David Blecken
Sep 11, 2018

Zozo and the new world of apparel marketing

The innovative Japanese retailer is at the forefront of fundamental change in the way fast fashion brands engage with their customers.

A still from a video demonstration of the Zozosuit.
A still from a video demonstration of the Zozosuit.

When the owner of Japanese online clothing retailer Zozotown announced the launch of its own custom-fit label Zozo in July, it threw down the gauntlet to all mass clothing retailers, offering an exciting new perspective on a sector that has been devoid of any real innovation for years.

While it’s made for good PR, the Zozosuit, which enables people to record their exact measurements using a system of dots and a smartphone app, is more than a stunt. With its introduction, Start Today, which owns the Zozo private label, is essentially betting that the future of mass-market clothing retail lies in affordable tailored items, purchased without having to leave the house.

As of 31 July, Zozo had shipped 1,128,333 Zozosuits for recording measurements. It uses the data to produce bespoke T-shirts and jeans, as well as men’s suits. Yet the concept is not as easy a sell as it might sound. An obvious question is how much attention the typical fast fashion consumer pays to the fit of their T-shirt or jeans (items currently available using the Zozosuit).

“We have to admit there is some need for education—that sizing matters,” says Shintaro Tabata, Start Today’s executive officer of communication design, who joined about six months ago from Line. (Start Today is a former client.) Tabata wears bespoke jeans and T-shirt, which he says have become “like a uniform” for him.

Shintaro Tabata joined Start Today from Line. (Photo: Start Today)

“Right now, we are developing the marketing message towards prospective customers. Fitting clothes to the body is not enough to generate broad demand. We need to convey that fitting the body well means making you more cool, sexy or smart. That’s the challenge we’re facing.”

An item that more obviously benefits from bespoke services is the business suit, which Zozo offers in Japan. At just under 22,000 yen ($200), it’s an appealing alternative to an ill-fitting off-the-peg number from a typical salaryman’s retailer. Tabata thinks it’s a good way to demonstrate what Zozo is able to do based on data from the measurement suit, because formal suits are among the most difficult items of clothing to make well. In the future, Tabata says Zozo envisages further expanding the range of bespoke items it offers.

Made-to-order as standard

Both Amazon and Uniqlo are dabbling with bespoke services. Last April, Amazon patented an on-demand manufacturing system, and has explored ways of taking measurements using a 3D body scanner. Uniqlo offers what it calls a “tailor-made feel” for its shirts by allowing customers to specify fit and length within a certain range and combine different features.

At this stage, neither effort seems as committed as Zozo’s. Tabata sees Zozo as resolving a fundamental issue—that affordable clothes that fit well should be a priority, not a ‘nice-to-have’. What the three companies have most in common through their initiatives is the potential to gather vast amounts of personal customer data that was previously unavailable to them.

At a press event last year, Dai Tanaka, group SVP of project management for Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing, said that ultimately, Uniqlo planned to get to a stage where it “only produces products that customers want”, moving from a sequential manufacturing process to a real-time one.

“Everything will be based on the information that customers provide so the planning phase will be much quicker. The monthly production cycle will be converted to a weekly cycle. We also want to keep tweaking products with customers as they evolve.”

It’s a grand vision that’s difficult to turn into reality. Zozo’s Tabata admits that making clothes, let alone tailoring them, is proving more challenging than expected for a company with little experience of manufacturing. “Our respect for Uniqlo has become much stronger,” he says.

A recent manifestation of listening more closely to customers is the Uniqlo IQ application, a digital assistant that helps people find and select clothes while gathering data to understand their preferences. Rei Inamoto, the founder of Inamoto & Co, who developed the service in collaboration with Party, said the service was likely to become “fundamental in how Uniqlo does business”.

The Zozosuit communicates sizing data to a phone app

For Zozo, bespoke tailoring is not intended to replace the core retail business of Zozotown, which stocks a wide range of fashion labels, but to complement it by enabling the company to recommend the most suitable products based on user data.

“In the long-run, we might see it as something like a platform,” Tabata says. “In five or 10 years, we might open up our user data to external fashion brands. We are not thinking about that right now. But [it’s clear that] collecting user body data could play a much broader role.”

Personalisation makes a lot of sense at the fast fashion level because it stands to make what is supposed to be a convenient service even more convenient, observes Stephen Cox, CEO of Havas Japan.

Cox thinks people are likely to enjoy being part of the new technological movement that the Zozosuit represents. He also points to the fact that Japanese convenience stores adjust their product range depending on the time of day to illustrate that people have come to expect some degree of tailoring even at the most basic level of retail. He says the service is potentially even more useful outside Japan, in markets where physical retail outlets are less plentiful or more spread out.

The success of bespoke services in fast fashion depends on two things, he says: the ease with which a customer can register their order, and the ease, speed and quality with which the retailer can provide it. “It gets rid of a lot of the barriers, as long as it doesn’t create new ones,” he says.

Building a ‘pathfinder’ brand

In a statement that brings to mind Uber’s proposition—to offer “transportation that is as reliable as running water”, Tabata says he does not want Zozo to be seen purely as a fashion brand. “It should be a broader infrastructure, like electricity or waterworks,” he says.

Tabata, who has worked in the marketing field for 15 years, says he joined Start Today because the founder, Yusaku Maezawa, won him over with his grand vision and a brand of entrepreneurship that is rare in Japan. At 43, the billionaire former punk musician is young, colourful, and as a prominent art collector has strong connections to the cultural world in Japan and internationally.

Maezawa’s character and personal social media presence are likely to play an important role in building the Zozo brand, Tabata thinks. He says large scale advertising may play a role in promoting the private label in the future, but social media, helped by Maezawa’s celebrity connections, will be the foundation.

Zozo is set to replace Start Today as a corporate brand as well as a consumer one from October. The private label aims to generate up to 200 billion yen in sales by its third year of operation, 40% internationally. Outside Japan though, it’s an unknown quantity, and Tabata admits that there is no clear strategy as yet beyond giving away up to 10 million measurement suits by the end of next March. Tabata thinks the reduced wastage and environmental impact that bespoke clothing implies could help differentiate the brand in markets where people put emphasis on sustainability.

So far, the company has marketers in Los Angeles and Berlin, and Tabata says it is looking to recruit more and is paying special attention to Southeast Asia. But with a goal of being “a universal brand for over 7 billion people”, he says it’s difficult to list priority markets aside from China and India, which are critical given the size of their populations.

“The brand is not known in these markets,” he says. “East Asia has more affinity with Japanese culture, so some people say, you should prioritise those markets. That’s not wrong, but we are working simultaneously on the full global market. We have to admit we’re completely at the beginning, so we should learn from actual results and after that we should prioritise.”

Tabata says he does not intend to play up the fact that Zozo is Japanese. “We want to be universal, so we don’t want to emphasise it,” he says. While the international success of brands like Uniqlo or Muji offer a good case study up to a point, “we don’t want to be categorised,” Tabata explains. His hope is that Zozo inspires new business models in other sectors.

“We think in the 21st century, mass production should be obsolete,” he says. “We believe every product should come from personalised demand. In that context, we think the Zozo brand should be that of a pathfinder. We think other interesting examples [of personalisation] will follow us. They could come from the cosmetics industry, or food, or medicine.”

Campaign Japan

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