“[Tokyo is] the Paris of Asia, so everyone comes here for quality service and the best products in the industry”

In the pilot’s seat

Helping fashion and retail brands take off in Japan

 


Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Benjamin Parks


“When I was a teenager, we had a ranch, and the only way we could get there was by single-engine plane,” explains Juan Rabanal, founder and CEO of fashion management consultancy Numero One. “The pilot would teach me how to go up and down, and after this I began to take lessons and got my licence when I was 31. Every time I go home to Paraguay, I fly for an entire day. It’s beautiful.”

Perhaps it is no accident that, having been nurtured by an experienced professional until he was able to fly solo, Rabanal now gives similar assistance to firms by “providing all the services for our clients to run their businesses, until they can work by themselves.”

His consultancy firm, Numero One, focuses on aiding companies — specifically in the fashion, retail and lifestyle sectors — in three crucial areas to help them break into the Japanese market and succeed here. The first area is corporate services, supporting owners as they set up and manage the business, as well as advising on payroll, accounting, legal and other back office matters. The second is in the recruitment of leaders and senior management staff to drive the business forward. Finally, Numero One assists with PR and communications, handling both traditional marketing and more modern approaches to brand engagement, including promotion using social network services and influencers. Where it differs from other similar operations is the close, long-standing ties it has with industry figures.

“Japan is a very traditional market,” says Rabanal. “To be able to break into it you need expertise, experience and connections, so I think our networking system is our main asset. Our consultants come from the retail and fashion sectors, so we understand the business, and many of our clients consider us to be a part of the industry.”

Rabanal himself has extensive experience in the world of fashion. After graduating from a fashion school in London, he worked at Polo Ralph Lauren as a shoe salesman in the clothier’s flagship Bond Street shop, later becoming a consultant for the firm. Since he had previously studied abroad in Japan and could speak Japanese, Ralph Lauren invited him to oversee the opening of its first store in Tokyo in 2006.

“That was the beginning; that put me on the map in the industry, and other brands started to contact me directly, asking me to give them advice or to support them in the establishment of a company here,” he says. “From there I went into the consulting side for foreign clients in Japan, and I worked for a major consulting company in the fashion sector.”

 

Philipp Berndt (right) has worked for more than ten years in the fashion industry in Berlin, Seoul and Tokyo. Last year, he received a doctorate in science from Freie Universität Berlin, one of Germany’s Universities of Excellence. As a business consultant at Numero One, he implements recruitment solutions for marketing and communications departments of fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands.

Emi Renata Sakamoto (left) is currently supporting Numero One’s PR activities in Los Angeles and Tokyo. She is using her extensive network in the fashion industry, domestically and internationally, to help grow the business.


 

After overseeing a number of impressive brand launches in Japan, including that of major Swedish retailer H&M and American fast fashion brand Forever 21, it wasn’t long before he decided to strike out on his own. In 2010 Rabanal founded Moda + Tecnica, which quickly became a trusted fashion consultancy in both Tokyo and the global fashion centre of Milan. In 2016, Rabanal sold the business and started another consultancy back home in South America, supporting regional brands, before deciding to return to Tokyo to begin Numero One at the beginning of this year.

“We decided to open the company here, with operations in LA and Hong Kong, as well,” says Rabanal. “Our company is quite new, only eight months old, but we already have 10 people here in Tokyo, nine in Hong Kong, and two in LA, where they’re focused on marketing.”

While Numero One is new to the market, it has already worked with major European brands, including Pomellato, Chopard, and Le Creuset, as well as American fashion house Calvin Klein. The firm is currently offering full-spectrum service for French accessories retailer APM Monaco.

“We’re the entire function: we handle everything from company registration to finding the locations to getting the workforce, and we’re now promoting the brand,” Rabanal says, though he stresses that businesses can also pick and choose from among Numero One’s communications, recruiting and back office services.

Rabanal is confident that, despite the challenges of establishing a brand in Japan, Tokyo will continue to grow as a prime location for international fashion.

“It is changing — slowly,” says Rabanal. “It’s more diverse, compared to five years ago. It’s more open to sourcing talent from abroad. The system is getting easier, you might say.”

As Tokyo becomes more tourist friendly, the inbound business is increasingly contributing to the bottom line of fashion and retail firms.

“It represents, to some brands, up to 80% of their revenue,” Rabanal states. “As the Paris of Asia, everyone comes here for quality service and the best products in the industry.”

Looking to the future, Rabanal’s priorities are clear: “Communication is in high demand right now, but recruitment is, for our company growth, something we want to focus on more. Trying to find the best talent for clients is very important.”

With a big investment from a private hedge fund, Rabanal is working to have the firm expand across Asia.

“Our next step is to open an office in China,” he says. “I’m looking into when that will be possible.”

Rabanal has recently earned an advanced pilot’s licence, which allows him to fly not just single engine planes, but planes with jet engines for medium-haul flights. As Numero One — expertly piloted by Rabanal — grows and attracts new clients, there is every indication it will fly fast and far. 

“Japan is a very traditional market. To be able to break into it you need expertise, experience and connections”

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