Japan's men's wear sales are on the up as the economy shrugs off a 10-year slump and cultural changes stemming from fears of global warming help shape demand. Building on this momentum, retailers and apparel makers are forecasting even better performance in 2006 and 2007 writes Michael Fitzpatrick.

Take a stroll through Tokyo's business district and you may be forgiven for thinking you have been transported to central Milan.

Gone is the bespectacled, shabby figure of the traditional bland corporate warrior in his washable nylon blue suit, replaced now by a dapper sort of middle-aged man or oyaji (old uncle) as men in their 40s and 50s are often referred to somewhat despairingly here.

This colourful new species are the Choiwaru Oji; the new sexy middle-aged men. Buoyed by a new confidence - courtesy of a newly rampant economy and a slew of media portraying Japan's older male generation in a more favourable light - older men have rediscovered the joy of shopping for clothes after a lost decade when men's clothing sales sagged dramatically.

Sales of men's wear grew 2.0% to JPY2.77 trillion (US$23.5bn) in fiscal 2005, against a 1.7% rise in total revenue in department stores reports leading business newspaper the Nikkei.

While according to Japan's fashion business bible the Senken Shimbun, men's wear sales have moved away from the once almighty department stores and other formats to that of the specialty stores.

Specialty stores now account for 52.4% of all men's wear sales in fiscal 2005 up from 51.7% the previous year. And Senken Shimbun puts any even rosier glow on overall
men's wear sales than the Nikkei figures, declaring growth of 3.7% in 2005 over 2004.

Specialty stores such as Aoyama Shoji are feeling the benefit as men change their purchasing habits, while increasing numbers of male shoppers are now looking to buy upscale clothing in surroundings where they feel comfortable.

Retailers jump on the bandwagon
Retailers catering for this demand have sprung around city business districts.

Typical of such stores, men's wear chain United Arrow launched a new line of stores named Darjeeling Days in pursuit of the new spending Choiwaru oji.

Characterised by dark wood furnishings, spacious dressing rooms and oversized leather sofas, outlets such as these are having no problem separating customers from GBP200 for a jacket, or GBP50 for a shirt.

Credit for kick-starting the Choiwaru Oji trend is 55-year-old magazine editor Mr Ichiro Kishida who first coined the phrase Choiwaru Oji. Now the tag is used to market everything from Ferraris to male makeup to a generation that is not afraid to pamper itself for the first time in nearly 15 years.

"Suddenly, the industry realised that there was still an untapped market that they haven't explored aggressively; and this is, of course, the men's market," Mr Kishida told American public service broadcaster the Nightly Business Report recently.

Kishida's publication Leon magazine grew to 100,000 readers from a few thousand in just three years and is ago largely credited with informing much of the new market. Its pages drip with the kind of merchandise the average Choiwaru Oji aspires to: Armani suits, Bulgari watches and the world's most expensive automobiles.

Italian celebrities and western male models grace the front cover wearing the kind of bright and daring colours that only the very brave would have worn to work until recently.

PM plays a part
Japan's most outlandish PM who just stepped down in September is also crediting with doing much to end the salaryman's slavish love of the lowest common denominator, conformist, cheap fashion.

Something of a law breaker than a law maker, sartorially speaking, Mr Junichiro Koizumi was noted for his Italian dress sense (mostly Armani) and for introducing two government initiatives that also drove men back to the shops for the first time in decades.

The shaggy haired prime minister famously introduced Cool Biz and Warm biz two years ago aimed at getting men out of their suits and ties for environmental reasons.

His suggestion was to keep the air-conditioning turned down in offices so that a change of office clothing was needed. Given the heave-ho were hot and tight jackets and ties in preference for something comfortably more-heat busting: short sleeved shirts and the like.

Sales of casual clothes blossomed after mandarins were seen marching off to work in short sleeve shirts and linen slacks.

Department store refurbishment
To take advantage of the new trend Japan's leading department store Isetan Co refurbished its nine-floor store specializing in men's fashion in Tokyo's Shinjuku area in September 2003.

The company invested JPY4.5bn in the operation while sales at this so-called Men's Building surged about 25% in the year to the end of August from the previous year according to the Kyodo New Agency.

"The business results were far better than we had expected," Hiroshi Onishi, general manager of the men's division at Isetan's merchandising headquarters told Kyodo News.

Foreign importers have not been slow to catch on either. Men's Italian, French and bespoke English imports have rocketed while local players see foreign brands as the key to satisfying the new spending men's needs.

Major trading house Itochu Corp recently bought a 40% interest in Paul Smith, making an investment of around JPY12bn in the brand.