Japanese fashion: Eastern Promises

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Japanese fashion designers first made a splash in Europe 30 years ago, but Tokyo’s talents and streetwear styles are the next big thing in modern menswear. Adam Welch reports

Geeking out about the details of things is a core part of the male psyche.

Our ability to obsessively seek and conquer the lesser-known mysteries of the universe – like just exactly which Sonic Youth album has the best guitar sound or how you actually play Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – has given rise to a slew of influential, but not-very-cool pop-culture institutions. Like Top Gear. And 4Chan.

We don’t tend to associate this kind of obsessive nerdiness with the world of fashion. But there’s a certain subset of male style-o-philes that take great pleasure in discussing, comparing and contrasting the latest drops from the most obscure fashion brands. And for these guys, few things are talked about with more reverence than the innovative menswear brands that have emerged from Japan in the last decade.

There are so many tiny things to pore over in each product, so many minute-but-crucial innovations each season – perfect for guys who are into fashion but can’t get excited by the flamboyant, slightly girly flourishes on European men’s runways.

“The amount of detail that goes into Japanese brands and production, I think, is unrivalled,” says Christiaan Ashworth, co-owner of Newcastle’s End Clothing, one of the UK’s most savvy and forward-looking menswear boutiques. “British production’s fantastic, as is American, but...in Japan, the consideration that goes into the products... sometimes it even seems crazy, the lengths that they will go to.”

As examples, he cites pieces like a shirt by the much-hyped technical label White Mountaineering with printed inner seams, or the way in which Hiroki Nakamura, the designer of the ultra-premium men’s brand Visvim, completely redesigns every piece, from basics to the top-priced items, each season. “Whereas other brands might make a bestseller and make it in a colour the next season, he won’t do that because it’s all about design innovation,” Ashworth says.

All this is well and good as a kind of internet/fashion-porn experience, but historically, getting hold of this stuff has been prohibitively difficult and expensive. “Japanese brands have always been fairly insular and wary of being too global,” Tim Sturmheit, a buyer at the men’s e-tailer and boutique Oki-Ni, says. “They like to stick to their own and what they know and theywork in a certain way that’s quite difficult for British buyers to deal with. The way that they wholesale is different and you also have to pay for shipping.

“So they end up being very expensive, a lot more expensive than they are in Japan.”

But in the past couple of seasons, especially this spring, it seems more Japanese brands are making their way to the UK than ever. At End Clothing, there are new arrivals in Sophnet, a poppy, premium street and casualwear brand, and the related label Uniform Experiment, a collaboration between Sophnet and Harajuku style legend Hiroshi Fujiwara. Oki-Ni has just added Undercover, one of the original, and most influential Japanese street-styleinspired luxury brands, to its roster.

Meanwhile, Natalie Massenet’s men’s e-tailer, Mr Porter, is among a select few stores that, as of spring 2012, are now stocking one of Japan’s biggest clothing labels, Beams Plus, a line that offers a characteristically Japanese take on classic American clothing from the 1940s and 1950s.

Then there’s the emergence of retailers like the Dalston-based showroom and online shop LN-CC (or Late Night Chameleon Club), which, since it launched at the end of 2010, has done a pioneering job of bringing some of the most obscure and interesting Japanese brands – like Tokyo’s current style frontrunner Sasquatchfabrix – to a hungry UK market.

So, why is this all happening now? First of all, Ashworth says, the accessibility of information on the internet has increased demand. “You can find a product and read all about what its different features are really quickly,” he says. “There’s more people in the UK that are aware of these brands than ever before. Secondly, there’s the recession and the disaster in Japan last year. Previously they haven’t had to look outside of Japan, but now, because of these factors, they are starting to look for other good sources of income.”

Oki-Ni’s Sturmheit points to the undeniably blossoming scene for independent menswear retail in the UK. “Japanese brands are realising what potential there is here, partly with making money and partly because there’s more stores that fit their mentality,” he says.

Given the Japanese way of doing business, which is based on close personal relationships and trust established through face-to-face meetings, this last development is more important than you might think. Keishi Endo, the vice-president of Beams, is keen to underline this. “We’d like to treasure the good relationship with stores sharing the same concept of values all over the world,” he says when asked if he has further plans to expand Beams Plus in the UK. “This is more important than expansion.”

The opening of the UK market to formerly niche Japanese brands (and vice versa) is still something of a gradual, if inexorable, process then. But there’s already been some noticeable effects in the mainstream. Most prominent this month is Uniqlo’s decision to roll out a global capsule collection in collaboration with Undercover (which, despite its iconic status in Japan, is far from a household name over here).

“Uniqlo asked me last year whether I’d like to do something that is interesting, originates in Japan and is for the world,” says the brand’s designer Jun Takahashi, whose collection for Uniqlo features inexpensive clothing for the whole family.

On the vanguard of fashion we’re only just beginning to see what Japan can offer men with an eye for the unique, subtle and expertly manufactured, according to Dan Mitchell, a buyer at LN-CC. “We are riding the wave of a new movement in Tokyo street fashion,” he says. “There has been a real shift of the guard and Tokyo is now dominated by a group of very exciting young domestic brands that are emerging. It hasn’t been recognised overseas as yet, but it will be evident in the coming years.”

Japanese Boys

Beams Plus

One of the 25 labels maintained by Beams, one of Japan’s biggest youth clothing stores, Beams Plus was launched in 1999 to celebrate what Beams’ vice-president Keishi Endo describes as “the ultimate functional beauty”of classic American gear.

The spring 2012 collection is based around the loose concept of “hipsters”, from beatniks to vegetable-munching Portlanders, and mixes preppy pastel jackets with tapered camo trousers and crumpled linen work shirts. Beams Plus is available now from Mr Porter.

White Mountaineering

This technical, outdoorsy label has developed a considerable following since its launch in 2006. The key thrust here is simplicity in design and innovation in the fabrics, which are changed each season and developed with brands like Gore-Tex and Schoeller.

Highlights of the current collection include the painterly, washed-out digital camo prints and pleasing details like striped-shirt buttons, corduroy-lined cuffs and Nordic-inspired jacquards. Available at Oki-Ni and End Clothing.

Sasquatchfabrix

“In Japan, Sasquatchfabrix is being recognised for being at the forefront of the current underground street movement and we are really behind them,” says Dan Mitchell, of LN-CC, the sole stockist of Sasquatchfabrix in the UK.

The spring collection reinvents traditional tailoring with oversized, but not-too-slouchy, proportions, mixing it up with dense floral grandad shirts and deconstructed references to Americana, like a Kimono-esque wrap cardigan with “New York City”emblazoned on the front. Available at LN-CC.

Uniform Experiment

Designed by Hiroshi Fujiwara (who’s also partly responsible for Nike’s much-lusted-after HTM sneakers) in collaboration with Sophnet’s founder Hirofumi Kiyonaga, Uniform Experiment takes Sophnet’s simple casual classics and adds a more poppy, graphic sensibility. Spring is all about dip-dyed check shirts, polka dots and carefully placed sailor stripes that are slathered across a range of sporty pieces. Available at End Clothing.

Kolor

One of the brands currently making a more concerted play for the Western mainstream is Kolor, which mounted a runway show in Paris for the first time this February. The collection is a more formal take on Tokyo street-style influences, with voluminous tailoring at the forefront of its experiments with light, crumpled fabrics and subtle colour blocking. Available at Mr Porter.

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