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House of Style

With her new Japanese mag, Martha Stewart Martha now on sale and first stand-alone store in Yurakucho open for business, America's domestic diva is making Japan her home away from home. Roland Kelts gets the story from the globe-trotting media maven herself.

American brokerage giant Merrill Lynch is shutting down branches across Japan. Britain's ubiquitous druggist, Boots, laced up and hiked out of town this past summer. And last month, just after French cosmetics chain Sephora announced plans to sneak out from under a collapsing economy, Japan's unemployment figures hit a record high 5.4 percent.

"We're entering into the market at what we hope is the low of the consumer confidence cycle," concedes America's most famous domestic lifestyle CEO, Martha Stewart. "We hope to be able to rebound with the Japanese economy."

In an era in which many of us have mastered our email accounts but can't light a cooking fire in the forest, Stewart's appeal is instructive: we can go back to the earth, the basics of existence, without sacrificing our less-than-noble desires for bourgeois accouterments and acquisitions.  

The 60-year-old Stewart is a billionaire. She owns five houses in some of America's most expensive markets, in addition to an apartment in Manhattan housing her cats, dogs and daughter. A few years ago, she "went wide," as they say in Hollywood, expanding her corporation into what's now called Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, denoting an assault on consumers via television shows, magazines, newspaper columns, radio broadcasts, catalogs, department stores and, of course, the Internet. She wrested control of her trademark magazine, Martha Stewart Living, from Time Warner in 1997, and last year, amid an already shaky market, Stewart's stock went public. Its price quickly doubled.


With five backyards to tend, Martha is a gardening guru
Todd Atkinson

 If all of this sounds vaguely Orwellian, consider the news: It's Christmas 2001, and Stewart and her omnimedia are moving in on Japan.

          The one million viewers in Japan who already watch Stewart dispensing tips on Japan's cable television station LaLa TV are about to see the American homemaker advising them everywhere. September saw the first Martha Stewart products hitting Japanese department store shelves, together with posters of a beaming, blue-jeaned Stewart in motion, toting an enormous leafy wreath. The grand opening of "Martha Stewart Yurakucho," heralded in a press release as "the world's first specialty shop of Martha Stewart," was held in November. And December 1 saw the launch of Martha Stewart Martha, a bi-monthly magazine "full of Martha's essence of how-to ideas which help you lead your better life."

          Japan's zeal for consumption-and its lust for designer-label pretensions-is notorious worldwide. A quick survey of Tokyo subways and Shibuya sidewalks makes this unequivocally clear: Louis Vuitton and Prada never had it so good. But Stewart's products twist the equation in a decidedly late-20th-century American direction. She sells low-end products at mid-level prices, with the veneer of a high-end reputation.

Creative centrepieces are signature Martha Stewart
Todd Atkinson

In the States, Stewart's household items are sold through Kmart, one of America's least-glamorous discount chains. In Japan she has partnered with Seiyu, Japan's version of a low-end retailer. Stewart makes the mix clear: "Our basic everyday products are affordable necessities for the home and somewhat immune to economic downturns. In my opinion, the kinds of products we are offering combine the high quality associated with Martha Stewart [the label] and the pricing connected with products which are available at Kmart and Seiyu."

"Japanese consumers really care about value now, and Martha's ideas are really simple: If you wake up five minutes earlier, you can do more with your breakfast. That kind of thing is really appealing."-Yasushi Okue, general manager of the LaLa TV.

"Her products are very inexpensive-but they don't look inexpensive," explains Yasushi Okue, general manager of LaLa TV. Okue compares Stewart's retail appeal with that of Uniqlo, the wildly successful China-based clothing company that markets shapeless American casual styles to suddenly-yen-conscious Japanese, managing to undersell even The Gap with its factory-stitched image. "Japanese consumers really care about value now," Okue adds, "and Martha's ideas are really simple: If you wake up five minutes earlier, you can do more with your breakfast. That kind of thing is really appealing."


On the home front

Okue hits on a crucial element in the success of Stewart's industry, at least in America: She sells the concept of a stylish domesticity to the self-help-seeking masses. The products are almost an afterthought. In the States, where she is frequently parodied for her stern, authoritative approach to things like fruitcakes, Stewart's success might be comparable to the exploits of another celebrity hostess/entrepreneur, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey's so-called book club, in which she basically christens specific novels bestsellers on television, has the publishing industry at her beck and call, and has authors like recent National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen (whose appearance was canceled by Winfrey after he questioned the quality of her earlier choices) desperate to court her democratized" demographics.  

          But in Japan, democracy is largely nominal, a diplomatic cover for some rigidly hierarchical systems and assumptions. Little surprise, then, that to some local fashion arbiters, European models seem better attuned to contemporary Japanese tastes. An editor at a mass-market Japanese women's magazine sours on Martha Stewart Omnimedia's chances for success in her native land. Citing the recent failure of a Japanese version of Good Housekeeping, she finds Stewart's decidedly American approach ill-timed. "Today's Japanese are more interested in Italian styles in furniture and design," she says. "There's an Italian boom, partly because the aesthetic sense and the use of space are similar. American homes are unrecognizable in Japan; Japanese women simply don't have the room to entertain guests." The debut issue of Martha Stewart Martha is very…blond, from the cover shot of the chief executive headlocking one of her auburn chow chows to the interior spreads showing Stewart's extended family before a massive hearth festooned with Christmas decorations. 

          Of course, Stewart didn't rise from Jersey-born model to corporate queen by misjudging public appeal. She spent her formative years at an investment firm ("My seven years on Wall Street could not have been better!"), and her sense of the market is as finely calibrated as that of pop stars like Britney Spears or Ayumi Hamasaki. "We will offer a combination of products," she says, "some of which are tailored to the Japanese market and at the same time retain a strong resemblance to the original merchandise." In other words, she will attempt to incorporate the kind of transcultural adaptations that have worked so well for American stalwarts like McDonald's and Starbucks. "Bed sheets…need to fit futon sizes. If we change the product too much, the look and feel of the brand will be jeopardized."

          Nobu Matsuhisa, the Japanese celebrity chef whose restaurants have garnered worldwide renown for his European twists on Japanese elementals at his main venue in New York-plus the celebrity approbation from stars like co-owner Robert De Niro and Madonna-is a vocal friend and fan of Stewart's. He met her seven years ago at a private book party, and the two have appeared together on her television program staged at Nobu New York. In September, they jointly promoted their Japanese enterprises at Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, and Stewart says she was "very honored" to pen the introduction to Nobu's just-published cookbook.

          Nobu, whose own operations are expanding into Shanghai, is positively sanguine about his pal's business propositions in his homeland. "She has a lot of interest in Japanese history, culture and food. I hope she will be a success, because I like her." When I ask about the appeal of European styles, Nobu responds personally. "You know, I go to Europe every two weeks, but I see people in Japan looking for more American ideas right now. Japanese culture is different, of course, but people are changing little by little every year. There are a lot of new buildings going up, new condominiums. People still have money here, and the spacious American style is more attractive to them. Plus, Seiyu's power should help her overcome retail difficulties. Seiyu is very old and very popular."

Stewart's interest in Japan was born in 1977, when she visited her ex-husband Andy Stewart's publishing company in Tokyo. She comes to Japan about twice a year now, according to LaLa's Okue, where she pushes her products, meets and greets LaLa viewers, and takes in the sites. "My favorite areas are the islands off the coast of Southeast Japan and also the mountainous regions near Nagano," Stewart says. "And a couple of my favorite places to go are Osaka airport [designed by Italian Enzo Piano], the Yakusugi groves on the island of Yakushima, and the Miho Museum outside of Kyoto." Stewart takes great pains to ensure that her designs on Japanese consumers are not ignorant-that she is not participating in an American commercial or cultural invasion. "The Japanese sensibility towards art and design, cuisine and gardening and living will not dissipate," she argues. "In fact, the influence of Japan on other cultures has been extraordinarily powerful, and continues to be so."

          On page 19 of the Martha Stewart Martha's December issue, there is a picture of the lifestyle executive with her hair tied back in a sloppy ponytail, her khakis and plain blue Gap-style (or Uniqlo-type) T-shirt stained with gobs of rich gardening dirt. In an era in which many of us have mastered our email accounts but can't light a cooking fire in the forest, Stewart's appeal is instructive: We can go back to the earth, the basics of existence, without sacrificing our less-than-noble desires for bourgeois accouterments and acquisitions. 

          Stewart's new store in Yurakucho is even more succinct in its back-to-basics, no-frills presentation: cheap towels, pillows, bedsheets and other domestic items in a city that inflates such costs routinely. The assumption is that Tokyoites, and other Japanese, want to redefine what is desirous in leaner times to include the quotidian: Buy a Martha Stewart item, the onslaught advises, and you buy into an elegant version of the common.      

          Stewart's dedication to her marketing empire, however, is anything but common. On September 11, when the world watched two jets severing the top floors of iconographic skyscrapers, Stewart was in Tokyo, noting the grease-stained platters on which her tempura was served. The best tempura, she observed, leaves no grease behind. "two days after the 11th, we had a tea party scheduled at the Westin with Martha and her viewers," recalls LaLa's Okue. "We thought for sure she'd cancel, because she has a daughter in New York. But she stayed, and she met with all of her viewers. She's really devoted."

          Terrorists, schmerrorists. Martha means business.

Martha Stewart Yurakucho Seiyu, Yurakucho Bldg, 3-8-3 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3212-6266. Open daily 10am-9pm. Nearest stn: Yurakucho.

"Martha Stewart Living" on LaLa TV, customer service tel: 0120-977-888,





403: Martha Stewart exclusive
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380: Island escapade
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377: Sonic relief
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376: All at sea
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375: Your cup of tea
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