A Foreigner's Experience Showing at Fashion World Tokyo

Posted by Craig Wesley on

For Anne & I, Japan is a very special place for us. We spent our honeymoon there, have spent endless hours watching Japanese & English language docu-series learning about Japanese food, and in many way Anne Wesley, the company, was founded because of one of our trips to Tokyo. Between Anne & I, we have individually or jointly visited Japan almost a dozen times, not including layovers. That being said, Fashion World Tokyo was probably one of our most devastating professional experiences, at least from a financial perspective. 

Anne and I exhibited at Fashion World Tokyo during the winter of 2015 under my former brand, Craig Wesley. If you noticed, then you saw I wrote "former brand" and unfortunately it has a lot to do with exhibiting at Fashion World Tokyo. First, I should mention that this was our first time exhibiting at a trade show, though we have attended almost a dozen other trade shows, mostly MAGIC Marketplace in Las Vegas and Pure in London. So obviously a great deal of our experience could have to do with lack of experience as exhibitors.

In terms of organization of the trade show, it is as professionally ran as you'd expect from a Japanese company. They have very good customer service, are very friendly, and professional. The foreign exhibitors team communicate in English and so I never found there to be a big language barrier. In terms of organization, I think they were extremely helpful, especially as we were first time exhibitors.

Because we are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, just about everything was organized off sight and through email. I think the most difficult part to organize was the custom display we had built, but that's just because it's hard to imagine the space without actually being there. For the most part, everything is laid out in the exhibitors manual. The hardest part logistically was about shipping samples from overseas. Unfortunately, I didn't find their information very useful and in the end we just carried in our samples by ourselves.

We hired the interpreter through the show organizer, which is the best bet because they have more favorable negotiated rates than if you were to negotiate directly with the interpreters. The interpreters work many different trade shows throughout the year, mostly at Big Sight, which is the location of the trade show. In many way, because there is a substantial language barrier, the interpreter is as much of a salesperson and cultural guide as they are an interpreter. Personally, I think we had a fantastic interpreter and we even ended up hiring her for additional days after the show for follow-up meetings.

The day before the show starts, the foreign exhibitors team holds a seminar essentially trying to help you get more visitors to your booth. The basic idea is to say "dozo," which is essentially "please" to tell visitors they are welcome to take a look. You know what, it works. There are people who probably feel to embarrassed to do sales or feel like its beneath them, but we had one of the busiest booths at the show. Not only because Anne and I would "dozo" everyone walking by, but also because our interpreter would always mention we were from the United States.

Just as a lot of Americans really value Japanese quality, craftsmanship, and products, the Japanese also have an appreciation for American brands. For example, probably one of the most popular boots to wear in Japan are Red Wings. I'm sure it doesn't just stop at the United States, but also extends to Western Europe.

Like I mentioned, we had one of the most popular booths at the show. It wasn't just the show representative who told us this, but almost half a dozen visitors. During the last two days of the show, I had visitors and exhibitors asking me about fashion design ideas and for the first time I felt like a real fashion designer. Months before the show, I had been driving with Lyft and Uber 50 hours a week and so the joke I was making with Anne was that in the US I was a driver, but in Japan I'm a fashion designer.

One exhibitor next to us was from Portugal and had a shoe brand and legitimate factory. He told me that if we didn't write orders at the show, then nobody is going to. Guess what, we didn't. We didn't write a single order during the show. Despite hiring a contracted sales rep to follow-up sales leads for another three months, we still didn't write any orders.

I had driven with Lyft and Uber for four months and had series of dangerous close calls to save up $10,000 for the show, as well as travel expenses. We lost it all in a span of three days. So while the actual show was a great experience and oddly felt like a success during it, financially it was one of the biggest blows that Anne and I ever had.

For about two months, I was personally devastated and a bit depressed. While Anne was still moving forward and trying to figure out a way for us to make money, I pretty much didn't want to do anything.

While I told you about our trade show neighbor from Portugal, I forgot to tell you about our neighbor on the other side from Japan. At the beginning of the show, he told us that Japan is really difficult to get orders written because there are so many layers to go through. I'm not sure if he was exaggerating, but he said to write one order takes at least six different signatures within a company. Which mean that almost no one writes orders at the show, not even Japanese brands write orders.

From my observation, this seemed true for almost the entire show. The brand directly facing us was a very established Japanese leather goods brand and I don't believe they wrote one order during the show as well. For anyone from the United States, this is almost unheard of at a fashion trade show. For anyone who's ever attended MAGIC Marketplace in Las Vegas, pretty much the only thing exhibitors are doing are taking orders. At least that's the point, to take orders at the show.

Because we hadn't written any orders at the show and were told it was all about the follow-up, we contracted someone to do follow-up sales for three months after the Fashion World Tokyo. Unfortunately, I do admit we hired a very weak sale rep to follow-up for us. In another life, I was a financial advisor, which is essentially a sales position, and I was fairly good at it and can generally tell a good sales rep from a bad one. On a side note, I was good at it not because I lied like 99% of sale people, but because I always told the truth and only sold products if it was a good fit for the customer. I turned down five digit commissions numerous times because I didn't think the client should invest. Anyway, point being, I'm able to read people fairly well, particularly sales reps, and unfortunately we went with someone within our budget rather than with real sales skills. To add insult to injury, we just lost another couple thousand because of that. 

Two plus years later, I can say that Fashion World Tokyo was a 100% financial loss. Unfortunately, I will not suggest it for any un-established brand from the USA. Even for established brands, I would have a few words of warning. If you cannot do follow-up sales, then there's also no point. By the way, we were also told that in Japan, companies don't pay for goods until after inspection, but the Japanese are very honest so it's not a scam or anything like that, but at the same time the product better be what is expected. If you're not willing to work with those terms, then it will also be better to avoid Japan.

Oddly enough, our specific trip to Fashion World Tokyo is also how Anne Wesley was started. After the show, we spent another week in and around Tokyo. It was during this trip that we bought a $50 starter leather crafting kit. Half of the tools from that kit we still use today to craft our Anne Wesley leather goods and essentially directly helped us make back all the money we lost during Fashion World Tokyo.

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