even a rooftop shrine and garden; a unique organic retail experience that is like a visit to a hip inner city art gallery, replicated to some degree only in the store’s sister outlet in London.

While Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons label was at its most influential in the 1980s – the time of Japan’s greatest global power and influence – the fashions and creative visions at DSM are as fresh and avant grade as anything being conjured up in the back streets of Harajuku. The store’s Ginza location – home to Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, et al – both confirms Kawakubo’s place in the fashion establishment and the success of her empire.

dsm ginza

Across the street is Japan’s uber-contemporary retailer, Uniqlo. Started in 1984, when Comme des Garçons was basking in international fashion glory, the brainchild of the country’s wealthiest man, Tadashi Yanai, Uniqlo – a contraction of unique clothing, somewhat ironically, given the everyman concept of Uniqlo designs – is the antithesis of DSM. Whereas the DSM wares resemble and are priced like rare collectibles, Uniqlo pieces are very much throwaway items.

Uniqlo’s Ginza store is the largest Uniqlo store in the world – a temple to disposable fashion, to clothing as a utilitarian item, with 12 floors – almost 5000 square feet – of space dedicated to cheap and cheerful clothing staples – T-shirts, jeans, socks, underwear and other seasonal clothes – for all the family.

uniqlo

Despite the different philosophies, Uniqlo Ginza is no less impressive than DSM; it’s like some efficient fashion machine, an endless ordered maze of racks and shelves and registers. Opened in 2012, it’s safe to say that this is one of the most successful stores in Ginza. Indeed, the Uniqlo store has its main entrance on Ginza’s premier thoroughfare, Chuo dori – also known as Ginza dori.

What’s interesting is that in another time, Comme des Garçons would have been the headlining act in Ginza and Uniqlo, if it could have afforded the rents, would have been tucked away in a side street. In 2013, avant garde fashion is no longer a mainstream pursuit in Japan. Changing economic fortunes and lifestyle choices have relegated fashion spending to the monied and the fashionistas. Now the extravagant past is discreetly housed in a side street, while the present is on main street in all its understated glory.

Also interesting is the fact that the two seemingly incongruous stores are umbilically connected via the bridges. It seems two Japanese fashion giants are helping each other out: one confering a certain cachet on the other, at the same time having valuable customer traffic funnelled through its less visible doors.

Most interesting of all, though, is that these two flagship stores, yin and yang of the fashion world, are representative of the changing face of Ginza. Stroll along Chuo dori and you’ll see the glorious retail palaces of Cartier, Bulgari, Chanel, Prada, Montblanc and other remnants of Ginza’s – Japan’s – glory days. You’ll also see Uniqlo, Zara, H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch, harbingers of Ginza’s fashion future.

Call it progress, or a democratisation of fashion. Consider it like royalty having to bring in tenants to make ends meet. Whether this trend will continue and high street retailers will continue to set up shop in Ginza, time will tell. In particular, it will be interesting to see who J. Front Retailing – parent company of Daimaru Department store – will select to fill the six floors of stores due to replace the Matsuzakaya department store next year. Since 2010, the depato has tellingly shared some of its space with youth fast fashion label Forever 21. Whatever; some of the gloss has worn off the neighborhood. Times have changed.

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