Anyone familiar with Japanese clothing or shopping is aware of the big department stores—Beams, Journal Standard, Ships, Edifice, Tomorrowland, and so on. These stores are huge in their native Japan, both figuratively and literally—their massive stores can be found in malls or as standalone shops across the entire nation. The best way to think of these stores is like a mix of the high street, mall stores and boutiques, with the eclecticism of H&M, the accessibility of Gap and the selection of your favorite niche webstore. Each large select store carries a wide variety of goods, including their in-house lines, rising domestic brands and established international brands. To fully understand the culture of shopping in Japan, it’s crucial to understand the role these stores play.

Nearly every large American mall features big fast-fashion chains aimed at providing cheap clothes to the majority of consumers. Pacsun, Forever 21, Zara and their contemporaries exist to provide trendy clothes at cheap prices. These mall brands are available and downright popular, in Japan as well, but for fashion-conscious, discerning Japanese consumers, they don’t offer the quality or selection of the select stores. “Select store” is a Japanese term that essentially refers to a boutique; a store with a wide selection of brands and clothes chosen by buyers/managers. Its counterpart is a “creator store”, which is a store owned/operated by a single brand; a standalone Yohji Yamamoto or Visvim store would be considered a creator store, but a store that carries those brands (along with several others) would be be a select store. There are countless small select stores across Japan, but the largest ones are the big names that produce their own lines, function as trendsetters and adopters and provide easy access to new brands and stalwart lines.

Though Beams, Freak’s Store, United Arrows, Urban Research, Studious and the rest don’t have a singular unifying trait, they all share various tenets and ideologies. For instance, they all create in-house lines. These lines are often surprisingly substantial and offer everything from suiting to streetwear. The quality fluctuates (as you would expect from what is essentially a mall brand) but they are all reliably affordable. Furthermore, these large select stores collaborate with various brands to create exclusive collections and items. Nearly every brand has worked with Converse Japan – recently, Journal Standard designed a classic Purcell that recalled a pair of deck shoes, while Beams worked with Engineered Garments to reworked Chuck Taylor All-Star into a clean, pair of mismatched hi-tops. Beams even worked with UGG shoes to demonstrate how fashionably capable the Australian brand’s boots are. There are countless other collaborations shared by many of the large select stores; every store has partnered with Hanes, Healthknit, Fruit of the Loom, or some other large American basics brand at some point to produce co-branded, plain T-shirts. While some American brands collaborate with Japanese stores, others set out to compete with them—under Japanese management, American Rag CIE and Ron Herman have become massively popular select stores, with wide ranging selections of American, European and Japanese goods.

Another shared element of these select stores is a variety of sub-labels. For example, Beams also operates Pilgrim Surf+Supply, International Gallery Beams (focusing on emerging and non-Japanese brands), B-Ming Life Store and several others. Tomorrowland also manages Edition, Galerie Vie, avant-garde store Super A Market and more (they also manage large international brands in the Japan market, like Dries Van Noten and Acne). The point of creating and owning these many different stores is to offer a different curated selection in each. Journal Standard typically focuses on accessible men-and-womenswear with a slight workwear bent; its stores offer Ten-C, Paraboot and Nigel Cabourn alongside its own flannels and parkas. However, Journal Standard Relume focuses more on comfortable loungewear—like knits and running sneakers—without straying from the “Journal Standard style philosophy.” The incredible reach of these large stores can’t be overstated; they fully control how most Japanese shoppers view fashion and trends. The select stores also promote their own products, labels and preferred brands in Japanese fashion magazines to boost awareness and give customers a taste of what’s coming for the next season.

Indeed, the overlap between the large select stores is pretty significant. Although they may have intentions to cater to a differing core audience, the variety of sub-labels and shops operated by these big select stores allows them to sell product aimed at nearly anyone. These stores want to appeal to a large audience, which necessitates safe buys and a focus on recognizable brands and styles. A safe buy in Japan is not the same as a safe buy for a Western store, of course—you’ll still see International Gallery Beams stocking everything from the oversized, pricey clothes from E. Tautz to Jacquemus’s off-kilter creations. Thanks to the open-mindedness of Japanese shoppers, these select stores are encouraged to expand their goods beyond mere basics. They are Japan’s most recognizable, iconic boutiques, introducing their consumers to new labels and reimagined styles.

If you want cutting-edge newness, you must seek out the smaller select stores that work in tandem with brands new to the Japanese market. These smaller boutiques select small domestic labels and notable international brands and they’re often the first step in introducing shoppers to young labels. From there, larger stores and the big select shops will pick up the brands—these stores have marketing teams and trend analysts that comb through the fashion magazines and the smaller select stores, seeking out new labels and trends to introduce to the public at large. Although Japanese fast-fashion stores like Lowry’s Farm and HARE are integral in creating and adapting to trends, the large select stores are crucial in setting the standard for modern Japanese tastes.

For plenty of Japanese shoppers, stores like Beams and Urban Research are a one-stop-shop of essentials, home goods, accessories, shoes, formalwear and more. They don’t have the time or energy to track down small labels at small stores; they just want to go to the mall and buy some new clothes, much like many American shoppers. The select stores are like American mall stores in that they allow shoppers the ease of an all-encompassing selection that appeals to many shoppers. The difference being that the Japanese select stores are essentially mid-tier boutiques, offering upscale and expensive clothes and brands and cheap goods under the same roof, whereas American mall stores generally carry only their low-priced in-house labels focused entirely on providing desirably trendy items. Japanese shoppers enjoy those kinds of stores (Gap, Old Navy and their ilk have a substantial presence in Japan), but they’re also more discerning and open to spending more on attractive, well-made clothes.

The Japanese select stores have been doing what they do for years, even generations (Beams and Ships, for example, date back to the mid 20th century). These stores define style for most of the country and play a vastly important role in curating the styles and trends for each season. Although they are large corporations, they also usher in new talent and give brands access to a larger audience through their buys and collaborations. It’s not so easy to place their exact role in the realm of Japanese shopping, but their placement as trendsetters can’t be exaggerated; these stores are the backbone of Japanese fashion commerce and they’re infinitely cooler than the stores at your local mall.

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Tags: gap, united-arrows, beams