START TODAY CO., LTD. Buyer
In 2004, Saito began working at START TODAY CO., LTD., a company which operates the online fashion site ZOZOTOWN. After gaining experience in logistics, he became buyer in 2005. He worked as a buyer for original multi-brand shops such as EPROZE and Rowgage, and then in 2010, he took part in the launch of ZOZOVILLA, a high-end EC site which features products from private labels of designers and luxury brands both within Japan and abroad. He was appointed to the JFW committee in July 2012, where he began his new job of supporting the next generation within the fashion industry.
Since its inception in 2004, ZOZOTOWN (operated by START TODAY CO., LTD.) has been steadily increasing its sales to become one of the largest domestic apparel EC sites and a staple within the fashion industry. While the site features everything from casual apparel to high-end fashion, ZOZOTOWN has maintained its position through buying from unique brands and those on the cutting edge. Mr. Takuya Saito, who works as both a buyer for ZOZOTOWN and as a member of the JFW committee, represents the uniqueness and individuality which can be said to define ZOZOTOWN. We asked Saito about what started his career at ZOZOTOWN, his philosophy on buying, and the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo, to gain insights based on his experiences buying for various shops within ZOZOTOWN and working on their projects.
Please tell us what led to your current position as buyer.
Well, first off, I always had an interest in clothes. But in college, I studied about lasers in the engineering department, in a course about applied physics (laughs). Nobody I knew had any serious interest in fashion, and my being more of a sports guy meant I didn’t know too much about it either. But like I said earlier, I always had an interest in clothes – secondhand clothes, and street fashions started becoming popular in Japan right about the time I was a college student. These were the things that made me want to pursue a career in fashion. I held some part-time jobs for a bit while job hunting, and that’s when I heard that START TODAY was looking for employees. This ended up being my first step into the world of fashion.
Did you begin your career as a buyer?
Well, the ZOZOTOWN site was launched around the end of my first year in START TODAY, but my job then was logistics. In that year, I learned about things like distribution, product photography, and measurements. The company expanded its business at the start of my second year there, and that’s about the time they asked me if I wanted to become a buyer, since they were planning on increasing the number of brands featured on the site. So from then on, I started pulling double duty, working as a buyer while still doing my other job of logistics. I became a dedicated buyer when the company split up its departments. Since we didn’t have many people working as buyers back then, I had to tackle buying for two or three shops by myself.
What do you consider important when buying?
As a shop, I know that you have to think about things like MD, but personally, I don’t want to choose too many trendy or top selling items. With an EC site, you have to catch the customer’s eye, which means you always have to have catchy products featured, but I try to focus on whether the brand concept is well defined. There’s more brands than you can count around now, and there’s very little difference in designs and prices between them. This makes it all the more important to have a solid brand concept, and that goes for me as a buyer, too. For example, I actually try on the ensembles suggested. That’s one of the reasons I wear shorts, even in winter. It’s perfectly fine for women to wear mini-skirts in winter, fashionably speaking, and so I figure, why not men be adventurous with their styles as well? But if I want other men to be daring, I should first try it myself.
Has there been any changes in the kind of work you do since you began your job at ZOZOTOWN?
My policy as a buyer hasn’t changed much, but I’ve been given the opportunity to work with many different genres of fashion; from street to high end, from men’s to women’s and imports. Instead of just buying items, I always tried to get as many people involved as possible, which is why I’ve tried out so many projects. That’s probably why my place in our company’s team is rather unique (laughs). I enjoy doing both buying and planning, and I always want to be actively involved in something that brings changes. This goes for projects within the company, and for things outside the company, like my work in the JFW committee.
When you say you want to bring change, do you mean there is something you’re dissatisfied about the current state of fashion or the industry?
For better or for worse, there are lots of obstacles within the fashion industry. It’s inevitable when you have so many people with so many different opinions in one place; everyone can’t agree on one thing. Still, at heart, everyone in the industry definitely wants to bring more excitement through fashion, so I hope to make that our rallying cry. Having fun in our little circle is nice and can be done, but fashions are made to be worn. In that sense, you can’t ignore the value that real shops have, and things like these have to be considered together. Otherwise, the ideas that you’re trying to send out from Japan could end up falling flat in just a few years’ time.
What do you think about fashion weeks in Japan?
Well, when you compare them to fashion weeks held in Paris or New York, the whole place has that vibe that a show is going on. But in Japan, that atmosphere is only coming from a select few. I know that fashion weeks are mostly geared toward the industry and people in it, but that shouldn’t mean it’s inaccessible to everyone else. The end-user should have fun here, too; I’d like to close that gap between “them” and “the industry.” Also, fashion week in general seem to be pretty passive, only focused on providing a venue and then their job is done. It wouldn’t hurt for the promoters to be more aggressive contributing to and livening things up. Those things are important to make fashion weeks feel fuller as an event, which might help in getting more attendees from overseas.
Having worked online for so long, I’m sure you must feel that the internet will be a vital tool toward resolving these issues.
I agree. With ZOZOTOWN, most of our advertising would target customers, but I want to use the internet more in presenting the appeal of Japanese fashion worldwide. Instead of stopping at raising company sales, I want more people to know about the fashion week, maybe by introducing some events that customers could attend while the fashion week is going on. Let them get a feel for what’s going on at the venue firsthand. The first step we have to take is getting people to attend, and we’re in the planning stages just now for such a project.
What do you feel are the strong points of Japanese brands?
I think that Japanese brands have the most to offer in design and creativity. There are still issues to be tackled, like the potential strength of the brands themselves and the differences in body shape between Japanese customers and western customers, which make Japanese brands hesitant about overseas expansion. Their products, though, can definitely compete, and I believe that if they’re presented with the opportunity to be seen by overseas buyers, things will change. Designers are, by definition, pros at design, but they’re not always the best at presentation. By assisting them to help cover such weak points, I think that fashion weeks will need the consciousness as a place where brands can be nurtured.
Making the decision to open up a shop on ZOZOTOWN is becoming an important option for brands nowadays. As brands begin sending out their message and offering their items online through avenues such as EC sites, what do you feel are important issues?
Most brands think selling through EC is an easy thing to do, but in fact, you can only get back what you put into an EC. The brands that succeed have plenty of staff in charge and have solid MD. Those that don’t do well are usually brands that only consider an EC to be a side project of their real-world shop. Try not to have any preconceived notions about the internet, and put some effort into your online store. That’s what I think is important. The internet itself is gaining more attention, and because it’s a well-suited tool for both sales and promotion, it should definitely figure into any brand’s strategy.
Finally, tell us about your future goals as a member of the JFW committee.
Since all the other members are seasoned veterans, it might be hard to think about things from their point of view. So I’d first like to try and focus on things that only I can do. There are lots of things I’d like to see change, not only for the fashion week, but for the Japanese fashion industry as a whole, so the first step for me is to get my opinion out there after learning more about fashion before. I’d also like to learn more about what people on the brand side think about the fashion week. I’m sure they wouldn’t hold anything back if they’re talking to a guy like me (laughs). Ultimately, I think my duty in the committee is to bring positive change after taking opinions from all involved into consideration.