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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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FEBRUARY 11, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 5

Selling with Style
How Japan's Egoist fashion outlets popped to the top in the retailing business

Egoist denizens at the fashion label's store in trendy Shibuya Matthias Ley for Asiaweek
Last November, a suburban Tokyo branch of the Egoist fashion chain sold a record for the store of more than $90,000 worth of goods in one day. How? Thanks mainly to sales attendant Nakane Reiko just being herself - in an artificial kind of way. Nakane's technique is to lighten her hair, darken her skin with thick layers of foundation, whiten her eyes, clamber aboard impossibly high platform shoes and don something from the store's racks. The look is uniquely Japanese - and a magnet for young women armed with wads of yen and looking for ideas to spend them on.

Nakane's push-the-limits fashion sense and her ability to keep the cash register trilling all day long have earned her the title of "charisma sales clerk." When shoppers enter the Ohmiya store where the 20-year-old manages 12 other staff, they carefully eye her up and down to see what she has chosen that day and then head straight for her to grill her about her lipstick, what foundation she uses, how to make a hair-piece look natural and what she watches on TV. Almost without exception, they finish up buying something.

Cover: Change Is in the Air
The Internet education of Raymond Kwok
Extended online interview
Why property mogul Raymond Kwok is eyeing the Internet
Spreading the Risk
It's either bricks to clicks or the deep six

Selling with Style
How Japan's Egoist fashion outlets popped to the top in the retailing business

Already at record highs, Singaporean stocks may still surge

Until Gus Dur reforms immigration, battle the Indonesian system

South Korea: Revolt of the Citizens
A blacklisting campaign shocks lawmakers

Pakistan: Of Rhetoric and Reality
Why Pakistan is not declared a terrorist state

India: 'Pakistan Unpredictable'
But India can hold its ground, says Fernandes

Indonesia: Washington on Wahid
America's top man on East Asia applauds Indonesia's president

Thailand: The Enemy on the Border
More than anyone else, it's Myanmar United Wa State Army that threatens Thailand's security

Nakane and other super-salesgirls like her have turned Egoist into a veritable Japanese marketing phenomenon. A branch in the fashionable Shibuya district of the capital recorded till-melting sales of nearly $1.9 million last September. The Japan Economic Journal, the country's leading financial newspaper, ranked Egoist the most successful retailer last year for "hit products and trends."

Tokyo's fashion magazines, always sensitive to new ideas, have zoomed in on the store's charisma sales clerks with saturation coverage. Popteen recently devoted its entire issue to Egoist, emphasizing the boutique's main line of micro-miniskirts. All were modeled by one of the clerks, Morimoto Yoko. Some Egoist sales staff are replacing pop stars as the arbiters of style. But unlike their pretentious showbiz rivals, the girls behind the counter are willing to chat and dispense tips. Nakane happily poses for photographs with her awe-struck customers. "I just talk to shoppers like close friends, advising them on how they would look great in our products," she says. "The important thing is that they get to like our clothes."

Nakane is one of what are called ganguro, meaning "black face" - and they are on parade most Sundays in the Shibuya district. They totter around on their platforms, posing for photographers from street-fashion magazines (where the real style power lies in Japan), filling in questionnaires about their tastes and just talking trends. The girls move in packs, mainly for peer support in the face of sneers and teasing comments from passing menfolk.

Not so long ago, Nakane was out there with the Shibuya street clan, following, rather than setting, styles. That was just after high school, when she took a job as an office assistant. But already she had acquired a taste for lashings of make-up. "It's embarrassing to go out with your face naked," she says. "I think a face looks firmer and cuter when it's dark. And it's great for a woman to look beautiful. It makes her feel more confident."

The total Nakane look began to come together after she joined the Shibuya branch of Egoist, located in a silvery tube known as the "109 Building." She blossomed under the tutelage of the store management. Her hairstyles got a little bolder, her ensembles more provocative and eye-catching. "She's the best," says a store spokesman. Nakane's sales skills and off-beat look set her apart from other staff, even though some try - in vain - to style themselves after her.

As the super-salesgirl's fame spreads, she is attracting the attention of modeling agencies and television scouts. But so far she has not been tempted to cash in on her celebrity status - even though her salary is a fraction of what she could earn if she said sayonara to the shop-girl life. "I like this job," she says. So she lives with her mom and dad and rides the commuter train an hour and a half to work each day. Just like millions of other sales clerks, she says her big hope is simply to marry some day. Not everyone buys that.

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