Photo: VICKI L BEYER
JAPAN BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT: KANAGAWA

Lafayette: How a passion for streetwear fashion became a successful retail business

By Vicki L Beyer
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Stepping inside the Lafayette flagship store in Fujisawa, one is instantly transported to Harajuku. Not literally, of course, but the store feels like the kind of place near Takeshita-dori - the neighborhood’s famous shopping lane — where shoppers can find the latest in American-style streetwear. Yes, Lafayette is all about streetwear, the iconic fashion that began on the American coasts low-slung on the hips of counter-culture kids, and is now a trend that transgresses social, economic and cultural boundaries across the world.

Lafayette CEO Junjiro Kaneko, 40, practically beams with pride upon learning this is the feeling evoked by his store. It is exactly what he was aiming for. In fact, he shares that while he opened his store in Fujisawa first, 17 years ago, the other six Lafayette flagship stores are in Yokohama, Sendai, Nagoya, Niigata, Takasaki, and, of course, Harajuku.

Rags to riches

Before venturing into opening his own stores, Kaneko learned the “rag trade” by working as a buyer of used “vintage” clothing for sale in shops like those so popular on Takeshita-dori. His job took him first to Los Angeles and later to New York, where he could immerse himself in the street/hip hop culture that has fascinated him since high school.

It took 10 years for the business to grow to the point that he was producing head to toe streetwear. He now has over 200 different items in his inventory.

Kaneko is definitely one of those people who has turned his personal passion into a business, opening his store in Fujisawa, his hometown, with just two of his own t-shirt designs to start out with. Being personally drawn to the more fashionable New York style of streetwear, he chose to name his business Lafayette after a New York street name.

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Lafayette is heavily influenced by New York culture and style.

After about five years in business and some inventory expansion, Kaneko began to be approached by retailers who wanted to carry his brand in their stores. Not long after this, he also started attending trade shows to show off his line of streetwear designs. Still, it took 10 years for the business to grow to the point that he was producing head to toe streetwear. He now has over 200 different items in his inventory, sold through 20 retailers in addition to his own Lafayette flagship stores and online sales.  And he still believes in trade shows as a way to show off his wares.

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Kaneko turned his passion for streetwear into a successful brand that now has stores in New York and Hong Kong. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Keys to success

Streetwear is a fashion niche where there is a lot of competition. One of Kaneko’s keys to success in Japan has been building his own personal network and enlisting local support by attending events with local artists and musicians and convincing them to wear his clothes when they perform. A brand’s success can often be made or broken by who else is wearing a particular item.

Another distinctive feature of Kaneko’s streetwear is its quality. He is adamant that quality standards must be maintained. This is also key for getting celebrities to wear his clothes. At the same time, that quality means his clothing is just a little more expensive so that rather than high school or university students, his main customer demographic is 25 to 35-year-olds.

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Lafayette recently collaborated with Yokohama baseball team the DeNA Baystars.

Perhaps it was the name or the fact that his product is streetwear, but when Kaneko first started out, many of his Japanese customers mistakenly thought his clothes were imported from the U.S. He wryly observes “Even now, probably half still think so.”

Operating outside Japan has been the biggest challenge Kaneko has faced so far. Customer expectations are different in different countries.

Overseas expansion

This may have been part of the inspiration for Kaneko’s drive to market his clothes overseas as well.  According to Kaneko, there aren’t many, if any, Japanese streetwear brands selling overseas, so he feels this is space where his products can shine. He wants Lafayette, and now his new, slightly more upscale label, Privilege, to become known for being Japanese brands of streetwear, especially since streetwear is a global phenomenon. To this end, he opened a New York store in 2017, and a Hong Kong franchise store in 2018. He feels these stores are also a way to keep in touch with customers based outside Japan who may have first learned of the Lafayette brand while visiting Japan.

Operating outside Japan has been the biggest challenge Kaneko has faced so far. Customer expectations are different in different countries. While the choices of Japanese customers are often influenced by who else they see wearing it, American customers are influenced by other factors including personal taste. Japanese and American customers also have different ways of working and different approaches to leisure that can affect their clothing choices. Kaneko reflects that it’s been interesting to observe the different reactions of people of different cultures, even though it does make his job more challenging!

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A piece from the Lafayette Spring/Summer Collection 2019

Moving into the future

Kaneko’s future aspirations include expanding further in the U.S. and into other parts of Asia, including Singapore, if he can find a suitable business partner, and possibly even into China. He also hopes to open stores under the Privilege name in Osaka and Fukuoka in the next five years. But he wants his expansion to be selective and, to some degree, elite. He's taking care not to go too far too fast.

Perhaps predictably for a 21st-century business, Kaneko finds internet sales to also be increasingly significant. More than half of his sales are via the internet, particularly through Lafayette’s online store (as opposed to e-commerce marketplaces like Rakuten or Amazon) with online sales exceeding the sales of his seven domestic and two overseas flagship stores combined. Even non-U.S. customers make purchases through Lafayette’s U.S. website. Social media advertising, especially on Instagram, plays a significant role in Lafayette’s online success.

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Lafayette's Instagram for their online store has more than 17,000 followers.

Confidence is probably another factor in Kaneko’s success. From the very beginning, he was confident that this venture would be successful, another example of how Kaneko's passion is paying off. It was just two years after opening his first store in Fujisawa that he opened the second store in Yokohama. His seventh Japanese store opened in Takasaki this year.

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CEO Junjiro Kaneko of Lafayette at his flagship store in Fujisawa.

In learning the clothing business and building the Lafayette and Privilege brands and retail stores, Kaneko’s is a real rags-to-riches story. And one that he intends to keep telling.

For more information on Lafayette, see the company's official website here. Visit the online store here.

This is the 10th story in Japan Today’s new Japan Business Spotlight series, which brings the spotlight on Japanese domestic companies, from small-scale family-run businesses to now worldwide corporate giants. In this series, we trace the roots of their foundations, we look at the faces behind their stories and the concepts behind their most recent innovations. Our first series introduces 12 businesses based in or operating in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Read more articles from our Japan Business Spotlight: Kanagawa:

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