In the past two years Kiwi fashion label Ketz-ke has cracked the highly competitive Japanese market. For owner-designer Jenny Drury, it’s a major step in her quest to achieve international recognition for her unique brand of clothing.
Jenny Drury has experienced first-hand the roller-coaster highs and lows of export fashion. Two years ago her Ketz-ke fashion label, which targets 18 to 45 year old women, was selling in 278 stores across the US. However, dealing through their initial third party distributor proved too hard – with storage charges, poor debt collection and other overheads “gobbling up” precious profits. She eventually found distributors who could take on debt collection, but that proved to be only a temporary solution.
“It is hard to find distributors in the US at the moment willing to take on that debt problem,” Drury says; we’re sitting in her seaside Milford home which also doubles as an office and distribution centre. “Everyone wants to get commission for selling your product, but nobody wants to be your distributor.”
The US is, for now, in the too-hard basket, but Ketz-ke is still managing to gain overseas market penetration. Launched in 2008, the label is currently stocked in 90 stores across New Zealand, as well as in Australia, Rarotonga, Japan, and China (where she has a partnership with her manufacturer and her clothing is customised for Chinese fashion preferences).
Australia is a well-worn path for fledgling Kiwi fashion labels – so you may be wondering how the big leap to Japan came about?
Drury says it all started by ‘googling’ contacts in Japan, targeting people who were already distributing similar labels to Ketz-ke and inviting them by email to check out her website.
She eventually found one who was interested and flew over in 2012 for a meeting.
As it turned out, the meeting didn’t get off to a very good start because Drury’s taxi driver had difficulty finding the right address (not all street signs are in English). “Even when we found the right building there was no numbering system. It took us around an hour to negotiate all the little nooks and crannies to find the right office.”
The lesson here? Always have addresses written down in the local language.
There was also a major language barrier at the meeting itself.
“It’s hard initially to get your personality across,” she recalls. “The owner spoke no English and so I had to speak through the company’s sales rep.”
Despite the language barrier, the meeting proved fruitful. Drury believes the awareness and love the Japanese have for New Zealand had a lot to do with her successful reception.
Ketz-ke’s foray into the Japanese market will be in small steps, she says. “A bit like the way I started my business in New Zealand.”
Fortunately the Japanese are very loyal; it’s in their culture, she says.
Drury’s Japanese distributor put her label into Tokyo’s hottest fashion districts, and next on the radar will be the department stores. “The strategy when launching our fashion label is to get into the independent stores first; get all the systems set up and running; and then target the department stores.”
The Japanese only buy two sizes: S and XS – and her garments suit Japanese women perfectly, Drury informs me. “The Japanese are very fashion-savvy; they love asymmetric, oversized garments, and they have similar colour and style taste to us,” she says. “They’re more relaxed than the Chinese in their style – and while older women may be more sophisticated, younger Japanese girls are fashion leaders."
While there are exceptional fashion designers based in Japan, Drury says the Japanese love the ‘New Zealand-designed aspect’ of her clothing. Truth be told, that’s the point of difference in successfully building her brand there, she says. “That’s why I have to go over there so often, they even love to hear the way I speak,” she laughs.
“But that aside, they love the fact that Ketz-ke garments suit the climate of both countries.”
Fashion is increasingly a ‘trans-seasonal’ industry, she points out, and with the Japanese market in the Northern Hemisphere, it means their seasonal buying cycle runs six months behind New Zealand’s. Shipping her clothing from the Chinese factory to the Japanese market is an easy process to manage, and Drury can see the day when she’ll also ship to other Asian markets, such as South Korea.
However, with an airline pilot husband and a son, plus her ‘hands-on’, in-control approach to business there’s not enough time or desire for ‘global domination’. Between the business and her home commitments Drury more than has her hands full. “I’m involved in every aspect of my business; from accounts to design to despatch,” she says.
Her team includes two full-time staff, sister Brenda who assists with design, and several part timers when it gets busy.
Just like the US market, Drury says the Japanese market requires persistent effort to crack. It’s a challenge working through an interpreter, and difficult speaking by phone, so she’s had to rely on email for the bulk of communication with her distributor. Unlike the Australians who can take three days to respond to an email, she finds the Japanese are always quick to hit the reply button – their efficiency levels are right up there, she says.
Drury says she’s established her brand in Japan totally through her own efforts, but has since received a number of offers of assistance, primarily via the Ketz-ke Facebook site.
Her biggest lesson to pass on? Be patient and the rewards will come. “You can’t be too impatient taking on Japan, and it does all come down to getting that right contact in the first place,” she says.
Glenn Baker is editor of Exporter.