Counter Culture Consumerism: Tokyo's huge and upscale Isetan Department Store features everything from sushi to Armani to the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection.


TOKYO -- The elevator girl chants in her sing-song voice: "Welcome. Women's wear, imports, formal wear," and the doors glide open. She bows like a mechanical doll -- at precisely the same angle every time -- and gestures toward the merchandise.

Her passengers step into a crowded, edgy city of fashion boutiques. Glistening marble alleys wind past Max Mara, Escada, Calvin Klein and Yoshie Inaba vendors and converge in a miniature traffic circle where the street signs say Gucci and Chanel.

This is the third floor of Isetan Department Store, the flagship venue of a $5 billion Tokyo-based retail chain. Here customers may buy kimonos or Armani suits, have a tooth pulled, plan a wedding, take golf lessons, buy take-out octopus or choose from among 19 restaurants including an eel shop and a roof-top garden cafe complete with ponds brimming with carp.

Or, beginning today, Isetan customers may view the best of the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection.

The exhibition runs through Dec. 28 at the Isetan Museum of Art, located on the eighth floor between the athletic gear department and the golf school on the roof. It includes 73 works from the BMA's renowned collection: 65 Matisse paintings, sculptures and drawings as well as eight works by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso and Cezanne. In January, the collection also will be displayed in the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art.

Exhibiting fine art in a department store might be considered odd in the West, but the Japanese like to bring the art to the people. Since opening in 1979, the Isetan Museum has offered several important shows, among them European works from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and masterpieces from London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Cone Collection show marks the 110th anniversary of Isetan, which began as a small family-owned kimono shop and is now an international chain with eight full-fledged department stores in Japan, 11 throughout Asia and financial interests in the United States.

It also offers the retailer a chance to talk about good news for a change. Since January, Isetan has been getting plenty of unwanted publicity about a nasty legal fight over its investments with Barneys, the glitzy New York-based retail chain that is in bankruptcy proceedings.

For the BMA, which received a substantial fee for lending the art, the Tokyo exhibition represents the first overseas trip the Cone Collection has made. It is also an opportunity for the BMA to introduce itself to a large international audience.

In the next three months, the artworks are expected to draw 300,000 people. For both institutions, these are big numbers: The BMA attracts about 350,000 visitors annually, and the 17-year-old Isetan museum draws about 400,000.

All of which is part of the Isetan vision, says Katsuhiko Yamamoto, general manager of the sales promotion department.

More than shopping

To Isetan, a "departo," or department store, is not just a place to shop. It is where customers should be able to fulfill nearly any need, from having their eyes checked to expanding their cultural horizons to getting a little exercise.

"We want the department stores to be a lifestyle, a space for people to come for their leisure time," Yamamoto says.

And if the customers who come to see Matisse happen to purchase a $1,250 Fendi handbag in brilliant red leather while they're at it, all the better.

To be sure, cutting edge fashions are an Isetan priority, says Yamamoto. The store's 300 buyers comb the world's fashion capitals for clothing that will appeal to its target customers: women aged 18-45.

And at least some notice. "Isetan catches the trends and they change constantly," says Atsuko Shimura, an airline employee who is shopping with her younger sister. "I think Isetan looks ahead."

Teen-agers are wooed as well. On a separate floor called "Cinderella City," the lighting is bright; the music loud and frenzied. Boutiques boast brands such as "Hysteric Glamour," "45 rpm," and "k.a.t."

And everywhere thin girls in straight black pants and patent leather platform boots cling to their boyfriends or flip through racks of boucle knit sweaters with zippers, turtlenecks, denim jackets with fake fur collars, and tiny chartreuse skirts.

Recently, Demi Moore stopped in to plug a movie. "Dear Japanese friends," she wrote on a large white card. "All my love." Her note is ensconced in a glass case as though it were a Matisse sculpture.

Fashion alone is not enough in the competitive world of Japanese retail chains, however.

In Shinjuku, a commercial district in central Tokyo, Isetan jockeys for market position with a half dozen other companies such as Mitsukoshi, Seibu and Daimaru.

Just a few blocks away, retail giant Takashimaya will open another megastore tomorrow, with a name that seems likely to appeal to youths in love with all things Western: Times Square.

Try the video arcade

Each store offers an increasing array of services and activities. Times Square promises cutting edge fashions and a video arcade; at Mitsukoshi, there is a full-fledged, beautifully appointed theater in the store.

"One of the reasons they started the museum was that they wanted Isetan to seem more artistic," explains Michie Yamaguchi, general manager of the Isetan Museum. "That was the image they wanted."

Service is of the utmost importance. "The concept at Isetan has always been: The customer is No. 1," says Yamamoto.

Indeed, customers are greeted by bowing, smiling salespeople, impeccably outfitted in navy blue uniforms. The elevator girls, in black and electric blue uniforms, welcome passengers and call out the number of each approaching floor.

"It is very traditional. They study the angle of the bow, how to greet and how to announce the floors," says Yamamoto.

Every Isetan employee receives a day-long course in gift-wrapping -- an essential skill in a society where paper and bow can have greater significance than gift.

"Americans are more energetic about unwrapping gifts. Japanese people unwrap slowly and enjoy it," says Masanori Yamatani, an assistant sales manager. "Here, wrapping is already a gift. It shows feeling."

A present from Isetan comes in blue and white company paper and is tied with red bows. And, for employees who work far from a window, the music piped into the store changes with the weather. When gift wrappers hear "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," they switch to a water-repellent paper.

Even on a weeknight, the wide aisles at Isetan are clogged with shoppers. As well-dressed customers stream from a stairway leading from subway to store, the basement level food-court seems a cross between New York's Balducci's and an open air farmers' market.

Good price on hairy crabs

"Kegani! Kegani!" Noboru Maehara yells as he skids on the slick floor of the seafood section. "Hairy crabs! Hairy crabs!"

The crustaceans, as big as cantaloupes, bristle with reddish wiry tufts. At 1,200 yen apiece (about $11), they're a bargain. And Maehara, wearing white rubber boots, blue apron and kerchief tied around his head, slips and slides as he scurries to wait on customers.

In a nearby counter, nine kinds of prawns, small, plump, orange, gray and brown, lie in packages. Some are so fresh they wiggle against the plastic wrap that holds them captive. Next comes sushi, enticingly displayed beside large, flat sheets of ready-to-roll seaweed.

There's also squid on a stick, crab claws, steamy dumplings, cucumber pickles, radish pickles, kim chee, pickled baby watermelons, baby eggplants in brine, rice, rice balls, rice cakes, fried potato, pumpkin or cream cheese cakes, baguettes, white dinner rolls, blueberry bagels, tiny sugar-coated buns, cinnamon twists, perogies or dried octopus skins.

The flat brown skins that are stretched across bamboo sticks hanging from the ceiling make excellent munchies, says Shinichi Kaneyuki, who is working the octopus counter. Cut into bite-sized pieces, hold over an open flame, dribble with soy sauce and serve with sake, he says. "They are very good."

Mere floors but infinite worlds away, business on Isetan's roof is picking up. As the neon signs of Tokyo begin to light the gray evening sky, customers stroll one by one onto the driving range.

For a fee, Isetan customers may join the "Swing" golf club, take one-on-one lessons or send their children to weekend golf classes. With 30 years of golfing experience under his belt, Kei Shibayana has seen many golfing areas. This one is nice, he says, as he looks out over the Tokyo skyline. "There's more to do here than shop."

Pub Date: 10/03/96

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