By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Washi paper was paired with silk and fabrics layered in an echo of traditional kimonos at Japan Fashion Week, the twice-yearly celebration of an industry that plays a key role in the nation's "Cool Japan" campaign.
Underwritten by a $500-million government bankroll, the campaign - whose Cool Japan fund kicks off in November - aims to help Japanese firms promote their culture.
It has been seized upon by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a way of restoring the halo of cool that once graced the nation that gave the world technological marvels such as the "Walkman." Japan's luster dimmed through two lost decades that saw it fall behind China economically.
At stake is a share in the booming global cultural industry, set to balloon more than 40 percent by 2020 to more than $9 trillion, economists say.
Tokyo's week-long fashion extravaganza, showcasing the Spring/Summer 2014 collections, kicked off on Monday with the number of foreign buyers nearly doubled from last year, according to Fashion Week observers.
Among those presenting was Sara Arai and her "araisara" brand, which made use of what experts say are typically Japanese fashion traits such as unusual color combinations and fabric layering in a sporty yet surreal collection called "Fantasia".
Loose jackets made of washi paper and silk in vivid greens and blues were paired with sassy shorts and flowing, floor-length sundresses printed with a sunflower motif.
"In terms of materials, traditional techniques have melded with modern technology as it has evolved, allowing us to make things unique to this time in history," Beijing-born Arai told reporters. "Through fashion, I want to tell the world about skills found only here in Asia."
FASHION KEY TO "COOL JAPAN"
Though much of the drive behind Cool Japan appears to have been inspired by South Korea's backing of soft power that helped boost its music industry to global fame, the campaign is much broader than simply entertainment.
"(Fashion) isn't just one pillar of Cool Japan, it's right at the center," said Yuichi Moronaga, deputy director of the Creative Industries Division at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
"The image of Cool Japan is that it's all about anime and manga but what we want to sell is things and services. What's really most accessible in this sense is fashion and interior design, the miscellany of living."
Among the attractions of Japanese fashion are its materials, ranging from buttons and ribbons to the fabrics and styling of the traditional kimono, the hallmark of designs by Tamae Hirokawa of "Somarta", whose Monday show launched the week.
"Japan has the culture of layering going back very far, so I embraced that history as well as the belt or 'obi' in the style that the samurai used," Hirokawa told Reuters.
While Japanese designers continue to take aim at China and its huge market, many are also turning to the rest of the vast Asian continent with its growing middle class, in particular Indonesia and Singapore.
"Asian customers and buyers are invited here to see things themselves and they then spread this to their respective countries," said Nobuyuki Ohta, chief buyer at Matsuya, a major Tokyo department store, as well as head of the Cool Japan fund.
The growing attention paid to Japanese fashion overseas, helped by live Internet streaming of many Fashion Week events, allows it to fulfill a key role in providing a showcase for younger designers. Of the 37 brands showing in Tokyo, five were making their Fashion Week debut.
"There are really good materials in Japan, really skilled people ... If you make something stylish, it can appeal to the world," Ohta said. "How to provide them with a platform, how to thrust them forward - this is the job of Cool Japan."
(Additional reporting by Devin Ohara and Mariko Lochridge; Editing by John O'Callaghan & Shri Navaratnam)