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Workman’s ‘Glamorous Camping’ Style Becomes Popular, Challenges Uniqlo Amid COVID-19

In a world that has been forced to abandon speed and revert to a time of slow-motion, even the center of fashion has changed.

Stefania Viti

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Fashion trends are becoming more extreme and new aesthetic languages are emerging and becoming popular, and it’s not only due to the pandemic. It is happening all over the world. Japan, a country which is a great incubator for new styles including fashion, is no exception.

This is the case for what the experts call “cottage core,” a trend in which the “outdoors becomes indoors” and “indoors becomes outdoors” as workman style becomes popular in everyday life. Indeed, so-called “cottage-style” has been strong in Japan, and has been able to influence near markets like South Korea, since before the pandemic. 

In these countries a growing number of young people are following the Japanese trend of choosing a sustainable lifestyle and spending more time in the countryside, in contact with nature.

“The pandemic has sharpened an already present trend and Japan has done it in its way, which means including a good percentage of minimalism in the style, high performance clothes that last over time, and a lower price tag,” explained Orietta Pelizzari, an expert on international fashion trends.

Workman, History of a Trending Mass Market Brand 

Symbolic of this new trend is the popularity gained by Workman, a Japanese brand born 40 years ago, in 1980. 

Originally established as a chain store specializing in workman’s clothes, uniforms and accessories, the brand has now become famous for its outdoor style that combines high performance clothes and gear with an affordable price.

For those who have never been to Japan and have not yet seen one of the almost 900 shops scattered throughout the country, Workman style can be defined as a mix of Decathlon and Uniqlo, let’s say with a squeeze of Leroy Merlin and Tokyu Hands, too.

Whatever it is, the mix proposed by Workman seems to have struck a chord, as now for the eight consecutive year ー including the pandemic one in 2020 ー the brand has achieved record revenue.

It is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant apparel world, a market which seems to be in need of a revolution. 

As it happened, in 2007-8 Workman decided to slightly expand its product and color lines and to open up to a market beyond workers involved in physical labor. 

The financial crisis at the time brought a contraction in the real estate market and a collapse of jobs in the sector. With fewer workers around there was no need to continue opening the door at seven in the morning in order to allow workers to buy the needed gear and then go to work.

Expanding into new colors was the first step in the twist that has brought the brand to open a chain store called Workman Plus, and more recently their newest brand called Workman Girl

As explained in the Twitter profile of the brand, “Workman Plus, a shop which does not sell working clothes” but rather aims its products “to the average men and women” who like a practical outdoor style appropriate for activities in the open air.  

‘Cottage Core’ A New Social Trend

And “outdoors” is exactly the mantra for the new fashion style. To understand the phenomenon, it’s enough to have a look at the Workman website ー still only in Japanese ー to understand the message and the target: pretty girls under heavy rain, handsome boys struggling with artificial snow.

The outdoor style has become such a fashion trend that new words have also permeated the Japanese vocabulary, such as “glamping”ー a contraction of “glamorous camping”. 

The trend is clear. A YouTube video titled “Solo Camping” by the Japanese star Hiroshi, an actor who chose to buy a piece of land in the mountains and start a new life surrounded by nature, has become viral. The video was accompanied by the immense popularity of the term “solo camping,” which made the Ucan list of top ten trending words of 2020. 

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Even Japanese television is broadcasting programs about a lifestyle that includes camping in the open air. Nor is actor Hiroshi the only Japanese following this trend. A growing number of people are looking to buy land in the mountains or in isolated places to build their own private camping ground. 

RELATED READ: From Tokyo to Gunma: Moving to the Countryside During the Pandemic

In a world that has been forced to abandon speed and revert to a time of slow-motion, even the center of fashion has changed. 

If on the one hand fast fashion has given way to durable products with less waste, on the other hand the need for telework and social distancing brought us to reevaluate life beyond the most populated urban centers, where it’s possible to have more individual space for ourselves and our families. And it is just in these suburban and rural areas that most of the hundreds of Workman stores are located. 

This is another point in favor of the image Workman is building. It is a brand that has exceeded even Uniqlo in the number of shops around Japan. With its simplicity, it doesn’t need to appeal to expensive locations such as Tokyo or Osaka. 

“Workman aims to position itself as a ¥400 billion yen ($3.85 billion USD) company in a “white market, which means ‘low cost x high function items,’” explained Akiko Nemoto, a Tokyo-based public relations expert specializing in sustainability brands. 

“This brand has all the right assets to make the difference in the mass market: it’s cheap, high quality, out of trends and long-lasting.”

Ms. Nemoto continued. “To reach young men in their 30s or 40s, they created Workman Plus using camping and cottage core elements, trying to enter in the flow with a new sustainability message. Since many Japanese who follow the latest cutting edge trends tend to buy stuff and not use it, it’s important to send the message that you can buy something that is immediately usable, and reuse it for a long time”.

Author: Stefania Viti

Journalist graduated from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Japanese Language and Literature, Stefania Viti has lived in Tokyo for about ten years. She worked as a editor for the Japanese magazine “amarena” (Fusosha Publishing Inc.) and contributed to many Italian newspapers. She writes about contemporary Japan for national and international publications. She is a member of the AISTUGIA (Italian Association for Japanese Studies). For the Real Cinema Feltrinelli series she edited the book “The Sushi” released with the Italian version of DVD “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”; she also edited “The Art of Sushi” (2015), published by Gribaudo Editions as an enhanced and illustrated edition of “The Sushi”. She wrote “The Traditional Sushi” (2016) and “The Ramen Book” (2017).