Monday, February 11, 2008

Pet Fashion, Tokyo-style

Flaunting a neon-green wig and red-and-black vest, the model sashayed down the runway to the beat of Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Then, rather than pose for the photographers, she turned tail and sniffed the floor, before being whisked away by her handler.

Roll over, Gisele B√ľndchen. The stars on this catwalk last month were pooches like Honoka, a yellow Labrador retriever, primped for Tokyo's first Pet Fashion Week. Her vest -- fashioned from figure-hugging breathable rubber and lined in faux fur -- was designed by MODRuff of Toronto. Other "models" were clad in creations by such canine clothiers as Manfred of Sweden, Doggi Dog Paris and Milan's For Pets Only.

Pet Fashion Week New York, a U.S.-based concern that started holding dog runway events at trade shows it organizes in New York two years ago, targeted puppy-mad Tokyo for its first overseas foray.

"In the U.S. dogs are dressed to a degree, but not as meticulously or as coordinated as you see" in Japan, says Mario DiFante, a partner and executive director of Pet Fashion Week. "In terms of pet boutiques," he declares, "Tokyo may even have reached the point of oversaturation."

Pet fashion has been hot ever since Paris Hilton was snapped toting her uber-chic Chihuahua Tinkerbell to society soirees (Ms. Hilton has since launched her own line of pet clothing and accessories).

Yet the industry is still novelty-driven, with "a lot of holiday items, like when you dress your dog as Santa Claus," says Alexa Cach, a Pet Fashion Week executive director. "We're trying to lift it out of that, to take the design aspect and the utilitarian aspect and combine them."

Dressing pets is particularly popular in Japan, which has a declining population. "The low birthrate here has left a niche for something to fill, and it seems that pets are filling it," says Adam Bigelow, Japan representative for San Francisco-based Poochonline.com, a purveyor of designer apparel and furnishings for dogs and cats.

Phenomena that would be noteworthy in some places -- restaurants that allow pets, for example, or state-of-the-art pet spas -- are taken for granted in many Tokyo neighborhoods. Dog strollers are common; in fact, the audience assembled at the fashion show, which was part of a two-day trade show called New Year Dog Party, looked like a toddlers' convention, but for the wet black noses poking inquisitively out of the passing baby carriages.

"In contrast to the U.S. or China, the Japanese tend to see their dogs as a reflection of their own status," says Naohisa Tsujihara, chief executive of Sepia Pet Care School and Sepia Grooming Shop, which provided the dogs for the runway show. "It's a way of projecting themselves to outsiders."

That may be why mutts and mongrels appear scarce: Walk through a Tokyo park and nearly all the dogs on parade appear to be purebreds, a preposterous percentage are miniature dachshunds or toy poodles -- and few of them are naked.

Among the hundreds of dogs attending the event, along with an estimated 20,000 humans, was a handsome Dalmatian who wore just his birthday spots and a firehouse-red collar. He seemed scandalously underdressed next to the pair of Italian greyhounds decked out as harlequins. A bull terrier managed to make a sailor suit look both dapper and intimidating; a trio of panting Maltese sported matching denim bodysuits and yellow booties.

Most of the dogs in the audience seemed to welcome the chance to socialize at the trade show, which among other things offered pet yoga classes, an area for testing vacuum cleaners -- which sent passing dogs into fits of terror -- and endless opportunities to sniff and be sniffed.For the pet with a more hip-hop edge, designer Pup Rock showed doggie dresses fashioned from Gorillaz or Outkast concert T-shirts.

Some of the humans came hoping to leave with new ideas to spur their puppy-fashion sales. "The challenge that the market has right now is that it's difficult to find really innovative fashion," laments Poochonline.com chief executive Marjorie Scholz. "That's one reason we came to Japan, not only to show what we're innovating but also to see what they're innovating here. The Japanese take everything they do very seriously, and they do it to extremes."

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