In 1993, Yoshio Sadasue, with his wife Tamiko as his partner, began to operate Maker's Shirt Kamakura (today, popularly known as Kamakura Shirts), producing and selling business shirts for men and women. For the city of Kamakura, which was the political capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333, such a history is but the blink of an eye. Yet many aspects of this intriguing business reflect samurai/warrior roots, and maybe even a bit of ninja patience and strategy.
Find a need and fill it
At the time of starting his venture, Yoshio was 53 and had already had a long career in men's apparel, working in the "middle man" space between producers and retailers, helping to outfit the corporate warriors of 20th century Japan. Yoshio’s experience told him that businesspersons, both men and women, were looking for daily business wear that was affordable while being good quality with good styling. Yoshio also realized that if he could cut out the multiple middle stages common between production and retail at the time by being more directly involved in production and marketing himself, he could cut certain costs and better deliver the value proposition for customers.
By then, he had also realized that customer desires were not being met by the garments then in the market. Customers liked the elegance of Ivy League design, and they wanted shirts that fit well and were made of high quality fabric. But they also wanted good value for their money. Yoshio’s basic philosophy was that a person may choose to wear the same suit for several days running, but in that case needs to be sure that their shirt (and tie or other neckwear) changes daily and always forms a positive impression.
Yoshio’s experience told him that businesspersons, both men and women, were looking for daily business wear that was affordable while being good quality with good styling.
The 1990s was also the time when women were just emerging into the workplace as “equals,” thanks to Japan’s Equal Employment Opportunity Law. At the same time, both men and women were struggling with the logistics of that equality. One particular challenge for women was finding work garments that would help them to be taken seriously as equal to men. The Ivy League look helped.
The right business model for the times
Starting up a new business in Japan in the early 1990s was a bit of a risky proposition. The country’s economy was in free-fall, with bank failures, many companies forced to scale back their operations, and severe limitations on the ability to borrow, says Yoshio’s daughter Nanako Sadasue, who joined the business in 1998.
At the same time, the family’s business model was an extremely sensible one for the time. As the economy contracted, everyone became more cost-conscious and the demand for high quality business wear at an affordable price point rose. The model of direct sourcing for production and direct sales enabled Kamakura Shirts to produce and sell exactly what the market wanted.
To reflect his desire to “cut out the middleman,” Yoshio decided on the name “Maker's Shirt,” but Tamiko thought the name a bit bland, so suggested they add the kanji characters for Kamakura (鎌倉) to their logo. They had already decided to locate their new business in Kamakura, Tamiko's hometown. It wasn't long before customers began calling their product “Kamakura Shirts” and later, when the business was expanded to retail outlets in the United States, that is the name they chose to use.
The Sadasues were willing to start out small and build slowly, playing the long game that many of Japan's most famous samurai are known for. Yoshio negotiated with an acquaintance who had production facilities to make men’s and women’s shirts to his specifications, including his required quality fabrics and shell buttons, and his careful sizing (in one centimeter increments) to ensure a good fit and professional look. Kamakura Shirts in different designs are now produced at some 13 factories across Japan, most of which produce garments for various labels, using the particular specifications of each label.
In a highly competitive business, Kamakura Shirts had found a clear niche. Nanako reports that they don't worry too much about this shared production resulting in their designs being appropriated because they believe it would be difficult for anyone else to sell shirts like theirs at the same price point.
This is because of the second component of Yoshio's business plan: direct sales. As part of his drive to remove the costly middle stages between production and sales, Yoshio employed a model known as "Specialty store retailer of Private label Apparel" or SPA. Kamakura Shirts are only sold through their own specialty stores. The Kamakura Shirts venture began from just one store, on the second floor above a convenience store in eastern Kamakura city. The store was managed by Tamiko, whose personality suited sales, just as Yoshio's suited planning and production.
In those early days, the shirts were priced at 4,900 yen. The idea was that buyers could get two shirts and still have enough money left over from a 10,000 yen note for a cup of coffee. At that time, other retailers were selling similar quality shirts for around 12,000 yen to 15,000 yen.
The Kamakura Shirts venture began from just one store, on the second floor above a convenience store in eastern Kamakura city.
For marketing, the business relied largely on word of mouth and, by the turn of the century, the internet and the growing social media phenomenon. Today, nearly a quarter of their sales are through the internet, even though most online customers also say that they first learned about Kamakura Shirts by visiting a store.
Slow and steady expansion
Although Kamakura Shirts began from that one store in Kamakura, they have expanded at an average rate of one store per year. There are now 28 stores. And their garments are still 1/4 to 1/3 the price of similar quality garments sold by so-called competitors.
According to Nanako, the biggest challenge they ever faced was placing a store in the Marunouchi Building in front of Tokyo Station, a jumping off point for visitors to the capital. Colloquially known as “Marubiru,” when it was announced that the building was being rebuilt and reopened as a mixed-use commercial building, Yoshio was convinced that a Kamakura Shirts store there would stand as a symbol of the classiness of his garments, essential to project the right image to capture future sales, whether at that store or via the internet. But first he had to convince the building’s owners that his product was appropriate for a store in their building; and they had their doubts. Like ninja of old, Yoshio was dogged in his pursuit, and eventually he prevailed. The sixth store to sell Kamakura Shirts opened in Marubiru in 2002 when the new building opened. It has proven to be a major success for the brand.
The second greatest challenge was opening a store in New York City, another milestone goal for Yoshio, who saw Manhattan as the Mecca of men's apparel. As the song says "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere." Kamakura Shirts opened a store on Madison Avenue in 2012, focusing exclusively on men's apparel, and has since opened a second store in lower Manhattan.
As in Japan, the high quality-good value proposition has proven a hit with customers. Nanako, who leads the American operations, says that one interesting phenomenon is fathers introducing their sons to the stores as a kind of rite of passage into manhood.
The biggest future challenge for Kamakura Shirts is the shrinking domestic market. Like many other small businesses, the Sadasues are working on strategies for further expanding exports, possibly to other business fashion hubs like Shanghai.
But, like any good ninja, they will be careful and deliberate as they proceed.
For more information on Maker's Shirt, see the company's official website here.
U.S. Online Store (English) | www.kamakurashirts.com
Global Online Store (English) | www.kamakurashirts.net
Chinese Online Store (简体)｜www.kamakurashirts-china.com
Japanese Online Store (日本語)｜shop.shirt.co.jp
This is the ninth 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.
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