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My Japanology / Strong brand traits allowed deeper connection to culture

Eri Konno/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Pascal Senkoff speaks to The Japan News at the headquarters of Levi Strauss Japan K.K. in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The Yomiuri ShimbunDue to two remarkable factors — the flourishing economy and his family ties — it was natural for a young Frenchman to make his first visit to Japan in the 1980s. Since then, Pascal Senkoff, president of Levi Strauss Japan K.K. (see below), has deepened his relationship with the country not only in the apparel business, but also in society. Senkoff recently talked with The Japan News about a broad range of subjects, including changes in fashion trends and his current business, along with offering some humble advice.

Q: In terms of the fashion industry, Japan’s market is saturated.

Senkoff: We don’t see any organic growth in this market, but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow. If we look at the performance of Levi’s Japan for the past four years, we have been growing almost in double digits now. The way to grow is different from organic because you need to be very creative and innovative, and you need to be totally in tune with the needs and requirements of the customers in Japan, which require a very different treatment and approach from other markets, such as China, Europe.

Q: What is the secret behind the growth?

A: I don’t think there’s a secret, but the “recipe” is having the capabilities. First of all, the No. 1 and key asset of Levi’s is the brand, because the brand equity of Levi’s is very strong. Everybody knows Levi’s, everybody likes Levi’s, in a sense. What our job here in Japan is, is to make sure and try to connect the Levi’s brand to great profit and assortment with the specific needs.

We have the capabilities to sell our product at different price points and to serve different distribution channels under the same umbrella of Levi’s.

Q: A full lineup attracts various types of customers.

A: Yes, and also one area that’s not specific to Japan. We are also opening the category of products for [lifestyle]. We used to sell mostly men’s bottom jeans, but also now we are slowly becoming more of a lifestyle brand. By doing that, we are not selling only men’s bottoms, we are selling as well women’s bottoms, and one category where we’re growing very fast is in women’s bottoms and women’s tops as well, and that really helps us to grow.

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  • Eri Konno/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Senkoff emphasizes the strengths of Levi Strauss, saying, “Because we are the extreme opposite of fast fashion, we are a slow fashion company, I think that resonates more with the Japanese consumer.”

Q: More women want to wear men’s clothes?

A: Yes, exactly. You have more women who want to wear men’s clothes. For example, we have a product line called LVC — Levi’s Vintage Clothing — and almost 20 percent of the men’s products have been bought by women.

Q: Do you think that this reflects changes in Japanese society?

A: I think so, too. Japanese society is moving slowly in that sense. Because I’m not [only] managing Japan and living in Japan, but also looking after other markets like Korea, what is very interesting for me looking at Korea and Japan, they are very close from a distance point of view, but in terms of consumers, are very different.

Women in Korea: She wants to be more beautiful, she tries to be more sexy. In Japan: Beautiful means kawaii, it’s more cute. In Korea, we’re selling more skinny jeans, more tight jeans and more sexy jeans. But for Levi’s in Japan, we’re selling more boyfriend jeans. It’s very relevant for the cute kawaii look, so the women in Japan are very strong and very good at creating their own style.

Q: One of the biggest Levi’s stores in Asia opened in Osaka in October 2017. How is it going?

A: I think it’s doing very well. We chose Osaka because we thought it’s a good place to open a big store because Osaka customers are spending more money compared to Tokyo. They enjoy life, they need to go out eating, and we found the right place. It made a lot of sense. Based on the success of this store and because the store did even better [than expected] in terms of performance, we have decided as well to open an even bigger store in Tokyo, and that will be in July.

Relative’s links to Japan

Q: What was your first encounter with Japan?

A: My first encounter with Japan was in 1986, and it was almost my first job. I was assigned to a two-year job in [South] Korea, but being physically in Seoul, I had the opportunity to come and visit Japan. I was very surprised by the differences between Korean culture and Japanese culture and the different level of development at the time in 1986.

I came a couple of times when I was living in Korea. Then I went back to France and I was really interested by Japanese culture. At the time it was really the boom and the bubble, and I had a dream to come and to live and to work in Japan. After a couple of years in France, I finally found a company that was kind enough to send me for a first assignment.

[The first visit] was very personal because my family had some links with Japan many years ago. Actually, my great-great-grandfather was sent from France to Japan in 1902. At the time, it was the Meiji era and Japan was opening up to the rest of the world and was acquiring innovation, technology and know-how from different countries. [He] was in the French Navy, he was an admiral, and he was assigned to and lived in Japan for five years.

Q: You have a vast amount of experience working in other countries. Based on your wisdom, what is the strength of Japan?

A: I think it’s the level of detail and the passion for what they do. It’s not only about work, but Japanese people — most of them because you cannot say all — I think they are 100 percent devoted to what they do. It could be music, it could be sports, it could be business — I see the devotion for the task and the devotion for what they’re currently doing. So for me, this is one of the keys to success and reasons Japan is successful and unique.

Q: How about its weaknesses?

A: It would be good if they become more positive. [Compared to] other countries, there are so many great things in Japan [but] Japanese society is probably too negative, and they need to enjoy more, they need to be more optimistic about the future. I know demographics are declining, I know there is no growth and the GDP has been almost flat or in stagflation for several years. But this is why I admire Japan, because even though there is no growth, the Japanese people are still having a very high standard of living. How to become more optimistic about the future — that’s something that eventually will be good [for Japan].

The last thing I think that Japan is doing more of is to be more open to the rest of the world. I think [the Olympics] will be great, then we have the exposition in 2025 as well for Japan to really showcase more about what they’re good at, for Japan to be more proud of what they achieved in the past. So that will probably be one thing that I think will help for Japan to sell Japan to the rest of the world. You see now there are more tourists coming to Japan. Maybe a couple of years ago Chinese tourists were visiting Japan to buy. Today, they buy still, but they come to live the Japanese experience, they come to have the Japanese food experience, they come to visit onsen, they come to visit places. You go anywhere in Japan you have tourists now, and I think it’s great for Japan to be more open, and they are more open for the rest of the world to recognize what Japan has to offer.

Q: Could you give some advice to Japanese businesspeople in general?

A: There is no limit, the sky has no limit, and for the Japanese person it’s probably first of all to learn English. One thing I hope will not be taken that negatively: When I was here in the ’80s, young people were more open to the rest of the world. Young people were traveling, more people were open to learning a foreign language, and for them to discover the world. Today, sometimes I feel the young generation are not so open to the rest of the world. You are welcoming foreigners to come and tourists, fine. But for you to go overseas, if you look at the amount of younger people traveling, if you look at the number of young Japanese studying overseas at American universities, whatever, it’s declining every year. That to me is kind of a bad thing because I think there is a lot of potential. Young people have great potential, but they need to embrace this global kind of economy and the world outside Japan.

I understand Japan is a big island, fine. But I think young people need to be more confident in their capabilities and more confident they can compete.

It’s sometimes quite difficult because we are Levi’s, we are international. For example, we are sending people from China, from Korea, from Taiwan, from India overseas to take assignments. In Japan, it’s very difficult to have Japanese people take overseas assignments, and it’s getting more and more complicated. That area, [if] you ask me, I can advise: Don’t be afraid, take the risk.

That’s because maybe because they feel not so comfortable in English. They speak good English but they feel, “Oh, I’m not good enough, I don’t dare to.” But dare to take the challenge, take the risk and your English will get better after one year or two. But I think you should take the risk to go overseas. That would be my one piece of recommendation.

Reading Shibuya intersection

Q: Are there any cultural, societal things unique to Japan that have positively affected your life?

A: The trust. I think because I work in different countries, different environments, and in Japan you trust people. When you do business, you can really trust the people. It’s a very safe society, it’s a very peaceful society, there is no violence, and that’s really something that changed my ways of working, living.

[For example, at] Shibuya crossing you have hundreds of people crossing at the same time as you, nobody touching you. You go to Shanghai, you cross the street, it’s war, people will push — it’s a different behavior. It’s not a judgment, it’s really how to respect other people, and that’s something I learned from Japan. The first thing you learn in life in Japan is to respect others. How you position yourself against others, that’s something because French people are somehow very selfish and very egotistic in a sense. That’s something I’m learning every day because it’s a long journey to be less and less of an egoist, less and less selfish, and to be caring for others and more respectful of others. That’s something, working and living in Japan, I think really improved and changed my perception to really be more respectful of other people.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Deputy Editor Takeshi Nagata.

— Profile

In 2014, Senkoff assumed his current position as well as managing director for North Asia, responsible for the retail operations of Levi Strauss & Co. Japan and Korea. Originally from Nice, France, he has spent more than 30 years in Asia, with the last 10 in Japan. Before joining the company, the apparel industry veteran headed up Italian brand Benetton in Korea and Japan. He distributed fabrics for the Japanese apparel and fashion industry as his first assignment almost 30 years ago.

Senkoff has a BA in Marketing from Nice University France, an MBA from the Insead Executive Marketing Program and has also completed the Harvard Business School Executive Program.

— Levi Strauss Japan K.K.

The U.S. clothing maker Levi Strauss & Co. began importing and selling its globally known brand Levi’s jeans in Japan in 1971, marking the company’s first official entry into the Asian marketplace.

Eleven years later, in 1982, Levi Strauss Japan K.K. was established, and it was listed in 1989 on the current Jasdaq stock exchange. The Japan headquarters is in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The parent company was founded in 1853, making its first pair of blue jeans in 1873. Currently, it operates in more than 110 countries around the world.Speech

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