“our brand is creating the unique, witty, powerful visuals that can bring new potential to golf and help the sport reach a wider audience”

Revolution on the green

MARK & LONA fires a shot of fun into golf fashion in Japan

 


JUNE 2021 Investing in Japan / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Benjamin Parks


In Japan, the golf world is protective of its image of exclusivity. The sport is dominated by rules, traditions, and tan trousers — which means it’s not seen as a game that’s fun for all. But a revolution is already underway, and its first target is the clothing.

Fashion designer and brand consultant Tomoaki Matsumura’s discontent with the status quo of conservative golf attire began in 2006 when he started working on a clothing line for an American apparel firm.

“When I was asked to create a high-fashion golf collection, I really didn’t want to. I saw golf as a sport for old men and had never thought it was cool,” says Matsumura. “I thought there wouldn’t be any point in taking on the job unless I could bring some fun to the dull world of golf fashion, so I decided I would use my experience and my original designs to help revolutionise golf.”

Moving the boundary markers

Matsumura had so much fun creating eyebrow-raising designs that, in 2008, he established the luxury golf fashion brand MARK & LONA in Los Angeles. Aware that Asia was a large market for golf apparel, Matsumura began exporting his clothes to his home country, Japan, before relocating the business there. Instead of having department stores and golf courses sell his clothing, he wanted MARK & LONA products only to be available in select shops and fashion boutiques.

“In 2010, I released a collection that featured a camouflage pattern, when no other high-end fashion or golf brands were using it. I actually wondered if that, together with our skull logo, was taking things a little too far,” says Matsumura. “But it was a huge hit, and all the other major golf brands came out with camouflage designs. It has become our brand’s trademark pattern.”

Matsumura cites this as a good example of how a rigid culture can change.

“As we continue to introduce our progressive fashion to the established golf world, those who choose to wear our clothing start a trend and advance the revolution,” he states. “As a result, the next generation of golfers will find themselves with an entirely new golf culture. This is the meaning of our brand’s slogan: ‘Freedom for the future of golf’.”

One of Matsumura’s hopes is that golf will become more “democratised” in Japan, where the bar for people to start playing is lowered. For this to be achieved, not only do more golf courses need to be made public, but the sport must become more fashionable.

“If Hideki Matsuyama, who won the 2021 Masters Tournament in April, had long dreadlocks, for example, that could be a compelling visual that might attract more young people to the game — but he doesn’t,” jokes Matsumura. “I believe our brand is creating the unique, witty, powerful visuals that can bring new potential to golf and help the sport reach a wider audience.”

“we entered into a strategic partnership with the video game giant NEXON”

Strategic shots

While Matsumura aims to make golf look cool to more people, the target audience for MARK & LONA products is niche. Today, the luxury fashion brand has 10 of its own shops in high-end locations across Japan, including in Tokyo’s Omotesando Hills, Roppongi Hills, and Ginza Six.

“Unlike other golf brands, it’s part of our strategy to have our products available in these hubs of high fashion,” he explains. “By doing this, I feel we’re giving people a sense of pride when they wear them.”

One of the highest priorities for Matsumura is that his products retain their high value. To this end, he carefully controls their production and distribution.

“I prefer it when supply doesn’t quite meet demand, because when something is scarce, its value goes up,” he says. “Limiting the availability of our products is something that really sets us apart from other brands.”

Marketing at the fore!

In 2015, MARK & LONA broke into the South Korea market and now has more than 40 points of sale in the country. Despite plans for further overseas expansion having been put on hold because of the pandemic, the brand had its best year for sales in 2020. This was a result of a 625% jump in transactions through its cross-border e-commerce website, boosted especially by Asia and the US.

But a strong online presence, with a variety of original digital content regularly being posted, isn’t the only way people are discovering the MARK & LONA name. Matsumura is convinced of the value of collaboration to increase brand awareness and develop distinctive new products.

MARK & LONA has contracts with major entertainment firms — such as Disney, Universal, and Warner — to use their characters; and it has recently released a streetwear collection featuring Pokémon characters. The brand also has had a number of unique, high-profile tie-ups with firms in diverse sectors, including the luxury watchmaker Hublot; Medicom Toy, which produces the iconic Bearbrick figures; as well as the major sportswear firms Asics and gravis.

“We had one collaboration with Asics and another with gravis, and the sneakers we made with them were wildly popular. Both were priced at more than ¥30,000, but we sold out of them the day they were released. That is unheard of in the golf fashion world,” Matsumura says. “These shoes are being resold online now for some very high prices.”

MARK & LONA has also worked with a number of well-known artists and musicians, including John Hahn, DJ for the American rock band Linkin Park.

In 2018, the brand celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Matsumura wanted to do something that would take it to a new level.

“So, we entered into a strategic partnership with the video game giant NEXON,” he says, “and this collaboration has helped the brand grow in ways that are unthinkable to most other apparel firms.”

The time was also right to take the golf fashion revolution to a new level — thanks to some help from a friend, the renowned singer and actor, Takuya Kimura. A long-time fan of the brand, Kimura became MARK & LONA’s first brand ambassador.

“There isn’t another Japanese celebrity as famous as he is,” states Matsumura. “When Takuya Kimura is your brand ambassador, that really transforms the image of the brand. And since he’s someone with a lot of influence, I really believe that he has the power to bring new life to the golf industry.”

Looking to the next fairway

As someone who has never reissued designs from previous years, Matsumura is committed to always creating something new. For each season, he decides on a theme that reflects current trends in society and produces designs that express it. The theme he is preparing for his autumn and winter line is “ILLUSION”.

“The idea came from the fact that we’ve been in the pandemic for so long now, the possibility of finally being able see some changes for the better in our lives is like an illusion,” he explains. “So now I’m thinking a lot about how we can express the idea of illusion on our clothing. These are the types of challenges I’m really passionate about and have a lot of fun with.”

While it may take years to topple the argyle sweater-wearing ruling class of the golf world, it’s clear that the revolution in golf attire is no illusion. 

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