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TOKYO, Nov 11 (AFP) - Visitors to Japan are often struck by the profusion of foreign designer goods in Tokyo's chic shopping districts, said to be home to more Louis Vuitton handbags per square meter than anywhere else in the world.
But few spend months hanging around on street corners taking photos of women shopping.
That's exactly what French photographer Chantal Stoman did, and the results are a collection of pictures entitled "A Woman's Obsession" that capture the intimate relationship between Japanese women and luxury fashion.
They show shop assistants kneeling before clients as if they were royalty, ladies exiting Gucci stores resplendent in their traditional kimonos, and hundreds of Chanel bags adorning the arms of shoppers on the streets of ultra-glitzy shopping districts like Ginza and Omotesando.
Japanese women's love affair with designer goods became Stoman's own passion, and she has learnt a thing or two during her time loitering on street corners with her camera.
"There are obviously different types of women in Japan," Stoman said in an interview with AFP.
"But there is a sort of woman who leaves home in the morning dressed from head to toe with the outfit she bought the day before, only to go shopping for a new one for the next day. She does almost nothing but that."
Japan has always been an Eldorado for French and Italian luxury fashion houses, which rake in phenomenal sales here despite prices as much as one quarter higher than elsewhere.
On her first trip to Tokyo early this year, Stoman, a fashion photographer who decided to eschew professional models for a reportage style, was immediately fascinated by the abundance of luxury goods here and their voracious consumption by Japanese women.
"I wanted to work on the subject in my own way, without voyeurism, without being critical or insulting," said the Paris-based photographer, whose work will go on display in Tokyo in February and appear in a book in France.
"The Japanese often have the impression that the West is mocking them. But I think that they would be flattered by my work. We don't say often enough to Japan that its women are beautiful, and I think that in my images they are."
Sponsored by Chanel, Stoman also had a free hand to photograph other fashion brands. Through her work, she became fascinated by the bowing, greetings and other small attentions that, while a tradition in all Japanese shops, are honed to perfection in luxury stores.
"Here, a woman who enters a luxury boutique goes not to look, but to buy.
"Once inside she is like a child in a sweet shop, and she is enthralled with the idea of what she is about to spend. Then she takes her time. She is pampered and fawned upon. The shopkeepers kneel before her to present a bag. She becomes a queen in front of her maidservants.
"When she has finally made her purchase, the assistants bow before her once again and accompany her to the exit where they must wait and not take their eyes off her until she is out of sight, even if the street is 500 meters long.
"In total, a purchase takes three quarters of an hour," says Stoman.
The exact roots of Japanese women's love affair with luxury are hard to define.
"If, in the West, it is a desire to find an original look that dictates women's behavior in fashion, Japanese woman by contrast seem to seek uniformity. They want to have what everyone else has," she said.
"If there is a bag that sells well, you will be sure to see, in just one day, 100 women wearing it as if it was given away at the subway exit.
"One often wonders where these women get the money. I have the impression that some spend everything on luxury items," she muses.
On one of her visits to a Louis Vuitton store she remarked to a customer that the bag she had just bought cost the same as a plane ticket to Paris.
"But if I didn't have the money to buy a Louis Vuitton bag when I got there, it wouldn't be worth going," the young shopper replied.
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