News reached us this week that cult men’s brands Phenomenon and Swagger (both helmed by designer Takeshi Osumi – aka Big O) have filed for bankruptcy protection just shy of one month ahead of Tokyo Fashion Week this March.  The trail leads right back to Alison, the company behind the brand, who too is scheduled to be disolved due to accumulated debts (some 547 million Yen – a truly staggering figure).  Without exception everyone I have spoken too has been surprised by both the news and the numbers involved, but looking beyond the hype you can start to put the picture together.  After all, Phenomenon has been particularly bombastic with its presentations the last three Fashion Weeks, the three since Mercedes-Benz put their hand on the wheel and the three where the price of putting on a show has rocketed well into the stratosphere.  It must also be said that obviously in these kinds of situations everyone is quick to compare the situation to Nigo and BAPE, but I would hold off on that until we know the full details.

So if the money has largely gone on the promotion and creation of hype that came naturally to the ura-hara scene in the late 90s, then why wasn’t it coming back?  The short answer is that looking at (particularly) Phenomenon’s takings, the figures read quite well, but just maybe not quite well enough for the amount going out.  But putting aside the financial side of things (which will no doubt unfold in time), is there anything in the design that has lost the support of the backers?  Certainly the avant-garde street level anarchy the brand used to be synonymous with, and which I have fond memories of from the Shinjuku 2-Chome days of Candy, where street wear was spliced with armor and iconic pieces of street art seemed to effortlessly fall on to the racks, seems to have all but faded.  This does makes sense for any developing designer, especially as Phenomenon was looking like it was ripe for international expansion, but was it starting to feel a little too conservative?

Personally, I always used Phenomenon as one of the key barometers of menswear in Japan, I think it nailed trends one after the other and made some of the most innovative menswear out there.  Granted the most recent collection did feel a little too safe for me, maybe a bit too European for the face of Tokyo menswear, but still a fine showing none the less.

At any rate you can make your own mind up:

So where does this leave us?  Currently Alison is looking for a potential backer for Phenomenon and that is going to determine both the future of the brand in the long term and whether we will see it on a runway this March.

I sorely hope that a buyer is found who can keep the brand kicking and Takeshi Osumi designing the work that has quite rightly earned him the reputation as the face of Tokyo menswear.  Certainly if this kind of talent is allowed to fall by the wayside, Tokyo will have made a serious mistake.

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7 Responses to Phenomenon – A Faltering Swagger?

  1. BIG DAVE KNOWS! says:

    ummm the internet changed japan fashion soo much- once pre 2008 it was underground, too say that you had to go to japan, or buy japanese magazines to be part of it… now all you see is H&M, topshop, adidas forever21 etc….just buying there way into the scene… kind of mass cheese..

    which is a real shame for small, or smallish japanese companies and shops etc..

  2. BIG DAVE KNOWS! You’re exactly right, I totally agree. Its sad to see how especially Harajuku has become so incredibly commercial. I feel like we saw a bit of an underground/avant garde “fight back” even after ’08 until now. (Koenji’s Kitakore building, and very small shops and small designers still having a really good reputation with the people in the know). I’m living in Japan now, and honestly I feel like the energy even amongst the small highly conceptual vintage shops and avant garde type shops has dwindled just a little bit. I think the economy in Japan right now may be affecting the average buyer at the moment, but I really hope that we can continue to see really creative brands and shops doing what they do well. Something that is truly special to Tokyo on a global scale.
    With that said…the “underground” or even really “unique” fashion has become so mainstream in Tokyo (again, especially when you compare to other major cities in the world), it seems like fashion culture has kind of maxed out, and there is maybe just way TOO much competition. I don’t know. I’d be interested to hear more of Samuel’s opinion.
    As for Phenomenon..I do feel like they are extremely “on trend”, but again, with so many different “unique” brands to choose from, I didn’t really see anything that personally interested me so much in that last collection. Maybe a lot of people felt the same way….I liked it, but there wasn’t anything I felt like I needed to buy or couldn’t live without.

  3. Samuel says:

    In the case of Phenomenon, I think they benefitted greatly from the surge in interest, both domestically and internationally online, for “avant-garde street style” in the late 00s and that brought a whole lot of money in, even against the backdrop of rising fast fashion supremacy.

    What we have seen in the last 2-3 years is a revert to much more conservative fashion overall, particularly in menswear, and with that a lot of money has left the scene. Because Phenomenon had such high operating costs (this is not a tiny underground brand by anyone’s standards), this hit especially hard and the fact that they moved with the times and went for a more preppy vibe for the last couple of seasons might have just cost them their lustre.

    At any rate, I think it comes down to a simple fact that they spent themselves into a hole and no amount of talent can save you from that. In the context of Japanese fashion as a whole, I would agree that right now current tastes have shifted slightly away from experimental brands and more towards heritage and authenticity, but no doubt things will change and keep changing – that is the fun of fashion. The best thing about Tokyo is that even when something is not in vogue, there is still nearly always a customer base who will support it.

  4. Seijaku says:

    thanks Samuel for this shocking news! Hopefully a plan will be found to keep Phenomenon alive and bring the brand back on track. Indeed, the last collection doesn’t seem of any interest. Why do you make the comparison with Nigo at Bape? It would be great if you could develop. Thanks, Christophe.

  5. Samuel says:

    @ Seijaku

    Thanks for your comment, my comparison with Nigo at Bape was only in reference to that fact that Nigo (as he himself admits) drove the brand into the ground through poor accounting and forced the sale of the business to I.T. as a means of avoiding bankruptcy. I am not saying that is what went on at Phenomenon and frankly we won’t know what did until Big-O himself decides to speak out about the situation.

    At any rate it is something to keep your eye on and we will just have to see how the pieces settle…

  6. Seijaku says:

    thanks Samuel. True, Nigo was certainly a bit too “funky” to manage the finances like most creators. May I share this article with you to see if you agree.
    urahara the rise and fall

  7. Samuel says:

    @ Seijaku

    Very interesting, and I do think there is an argument to say that the essence of Urahara as a place for nurturing the successive movements in Japanese fashion still exists.

    You can look back to the mid 2000s and see the decline of the UraHara boom, but also see those cult locations replaced with by the Gyaru-O shops that themselves all but disappeared by 2010 to relocate in Shibuya. Now Nadia and Pinnap rule the roost with once again a completely different style, one that is already set to graduate the area.

    Overall I think there is a difference between UraHara as a term coined for the specific style that made the area famous, and the area itself as a gathering point for movements in general.

    Thank you for your article – it has given me a lot to think about.

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