For years, fashion scouts from around the world have scoured the streets of Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods with an eye on the latest couture trends and underground labels, a testament to Tokyo’s remarkable staying power as a global fashion hub.

But while Japanese street and high fashion brands like Visvim and SOPHNET are flying off shelves in major cities across Asia and America, much of rural Japan has historically found itself on the outside looking in when it comes to homegrown fashion brands, finding it challenging to learn about, try on, or receive advice about the latest trends. This disparity in accessibility between the countryside and Japan’s (and indeed the world’s) cities is one of the motivations behind a demonstration experiment recently held in rural Japan.

The experiment utilized “Remote Styling Support System,” a system developed by the Rakuten Institute of Technology to superimpose digitized fashion items on top of user images, and replicate the best of the experience of visiting a boutique shop.

“We interviewed top fashion merchants on Rakuten Ichiba (Rakuten’s flagship e-commerce site), none of whom own physical shops, and found there were three major constraints on the fashion shopping experience,” explained project lead Soh Masuko, senior manager of the Future Merchant Design Laboratory of the Rakuten Institute of Technology.

“First, there are regional restrictions. Due to cultural disparity among regions, customers are not always provided with sufficient opportunities to acquire know-how in fashion nor the opportunities to achieve ‘Dress-Education.’ Second, shops are physically constrained by space, which limits inventory as well as fitting rooms. Third, there is a psychological barrier where it is difficult for customers to receive and accept fashion advice from an apparel store clerk, who is basically a stranger.”

With these three constraints in mind, an experiment was held in Aizu Wakamatsu City on July 23, 2018 to test how shoppers looking for clothes can take advantage of the merits of online shopping – with the added value of ‘face-to-face’ customer service.

The event was also supported by Rakuten Ichiba merchant e-zakkamania and the Nissan Motor Company, who provided the e-NV 200 e-car that housed the service.

To address the three constraints it had identified in its research, the Rakuten Institute of Technology team took the following actions:

  1. To address the geographical constraint: They used a remote styling support system to give users the experience of browsing clothing shops they would otherwise not be able to access.
  2. To address the physical constraint: They created a digital catalogue of fashion items to eliminate inventory and time constraints and enabled virtual trial fittings.
  3. To address the psychological constraint: They connected users with shop staff (fashion advisors) to offer audio feedback, avoiding potentially intimidating ‘face-to-face’ interaction.

“We used our experience and know-how with web applications and built a system within the vehicle that looks like an ordinary closet mirror,” explained Masuko. “The system then superimposes digitized fashion items on top of the user’s image, thereby creating a virtual fitting experience. Shopping staff at remote locations will communicate with the user with the conversation app, while they select the products they desire on tablet devices.”

Items tried on by the user are saved in the system and after the user has finished the experience, they can access or download the list via QR code. 

The Rakuten Institute of Technology sees this initiative as part of the fusion of the real world and the internet. And with applications that leverage augmented reality increasingly become mainstream, they may have the ideal solution for rural residents keen to stay on top of fashion trends.