I spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Japan, and unsurprisingly, I did a lot of shopping. (As I do always, and as one always does in Japan.) When I say shopping I mean browsing, not buying, because other than Comme des Garçons — it really is more affordable over there! — there was very little that I was interested in purchasing. The clothes made specifically for the Japanese market typically don’t fit me — I’m 5’8″ and a size 10/12, which is like an XXXL there — and the department stores carry the same stuff from Western brands that you find in the west.
Except when they don’t. The first thing I saw when I walked into Mitsukoshi — a gigantic, bustling department store in Tokyo’s Ginza district — were stacks of handkerchiefs and washcloths branded “YSL,” “Lanvin,” “Michael Kors” and “Anna Sui,” all priced at around $10. A friend of mine had warned me about this — when she was at Mitsukoshi in the spring, there were Céline handkerchiefs! I missed those.
But it wasn’t just the shockingly low prices that surprised me, it was also the quality. These were not chic handkerchiefs and washcloths à la the Hermès twilly, these were a bit dowdy. I did not buy one because I couldn’t find one that I really liked. (I should say, though, that the Anna Sui styles were the most attractive.)
In fact, I could only think: how did these brands allow this to happen? These were not counterfeit items: Japan is nutty about counterfeiting, in that it just doesn’t happen there. Instead, they reminded me of the licensed products that were rampant among luxury houses in the 1970s. (Back then, you could buy Dior cigarettes, YSL polo shirts and Gucci dog carriers that weren’t $2,000.)
As conglomerates began to buy up European fashion houses in the 1990s, many of these brand-inappropriate licenses were terminated. Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole cleaned up Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent’s licenses, as did Sidney Toledano at Dior, who reduced that house’s licenses from “300 to a handful,” Suzy Menkes reported in 2000. And that trend has continued. Burberry bought back its China franchises in 2010 for £70 million.
However, Burberry still has two licensed brands in Japan — Burberry Blue Label and Black Label. In all, Burberry’s licenses generated sales of £109 million in the 2012/2013 fiscal year. From what I observed, these brands are thoroughly vetted so that the marketing stays on point with what Burberry offers internationally but at a lower price point. I would have never wondered whether or not they were licenses if I didn’t think about this stuff for a living. Lanvin has Lanvin en Bleu, a similar concept; the prices are lower, but the branding is on-point.
Yet while these may be relatively successful examples of licenses working, I can’t help but wonder: in our increasingly connected world, how big of a problem are things like Givenchy-branded hand towels? It might be a coincidence that the Céline handkerchiefs my friend saw at Mitsukoshi less than a year ago were gone when I arrived. But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Even Burberry, who has had a licensing agreement with the Japanese company Mitsui since 1970 and, as mentioned, seems to do a pretty good job at keeping it looking good, will end its license in 2015. And Lanvin CEO Thierry Andretta has said in the past that he would eventually like to end the house’s licenses in Japan and Korea.
Ten years ago, it would have been a pain to upload a photo of one of these licensed items onto the Internet. Now it’s super easy. I could kick myself for not visually documenting what I saw at Mitsukoshi for my Instagram audience. Do a Google Image search for “brand handkerchiefs Japan” and you can see very quickly that others did not make the same mistake as me. And it’s something brands need to think about, no matter how small those squares of fabric.