OSAKA–Akiko Matsumoto spends four hours every day applying heavy makeup to her face, putting on a pink dress and accessorizing her hair with bling.
It takes time for the 73-year-old to perfect her trademark appearance, as if dressing for the ball.
Indeed, Matsumoto introduces herself as “Princess Cinderella of Shinsaibashi,” referring to Osaka’s iconic entertainment district.
She describes the style of her makeup as, “age-age happy,” something that fires up people and puts them at peace.
One of the septuagenarian’s signature makeup techniques is widely curving her eyebrow, which she calls, “Happy eyebrow, Mayu-chan.”
“My makeup brings happiness to me and the people around me,” she said.
Once she is ready, she will show up for work at Bridal Saloon Rouage, a rental wedding dress company in the city’s Chuo Ward, a five-minute walk from Shinsaibashi Station.
Matsumoto has run the business since 1987.
LIFE BEFORE ‘AGE-AGE HAPPY’
Matsumoto started her career as a fashion designer. After graduating from a junior college in Yamaguchi Prefecture, she joined an apparel company in Osaka.
It was quite easy to create a hot-selling product, she recalled.
There was no internet yet. So, the company president would go to the United States and bring back T-shirts and jeans, and Matsumoto would re-create these American products.
But such work never satisfied her.
“It’s not fun at all unless you do things different from others,” she said.
Since it was easy to produce a hot-selling product, she came up with an idea of selling her designs and ideas to rival companies.
“What I did was what is now called a consulting job, but nobody did something like that back then,” she said.
She suggested the plan to the company president, who accepted her idea.
Matsumoto soon completed more than 10 deals on her own.
She enjoyed a steady flow of business. But she quit the company after she married and gave birth.
“The truth is I wanted to continue to work. But in those days, women were assumed to take up homemaking after having a child. It was really frustrating.”
Later she divorced.
While raising a child, Matsumoto worked four jobs, designing dresses and teaching at a technical school.
‘PRETTY BUT EXPENSIVE’
Akiko Matsumoto, a.k.a. “Cinderella of Shinsaibashi,” poses in her shop in Osaka’s Chuo Ward. (Nobuhiro Shirai)
A major turning point came when she planned a trade show of wedding dresses as a designer.
Japan was at the apex of its asset-inflated economic growth in the late 1980s. It was not uncommon for couples to splurge for a flashy wedding ceremony and spend several millions of yen on a wedding dress.
But Matsumoto noted at the trade show that women who were browsing for wedding dresses were muttering, “It’s so pretty but expensive.”
Matsumoto realized that there were women who wished to wear a dress but could not because of the high price.
“If I offer such a dress at a low price, I can make everybody happy,” she thought.
She knew how to do it.
In the fashion industry at the time, much of the unsold clothing was destroyed at the end of each season.
Using her own network of connections, Matsumoto thought about a business of snatching up such dresses at bargain prices and renting them to women.
APPEARANCE GOOD FOR BUSINESS
Hair accessories that Akiko Matsumoto produces (Nobuhiro Shirai)
Thirty-five years ago, she opened Bridal Saloon Rouage.
She purchased dresses and added her own design, decorating them with flowers and ribbons.
The rental prices were from 20,000 yen ($156) to 50,000 yen.
“The market rate for a rental (wedding dress) at the time was 500,000 yen to 800,000 yen, so (my business) was swamped with orders,” she recalled.
She hired up to 15 employees and her company’s annual sales exceeded 100 million yen.
From the very start of the launch of Rouage, Matsumoto started wearing a lot of makeup and a flamboyant dress.
The fact that she entered a heavy-makeup contest hosted by a TV station in Osaka and won second place gave her confidence and motivation, she said.
“Being an eye-grabbing attention getter is best for business, and I realized the makeup boosted my confidence, too,” she said.
The bridal industry has changed over time and is facing a headwind.
Nowadays, it is typical for places for the wedding to charge couples if they bring their own dresses to wear at a ceremony and her business has lost its advantage in terms of prices.
Moreover, a no-frills wedding has become a trend, and more and more couples are deciding not to hold a wedding ceremony.
The number of employees at Rouage has dropped to three.
Matsumoto sometimes feels uncertain about the future. But she said she will keep plowing forward without changing her style.
Recently, she has increasingly appeared on TV shows and more actively engaged in social media. That has brought more young female customers to Rouage.
“Women should act high and mighty much more,” Matsumoto said. “It doesn’t matter what people say. Do what you like, and perform a miracle with age-age happy.”
That’s the advice she offers to women, a mantra that she has kept unchanged for the past 35 years.
It appears to have worked for one of her employees, Erika, who is 28.
She joined the Rouage workforce after she saw Matsumoto on TV and is expected to marry in the fall.
“I have been age-age happy since I met my princess,” Erika said.