Onitsuka Tiger untethers from Asics, embraces premium positioning
At the latest Pitti Uomo show in Florence last June, the models showing the Givenchy collection took to the catwalk wearing Onitsuka Tiger sneakers in sharp black and white leather. It was a cool move by the Japanese sportswear brand owned by the Asics group, confirming the new, high-end ambitions of a label celebrating its 70th anniversary, now with a penchant for designer collaborations.
Onitsuka Tiger, relatively little-known in Europe, is a long-established name in sport apparel. It is an elemental part of Asics, being the original name adopted by the sport brand, from its founder’s surname. In 1949, Kihachiro Onitsuka, a young shoemaker based in Kobe, Japan, nicknamed Tiger, launched a sports shoes business starting from an analysis of how basketball players moved on court. His company quickly made a name for itself through its expertise in footwear construction. Phil Knight, before founding Nike, used to import Onitsuka products in the USA.
The Japanese brand kept growing, and in 1978 it changed its name to Asics, the acronym of the Latin expression “anima sana in corpore sano” (a healthy soul in a healthy body). In the mid-'90s, Onitsuka Tiger was relaunched as a separate label, notably tapping the brand’s extensive archives. Onitsuka Tiger’s first European store opened in Paris in 2003, but the label wasn’t distributed extensively until 2011, when a new retail concept was introduced in Tokyo.
In Europe and the USA, the Asics group deployed the Asics brand for performance products, and Asics Tiger for lifestyle, while Onitsuka Tiger was expanding in Asia.
“We developed our business via direct consumer sales, through our own monobrand stores and a presence in department stores,” said Ryoji Shoda, who has been in charge of Onitsuka Tiger for six years, after stints in Europe and the USA. “We now have 250 between monobrand stores and concessions, chiefly in Asia: in Japan, China, South Korea and Thailand,” he added. These are the markets where the brand generates the majority of its approximately €400 million revenue.
But Onitsuka Tiger wants to shift to a higher gear, and expand globally. To do so, it has set up a new organisation. “Previously, we were part of the Asics structure,” said Onitsuka Tiger’s director of communication. “Information and decisions passed through the group’s organisation. Our new approach is more flexible,” she added. Onitsuka Tiger now has its own organisation, separate from the Asics corporate structure. The brand hired regional market directors, such as Jason Vereker, in charge of Europe, and Bertrand Loisy, in charge of France, working with a business model based on direct consumer sales.
“Nowadays, trends and market conditions change very quickly. We have to react fast,” said Shoda, adding that “we need a flexible, well-connected organisation in order to understand the market.” The new organisation has its own communication, recruitment and administrative departments. The business is split across five geographical regions: Japan (accounting for about one quarter of sales), the Americas, China and its satellites, South-East Asia and EMEA.
Besides the new organisation, designed to enable Onitsuka Tiger to be more responsive on the market, notably in Europe and the USA, the brand has also revamped its product range. The sneakers designed with Givenchy aren't a one-off, as Onitsuka Tiger is shifting upmarket. Between now and the end of the year, it will launch seven collaborations, marking its 70th anniversary. The first is with Cinoh, the brand by Japanese designer Takayuki Chino, while the second, with KKtP, will be dropped at the end of July. In August, it will be the turn of Christian Dada, a Japanese label regularly seen on the Paris catwalks, to present its vision of Onitsuka Tiger, followed by Staffonly, Kye and Sulvam. The last collaboration, with an as yet unrevealed partner, is scheduled for mid-December.
The eponymous Onitsuka Tiger line continues to mine and reinterpret the brand’s archives. At the same time, the label is going down the collaboration route to target a broader audience, as it did recently by launching a collection with the Street Fighter videogame. The Nippon Made line focuses instead on Japanese apparel and equipment expertise. Finally, the brand has introduced a high-end line, The Onitsuka.
“We don’t see ourselves as direct competitors of lifestyle brands,” said Shoda. “We tend not to follow trends too closely, for example that of [chunky sneakers] known as ‘dad shoes’. Our approach is to develop directional products with a focus on technical savvy and comfort. We think consumers will be increasingly careful with high-priced products. Shoes won’t be sought-after if they don’t have an element of quality in them. We think our Japanese technology will be an asset,” added Shoda.
The Onitsuka is a line that uses rare materials, like Kobe leather, for shoes and accessories with a fairly formal aesthetic, a new mode of expression for Onitsuka Tiger. The line will be priced between €250 and €400, and its global deployment will be spearheaded by a monobrand store in New York, set to open in SoHo next autumn.
In parallel, Onitsuka Tiger will extend its footprint by opening monobrand stores in major European and US cities. “We aren’t interested in opening a multitude of stores,” said Shoda. “But we are looking for premier locations in major cities, with interiors that represent the brand’s ethos, such as the Tokyo store with its bamboo floor. Department stores too are interested in adding a new line to their product selection,” he added.
Onitsuka Tiger is determined to expand, and is targeting double-digit annual growth. It currently has a staff of 150, a number which is destined to rise rapidly. Andrea Pompilio, the label’s creative director, will be working with an augmented team, infusing a style attractive for millennials into archival material. Onitsuka Tiger is keen to find the ideal slot between its brand history and new creative opportunities.
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