Fashion frees women from dull office uniformity

Fashion entrepreneur Junko Kemi

TOKYO —

It is rare that, outside Japan, you hear anything positive about the lot of women in the Japanese workplace. Well-meaning rankings and anecdotal articles frequently do little more than reinforce tired stereotypes. Still, change is afoot and there are many voices in the Japanese corporate world that have a nuanced story to tell—even some who dare to assert that there might be something that Japanese working women have to teach the world.

One important factor preventing progress in how women are viewed in the Japanese workplace is the ongoing prevalence of highly gendered uniforms. This is true both in the literal sense and in what is implied—from strictly structured dress codes that govern post-graduation job hunts right through to the president’s chair. These remain highly gendered for both men and women, a visual reminder of the very different roles played by the “salarymen” and “office ladies” of years gone by, but a stumbling block now, considering how much has changed.

Representative of this change is fashion brand Kay Me, from entrepreneur Junko Kemi. Not just an oddity in the Japanese fashion world, Kemi is an unassuming revolutionary who has dispensed with the establishment path to the racks by forgoing trade shows and industry-only runways. Instead, she builds on her own experience in the Japanese corporate world to fashion the clothes she would wear to the office. In the process, she has managed to chalk up a Ginza flagship store, key retail positions at Japan’s top department stores—including Odakyu in Shinjuku, Mitsukoshi in Nihombashi, Breeze Breeze Umeda in Osaka, and Isetan at Haneda International Airport — and even a presence in London. She’s accomplished this in just over five years — less time than it takes the average brand that plays by the fashion industry’s rules to get their first round of scattered stockists.

Kemi sat down with The Journal to talk about why she moved from marketing to fashion, how she sees women in the workplace, and what she aims to achieve with her designs.

Japanese fashion is a notoriously saturated field. With no background in fashion, why did you choose to enter it?

My background is in marketing and consulting, but I was always aware that, at the root of all market analysis, is the Japanese phrase ishokuju, meaning the necessities of life: food, clothing, and shelter. When you look at Tokyo, there may be a lot of fashion, but that is the way it should be. It is as important and necessary as food and shelter. After the Lehman shock and the March 11 earthquake, this idea of necessity came to have greater meaning for me. I wanted to make something that was really required by people in their lives.

Of course, my background in marketing helped, and I knew that the bigger companies would be scared to compete with me if I chose a niche that wasn’t a proven quantity yet. That niche was professional women; women with the drive to go beyond what society expects of them and who want to express themselves on their own terms in the workplace. There is also part of me that likes to be the rebel, and to a certain extent I just wanted to prove people wrong when they said the market was oversaturated.

One of the most important Japanese fashion designers of our time, Yohji Yamamoto, famously started his eponymous brand in rejection of Japanese “office lady” attire and how working women, as a whole, dressed. Is this a shared source of inspiration?

Perhaps. Although, ironically, given that Yohji Yamamoto mainly uses black, I feel that women’s clothes are too dark! Fundamentally, I feel that historically it made sense that for women to enter the male-dominated workplace they first started dressing like men; but that can’t be where it ends. Far more interesting is for women to be unapologetically feminine and be accepted for it. Women should not have to cast off their own culture to enter the workplace, nor deny their own nature between 9:00 and 5:00. Why shouldn’t there be flowers in an office? In that sense, I am the opposite of Yohji Yamamoto — he wanted his clothes to protect women from men, but I don’t think women need protecting.

My real inspiration is surprisingly conventional. My grandmother ran a kimono shop, so I am always attracted to traditional themes in my work. The Japanese motifs I use, in particular, have been key to reaching people abroad. It is not necessarily targeted like “Cool Japan,” just a lucky coincidence. For Japanese customers, they are a way of building elements of kimono into their working wardrobe instead of wearing full kimono, which is hard in daily life—never mind the workplace.

As an entrepreneur, what do you look for in your employees? Do you actively create a female-friendly work environment?

I have been all around the world meeting entrepreneurs — especially in the UK and East Asian countries — and I am frequently the only Japanese person, and nearly always the only Japanese female entrepreneur. Therefore, similarly minded people with an international mindset are my key assets. With that comes an ability to communicate in English, and the confidence that your ideas will resonate not only in your own country but globally. That is rarer than you think, and a big issue over the course of a career is that only high-ranking members of Japanese companies ever go abroad on business. That locks women out of having experience abroad and stops them thinking more globally.
In terms of workplace, I would like a 50-50 split in my workforce; but right now we are still at the early stage of growing, so it has been vital that everyone understands the shared goal. As I am dressing working women, I have far more women than men working for me for now; unfortunate, but it will change. Also, I insist on flexible working hours for my staff with children. It creates some small issues with timing group meetings, but it is easy to work through and worth it for the talent they bring.

What could institutions like the Japanese government and universities do to change the status quo?

Universities are taking the lead in thinking globally, but that is only half the battle — they need to create more competition among students — female in particular — so they have confidence to go abroad. That needs to be the spark that starts a movement.

As for the government, there are lots of programs out there to support companies like mine, but to be honest we just don’t have the time to apply for them — they require so much documentation. So far, the programs feel like lip service from an older generation who doesn’t understand mine; time will change that.

In the meantime, I am focused on thinking globally. We haven’t targeted the inbound phenomenon as such because they are not necessarily our customers. Instead, I am focused on online expansion and taking my brand to Europe, and hopefully to America via New York in the near future. Of course, I want quick expansion; but ultimately we have been quality- and service-driven in Japan, so we can’t forget that as we look abroad.

Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

  • 3

    sourpuss

    One important factor preventing progress in how women are viewed in the Japanese workplace is the ongoing prevalence of highly gendered uniforms

    Of course! All they have to do is change the way women dress, and then it'll be smoooooooothe sailing!

    (Shakes head in disbelief)

  • 4

    M3M3M3

    I actually agree that gendered uniforms are a problem. People outside Japan might not realise that many lower level female office workers in Japan (Office Ladies, or OLs) actually have to wear a uniform to work (sometimes a pretty pink one). They are not free to wear their own clothes.

    This might seem trivial at first, but it cements the idea that these are jobs only for women since there are no 'Office Boys' in Japan. Scrapping the uniforms would help women break through the OL ceiling and these jobs would just become unisex junior office worker positions, just like in most countries. It would benefit both men and women.

  • 0

    Alex Einz

    donno what she is talking about, in all my corporate jobs women basically wear whatever they want including jeans.. its men that are restricted and expected to wear "smart casual" at their freest...

  • 4

    SimondB

    The women in my office were not required to wear uniforms, But they generally agreed that if they were supplied with uniforms they would happily wear them as it would save them some Y100,000 a year in clothes. And I was at what would be seen or recognised as a very progressive workplace.

  • 1

    randomnator

    Of course! All they have to do is change the way women dress, and then it'll be smoooooooothe sailing! (Shakes head in disbelief)

    She wrote **one **important factor preventing progress. Not the only thing preventing progress and she is 100% on point. Don't shake too hard.

  • 0

    Elena GF

    I wear what I want in the office, and my colleagues do the same.

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