Canine Prêt À Porter
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
The canine prêt-a-porter business is, as its name suggests, an affair as profitable as it is extravagant and eccentric. It is also the livelihood, pride and joy of the talented stylist Kato, 47, who enjoys a global monopoly of the dog-wear business. The immense success of Poochie Pompreece, the company he founded in Tokyo in 1982, is the manifestation of a typically Japanese social phenomenon. Kato produces a full line of apparel just for dogs – from sportswear to evening gowns, wedding dresses, raincoats, pyjamas, jewellery and accessories – and the Japanese are all a-flutter over this latest craze.
Rain clouds darken the sky over Tokyo. Little Mushi hopes elegantly over the puddles, protected by an elegant little raincoat. Around her neck is a delicate silver chain. Tonight, she’ll replace it with a superb solid-gold necklace that will highlight her elegant taffeta-blue evening dress. Yukio will probably be there as well, in black tie perhaps? Unless he copies Suko and wears his white suit with a bow-tie…
Mushi, Yukio and Suko have an overwhelming variety of styles from which to choose in their impressively vast wardrobes. The only problem is, how are they to sit, lie down or roll over without dirtying their precious garments? Elegant and refined they are. But they are still, after all, just dogs. Poodles, spaniels, Dobermans, terriers…there are thousands of Japanese dog owners who have caught the craze of canine prêt-à-porter.
In his Tokyo office, Kato produces an ever-increasing number of sketches of clothes and accessories for his next collection.
Already a horde of impatient customers are waiting for Kato’s latest cap, the little tweed coat or woollen shirt that will make their dog the best-dressed pooch in the neighbourhood.
In the beginning, Kato San (Mr. Kato) designed women’s clothing. Three years at a Tokyo fashion academy led him into the exclusive world of haute couture. While he continued to design dresses, he began buying for department stores, and gradually became a wholesaler of female garments. But the world of feminine fashion soon lost its lustre for this original longing for creative adventure.
Towards the start of the 1980s, Kato decided to learn English and amass, in one year, one million Yen. Eight months working in a restaurant as a waiter, in addition to his other job, enabled him to set sail in 1982 for the United States. He perfected his English in Vermont for six months, while his wife, alone in Tokyo, decided to appease her solitude by buying a dog. Upon his return from the United States the following winter, Kato met his wife’s dog, shivering from the cold. Seeing the poor animal suffer unprotected in the cold piqued Kato’s fertile imagination, and the idea of dressing man’s best friend was born.
Poochie Pompreece was found in 1982: it was, at first, a modest affair, made possible by the association of capital between Kato and his ex-wife, who was also a stylist. Kato saw to every detail of the creation of his new line of canine-wear, and before long his first order came from a Tokyo boutique: nylon overcoat, cotton skirt and blazer. By word of mouth and thanks to his extensive contacts made over the years as a wholesaler, Kato gradually increased his clientele. By 1985 he was hiring two extra people every year to keep up with demand. And by 1988, Poochie Pompreece was finally turning a profit.
Early on, Kato began decentralising his manufacturing locations. He first chose Taiwan, for its cheap labour costs, and then, in 1991, Hong Kong and mainland China. In 1990, Poochie Pompreece opened a boutique in Osaka. In 1992, a new manufacturing facility was set up in Bangkok, as those in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China could no longer keep up with the growing demand.
Poochie Pompreece is strictly a family business, with five associates at the top of the hierarchy: Kato, his mother, his sister, his nephew and his niece. Kato imports his collars and leashes from Europe – primarily France. The knapsacks, napping carpets, toys and frames for the portrait of the cherished family poodle generally come from the US. Kato also designs leashes and collars which he has manufactured in his Taiwanese factory. The one in Bangkok produces garments, primarily.
Dog-wear and accessories account for 95% of Kato’s turnover. The number of dogs in Japan increased from five million in 1985 to seven million by 1997 and it’s still growing. The country is also home to some eight million cats, but the feline market makes up for a scant 5% of Poochie Pompreece’s business.
In addition to his two annual collections, Kato also does custom design pieces, notably fur coats. With an average per capita monthly income in the $4-5,000 range, the Japanese can afford the luxury of dressing up their pets in the most outrageous ways. For this reason, but also because he already has a hard time meeting demand in Japan, Poochie Pompreece exports almost only to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ninety-five percent of all sales are made in Japan.
The typical Poochie Pompreece client is a single woman, between 30 and 60 years old… Many international stars, heads of state – whose names Kato prefers not to reveal – and local show business acts.
Today, Kato San is a Yen multi-billionair, and he considers this highly profitable business a medium of expression of his artistic creativity. He also believes that this is a noble profession, a mission of generosity: making house pets as happy as possible. “In Tokyo, as in most large cities,” he says, “dogs and cats suffer the tedium of an artificial and stressful environment. It’s the least we can do to provide the comfort lacking in their everyday lives.”
But there are many who would claim that these animals are perhaps not as delighted to walk around in their mini sweat-shirts and their kimonos as their owners are to see them dressed up like that. But it is nevertheless true that their owners’ desire to tend to their beloved little creatures every whim, however unnatural or inappropriate it may appear, is out of pure affection. “The air conditioning in modern apartments is traumatic for our pets,” says Kato. “And since they are cold in the artificial environment we impose upon them, isn’t it our duty to dress them accordingly?” Another of Kato’s goals is to see the creation of a national social security system for cats and dogs.
“What we’re really trying to do here is make a rapprochement between man and animal,” says Kato. “To bring them closer together, so that they may live in harmony.” He goes on to say that the “serious problem of living conditions in Tokyo and other cities of Japan, namely the lack and size of living space, has resulted in a major decline in the birth rate of house pets. A phenomenon that coincides with the overall ageing of the Japanese population.
Consequently, dogs and cats have become children – of sorts – for many Japanese. More and more, as the pet owners grow older, they grow more attached to their adoptive ‘children’ and shower them with affection and attention… Says Kato: “These animals play a vital role in the everyday lives of these elderly people, and the success of Poochie Pompreece is a reflection of modern life in Japan. Nothing less than a social phenomenon.”
Twice a year, there are shows of the collections for the release of new catalogues. The most exotic and costly hounds in the world are proudly paraded down the runway by their owners, modelling the latest creations of Maestro Kato. An opera blasts through the loudspeakers of the showroom, followed by the latest, hippest tune played in all the clubs of super-chic Tokyo.
And then the bride appears, resplendent in her immaculate white gown of silk, shining with pearls and brimmed with ruffled lace, as fine and smooth as the fur coat underneath. That is, the real fur. Beaming proudly at the ecstatic crowd, the creator accompanies his models on the runway for the traditional bow and salute, a brief appearance that produces a furious round of applause, riposted by a chorus of equally joyous barking and yapping.
The Japanese canine jet-set has acquired a good number of special services: for the stressed-out or workaholic pooch there are spas especially designed to accommodate every whim of the animals. And in the last few years, there have come into existence a growing number of luxury hotels and restaurants specialising in gourmet food for four-legged diners. There are even trained waiters who feed the pampered pooches with the help of chop sticks!
Tokyo’s hospital for cats and dogs is by far the finest facility of its kind in the world. Here one can expect the very best in everything, from canine or kitty psychoanalysis to physical therapy. In Japan today, the industry is already beginning to market video-cassettes for out-patient animal psychotherapy. And of course there are the ambulant animal crematoria, ready to travel to any part of the country to give a furry loved one a proper funeral, in the greatest pomp and grandeur – which can only be expected in a society where the ritual of death and mourning is celebrated with ancient traditions.
“A lot remains to be done,” Kato tells us enthusiastically. “Fro example, organising the casting sessions for my shows takes me a lot of time. When will there be a modelling agency for dogs?” he asks. And he is being serious…
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