“I think women are often expected to be scared of taking risks; they dare not do anything daring. But if the risk is not excessive, I think they should take that [first] step forward—which is always the most difficult step.”
This is how fashion designer Yoshiko Saito, founder and CEO of Atelys Design Studio Inc., describes the vision that drives her work. And once the process has begun, she told The Journal, it may turn out to be easier than imagined.
Via her e-commerce fashion company, Saito sells her creations: printed dresses and accessories such as bags in print and leather. She has also extended her market reach through pop-up shops in some of Japan’s most illustrious department stores.
Originally from Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, it was not long before the globetrotter in Saito was heading to Tokyo … and then the world.
She hit London, Paris, Vienna, and New York during a 10-year odyssey. In London, Saito enrolled in the illustrious textile design course of the city’s Chelsea College of Arts. Upon graduation, she worked for two local design studios.
Her sense of style and culture were enhanced further during stints in continental Europe, where she studied German in Austria and art, furniture design, and glassmaking in France. Heading across the Atlantic, that part of her journey culminated in New York, where she worked in a design studio specializing in wedding garments.
Looking back, Saito said these experiences were not in vain. It was in that period that her skill in design and passion for her craft solidified. During those years on the road—many of them spent in the capitals of culture and fashion—she “discovered that I really like to dress up. That I like looking stylish, sexy even.”
Now more than ever, she believes, she is ready to see her brand expand to countries around the Asia–Pacific region and Europe.
Atelys the Shop was created in 2010, but Saito admitted that its founding was anything but smooth. She had no role models and little by way of capital. All she had was a passion for print and wrap dresses that would not go away.
“I was learning by myself and I had a low budget. In a sense, I didn’t know where to begin. So I just focused on dressmaking, and tried to create a unique brand,” she recalled.
But Saito had at least two more arrows in her quiver: persistence and a belief in her product. “I went from one factory to another, from one supplier to the next, but they all said no.”
Not being able to find a production partner for her designs may have been a blessing in disguise, however. It forced her to think outside the box. “I knew that there are many independent seamstresses in Japan,” she recalled. And one by one she began creating a network of freelance tailors—mostly women—who would turn her designs into products.
An advantage of relying on seamstresses — many of whom are stay-at-home moms — is that no two are alike; so her designs have a one-of-a-kind feel. While production may be slower than if the items were made in a factory, it means “these are dresses worth waiting for” she added.
FINDING A NICHE
Saito offers 100 seasonal designs in a lineup that changes twice a year. Before ordering, customers can try a range of sample dresses at her pop-up shops.
Many of the company’s designs are inspired by traditional prints, especially ones used on kimonos. “I personally like geometric shapes, but I’ve found that floral prints are popular for women in this market,” she confessed.
For inspiration, Saito relies on the massive archived prints that the department store she partners with have gathered over the years. “I get to see original patterns on their kimonos, some of which date back 200 years. I then translate them into my own fashion.”
Today, in addition to her e-commerce website, Saito’s print dresses and accessories are promoted by a marketing company — which has licensed her products— in the trendy Daikanyama district of Tokyo. This, however, has led to mixed feelings. “There are pros and cons to licensing your brand,” Saito admitted.
While it has been a great benefit for her to outsource some of the heavy lifting involved in positioning and marketing her brand, it does mean that she has to give up some control over the brand’s day-to-day management.
“It is the first time I’ve let someone else run my business,” she revealed. “So there is a steep learning process.”
As she contemplates expanding overseas, the licensing experience has been a great lesson for her. That said, most of her sales have come via pop-up shops in some of Japan’s most illustrious department stores, including Isetan and Mitsukoshi.
Saito is keen to extend her brand’s footprint and is excited about the opportunities presented by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade treaty under negotiation among 11 countries, including the United States and Japan.
If TPP is ratified, Saito plans to apply for funds that are expected to be made available in Japan to support the market entry of small and medium-sized businesses.
“So far, my dresses have been targeted at Japanese customers, which is a relatively conservative and mature market.
“To enter the foreign market, I plan on creating a more flirtatious line of clothes. I also hope that if Japan joins the TPP, it will allow me access to TPP-affiliated countries like the United States.”
In 2014, Saito was one of 10 finalists to be hosted by the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo on the occasion of The Entrepreneur Awards Japan (TEAJ), a prize “supported by a coalition of leading organizations in Tokyo that recognizes the achievements of outstanding entrepreneurs from across Japan.” The Independent Business Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is a supporter of TEAJ.
“At the award, I was able to meet a number of people who inspired me” Saito said, recalling entrepreneurs who, like herself, have put their necks on the line for services and products in which they have a passionate belief.
Is Saito ready to embrace the rest of the world? Yes, she said, but she is aware that there will be challenges. Marketing and raising brand awareness are examples.
So far, in Japan, most of her marketing has been through her network and via word-of-mouth. There is no guarantee this will work elsewhere—especially in countries where she has no established network.
But eventually, she hopes to hit upon a winning formula for the world just as she has for Japan. “My target audience is women who want to be the best,” she said. “They are strong women who want to express confidence and a sense of uniqueness.”
Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.© Japan Today