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7.23.2012

Post-Quake New Values: the Value of Safety and Rethinking Real Wealth

"Our values have changed significantly since the Great East Japan Earthquake (of 11 March 2011)" is a common phrase voiced in Japan today.

After witnessing and experiencing the horror of lives and towns being swept away, many turned to the immaterial treasures in life. Traditional marriages and weddings increased. The word of the year in 2011 was "bond" or "connectedness," kizuna.

The nuclear power plant accident put focus on securing safe and reliable food. It brought to light many things that we previously took for granted living in an industrialized country,

While Tokyo and its vicinity shrunk back in shock and fear after the disasters, especially since its residents realized how disaster un-ready the capitol is; further west in Japan, the region that had risen from the devastation of the Great Hanshin Earthquake (of 17 Jan 1995) rallied to keep the economy going and to support compatriots in many direct and indirect ways. The vibes and energy around Osaka and Kobe fueled by determination to get the country back on its feet were a stark contrast to the post-trauma glumness that shrouded Tokyo.

We discovered that friends in need are friends indeed with all the generous support we got from overseas. Comments like "now it is our turn to help Japan" that came from neighboring developing countries brought hot tears to our eyes in gratitude. At the same time, both at national and personal levels, many of us learned who our "fake" friends are as well.

It is now more than a year since the devastation, and we still have some displaced families living in makeshift housing as testimony that while the hype may be over in the eyes of many, the scars will take much longer to heal.

I may not be the most typical Japanese consumer, but I find myself caught between self-preservation (which includes my immediate family) decisions or simply put, choosing more selfish options vs. what may be the more virtuous decision when I receive fliers promoting agricultural goods grown in the affected areas.

I have restarted my subscription to an organic and safe foods supplier whose straw mushrooms cost more than three times what I pay in the local supermarket because they guarantee that the radiation levels of their goods is less than half of what the government standards say is safe. They have full disclosure on where the goods were grown, and some items, like kiwi fruit, come from overseas growers.

My former classmates and I have engaged in discussions on Facebook about the price of safe food by sharing posts like: vegetables grown locally is 100 yen, those coming from (supposedly unaffected) Hokkaido is 300 yen, and those coming from Tohoku is 80 yen... I caved in when I thought of my kids and paid 300 yen because we are also sort of in the "hot zone."

We are honest to admit that we would love to support Tohoku, but when it comes to what we feed our children, we find it hard to take any risks if we can afford avoiding them. A different classmate who has no children said, "households like ours will take the Tohoku stuff, don't worry!"

I have been following The Tohoku Cotton Project, a project in Tohoku where they have begun to grow cotton in what was once fields growing rice and other produce because cotton is more resilient to the harsh salination the soil has been subjected to by the tsunami. The first round of crops has been blended with organic cotton from Uganda and supima cotton from the US and have been made into jeans, towels, polo shirts, and stoles. As if the earthquake was not enough, some of the crops were destroyed last September in a typhoon that flooded the fields, but they were able to yield approximately 80kg from the first "test." (As a jeans fanatic, of course I had to get both the men's straight leg and the women's tapered leg jeans!)

It is a shame the English site does not have adequate content. The comments by the growers on how the project is helping them is worthy of translation. I am sure they decided not to spend too much money on translation, so I have volunteered my services to them last week. Let's see if they take it up!

Getting back to thinking about the things we now value more than before - there seems to be a bit of an aversion from the lavish consumption of the past. Maybe it is just my friends, but there is a rising interest in purging their excessive belongings to keep only what is worth keeping.

I, too, am guilty of being surrounded by many things, and I recall thinking that even if I were to lose everything overnight, the only real precious "things" in my life are my family. Of course, as a lover of beautiful things, I will miss all the wonderfully elaborate things I have collected over the years, but as Lady Amanda Harlech commented in an interview with VOGUE NIPPON, "all pret a porter clothes are things of the past the moment they are born. The moment of their birth means death and they become a part of a vicious cycle to keep on creating new things." And then she says haute couture is different. Because each and every stitch is made with the utmost care and love by the artisans and craftsmen, so they are designed to endure the times and to be loved for generations. So, by that token, many of my beautiful possessions would have been declared long dead by the time I first slipped my body in to them. And perhaps, the same can be said about the branded jewelry that I don that are not bespoke.

There was a woman I once saw on a train in Tokyo, who was dressed in a simple turtleneck sweater and long skirt with heeled shoes. Nothing shouted the brand name or logo, but she stood out in the crowd because everything she was wearing was obviously well-crafted. Every minute detail from fibre to drape to cut shouted quality. And for the longest time, I remember trying to understand what made such a difference.

As I jump on the bandwagon of danshari or purging of my belongings, I have begun to understand what made her different.

I know so many people who say,
"I have beautiful Baccarat tumblers but in daily life, I only use Ikea glasses," or
"I spend thousands of dollars at branded boutiques, but my daily work clothes are from UNIQLO."
And I realize that I can be guilty of the same, treating the expensive things as being "too precious" and not enjoying them daily.

How many times have I taken a huge leap to purchase that expensive piece of garment/shoes/bag only to hide them in my closet and let the world see me in my cheaper, less precious items? How many times have I been crushed to see that the garment I bought at full price ended up being marked down before I even actually wore it?

I realized that by hiding away my "Sunday Best" or accumulating a huge inventory of "Sunday Bests," that never come out of my closet, I project an image of being ordinary and donning items of lesser quality and/or lower prices.

Now that I am purging my wardrobe of long-forgotten, less than favourite items, my daily wardrobe has become more "me" and more exciting. I have lesser items to choose from, but every item is a favourite and precious, so it is more fun and more exciting to dress myself daily, right down to the white T shirt and jeans because now that T shirt is either a Helmut Lang, a Kamishima Chinami Yellow, a Yohji Yamamoto, a Comme des Garcons, or an Isabelle Marant, or an Acne. My UNIQLOs have become night shirts and workout shirts.

I now also have a renewed appreciation for bespoke and one-off items, some of which I make myself. Choosing the yarns or fabrics as well as the trims is the fun part. And the labour is one of love.

I now follow artisans like Joel Storella who make one-off bespoke bags.

And as I have vowed before, I am now more determined than ever before to ensure that my son and daughter learn early on the joys of wearing perfectly tailored shirts as opposed to trying to fit into one that fits his/her budget.

Clothes and possessions should not define a person, but complement him/her.
Yves Saint Laurent said that clothes should complement a woman, not overshadow her character and beauty.

My friends and I spend more time talking about spending money on items made by craftsmen who preserve our cultural heritage and ways of life. The Tohoku Cotton Project is a nice one, but there are other regions in need of support like Wajima, where beautiful lacquer ware is produced or Nagata, once the heart of Japanese shoes manufacturing.

If the early mark downs this season that started with DM after DM of "secret sales" in early June is an indication, perhaps there is a rising number of consumers who are buying less volume and seeking out quality.

We continue to see less obvious fashion trends and less change between seasons so unless one is Anna Dello Russo and needs to be wearing the most iconic items at the beginning of the season, it is hard to need to buy things at full price at any given time. Of course, even the most militant purger or vigilant and shrewd saver may fall in love with an item that must be bought at whatever moment, but unless goods stir that kind of passion and lust in a person, they become harder to sell. And how often does one walk into a store to see no difference in the garments hung on the racks that say "New" or "Just In" vs. those marked down?

I am sure it would be easier if everyone can be like my friend who never marks anything down, ever. (Instead, she allows her best clients to put aside whatever they fancy when they fancy for as long as they like because they never betray her. I am sure she does her buying knowing who among them would buy what item every season.)

But even Rei Kawakubo of Comme de Garcons needs to burn leftover inventory at the end of the season so we still have an abundance of goods that need to be marked down earlier and earlier each season.

Many retailers have been saying now for a few seasons that if there happens to be an IT item, it is either that or nothing. Once upon a time, if the item in question was not available, retailers were able to sell things that was close enough to that item. That is no longer the case in Japan.

Isabel Marant is very conscious of this fact. She repeatedly says in interviews that when she creates a collection, she is asking herself how she could create items that people who don't need any more new clothes would want. As her eponymous brand and ETOILE are both growing at alarming speed, she has her finger on the pulse.

My six-year old daughter has long been choosing her own clothes when we shop. And she loves to shop. "It feels so good to buy new clothes!" she recently declared.

But she is also a very clear on what she wants and if she walks into a store and cannot find anything she wants, she is happy to walk straight out empty handed. This distresses me when she has outgrown all her shoes and desperately needs a new one, but her attitude is very much the mood I see in many consumers.

And what I have learned from her is that if there is a dress one likes, then one should wear it daily.Never mind that it is decorated with tulle lace and ribbon flowers. At the rate she is growing, if I had only allowed her to wear it on special occasions, she would not have gotten much wear out of it. But because she insisted on making it part or her daily wardrobe, she got a LOT of wear out of it. I guess in that sense, she is closer to Anna Dello Russo, who sees no distinction between evening gowns and day dresses, than I am.

It makes me think that true wealth is being surrounded by "Sunday Bests" every day to enrich one's life for oneself, not to show off or to entertain.

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