Man from Japan: How to dress like a Tokyo Joe

Designs from the latest breed of Japanese menswear labels may not look like anything to shout about - but they are fast gaining cult status

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Walk into a department store – or thumb your mouse through any fashion website – and you’ll be struck by a dichotomy between their offerings for him and those for her. While the latter is dominated by masthead brands – Balmain, Dolce and Gabbana, Valentino  – and a younger crop of lower-profile but still familiar catwalk staples, the former increasingly features a raft of exotic, esoteric names, and clothes whose outward normality is, on second glance, slightly twisted, subtly warped. This is the new breed of menswear. It’s gaining fans and influence. And it’s just about all made in Japan.

That country has, of course, been influencing menswear for years. In the Eighties, the unfitted suits, flat-cut in the style of traditional kimonos and proposed by Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, formed the baggy blueprint for a decade of men’s designs, and the outfit of choice for a generation of creative directors and male fashion editors.

Today’s Japanese names are very different, although they’re still bucking fashion’s rules. Rather than staging flashy catwalk shows, the vast majority simply showcase product to buyers and select press. They have few stand-alone retail outlets outside Japan, and if celebrities wear their clothing, you probably wouldn’t realise. That’s because the clothes are quiet – T-shirts, frequently strangely sloganed, soft suiting, stuff like lumberjack checks and biker jackets, and predominantly denim.

The latter is a speciality – Japanese selvedge denim has been vaunted for years as the best in the world: Topman has just launched a collection of the stuff, proudly crowing about its geographical origins. It’s a trope that the region’s designers – such as Junya Watanabe, Visvim and Undercover – turn to again and again.

Denim, biker jackets, T-shirts. That doesn’t sound especially Japanese, you may think. Which is very true. “In a lot of Japanese menswear there is an instantly recognisable, yet subtle touch of Americana,” reasons Sam Lobban, senior buyer at menswear website Mr Porter, which stocks a raft of Japanese labels, “a sort of East-West fusion with a touch of the avant-garde”. Damien Paul, the head of menswear at Matches Fashion.com, agrees: “They play with the menswear staples, giving them subtle tweaks. It’s kind of a Japanese view of Western fashion.”

Paul is speaking specifically of the label Tomorrowland, but his words are a neat summary of Japanese menswear, and also nail the reasons customers are hungry for the country’s fashion: they’re garments we’re all familiar with, with an intriguing sense of the other.

 

There has been a muffled explosion of these resolutely quiet brands over recent years – during the first half of 2015 alone, MatchesFashion.com added seven new Japan-based labels to its roster, while Lobban confirms that Mr Porter now has around 20 Japanese brands on its books. Its conviction about the commercial heft of Japan’s menswear corps is evinced by the launch tomorrow of a clutch of capsule ranges from not one but four Japanese names: Beams, Remi Relief, Neighborhood and blackmeans.

Haven’t heard of any of them? You’re in the majority – and that is one major aspect of their allure. In a hopelessly overexposed contemporary fashion landscape, the under-the-radar nature of a large portion of Japanese menswear entices men who don’t want their clothing to shout a specific brand affiliation. “From a purely geographical point of view, Japanese brands used to be much more difficult to get hold of,” says Lobban. “There was a certain feeling that only those of us ‘in the know’ could own these brands.” Despite the internet – which Lobban identifies as exposing these niche brands to a wider audience than ever before – there’s still a sense of the cult to these labels, and details of cut and finish that attract aficionados only.

There is certainly an engaging obtuseness to Japanese design – although the menswear is, generally speaking, more approachable than its female counterpart. Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe’s womenswear shows, of perambulating raggedy pile-ups and bubbly shifts topped with Perspex helmets respectively, are tricky to wear undiluted.

Their menswear proposals, generally, find the shift to shop floor easier. Watanabe in particular had garnered legions of fans. “He has the best shows season upon season and his catwalk collections always translate so well to retail,” enthuses Lobban. “It always does fantastically well from a sales perspective, and is one of the most successful Japanese brands we stock.”

The cult of Japanese menswear is all the more interesting given the current landscape of fashion. Menswear is increasingly important, and now something of a global cash cow: since 2009, growth has outpaced womenswear, increasing between nine and 13 per cent annually. The UK menswear market has grown by 18 per cent in the past half-decade. In luxury, much of the attention has been focused at the top end, on slick, sharp suiting and classic accessories in lavish skins. Japan offers high-fashion menswear consumers another option.

“It’s a different approach to luxury,” says Damien Paul. “Something more understated and less overt. It’s not about expensive skins or conspicuous branding – it’s a quieter, more cerebral aesthetic, but one that is just as luxurious.”

That may be part of the discreet charm of Japanese menswear: it’s anti-bling. Just as there are very specific men drawn to loud prints, flashy embellishment and copious amounts of leopard (in the past, Liberace; in the present, Peter Stringfellow), so there are those who gravitate to the subtly distorted workwear offered by the Japanese. They’re quiet, but intriguing. “They’re the kind of clothes that will make people endlessly ask where you bought them,” states Paul, simply. For customers and retailers alike, that engaging obscurity has an instantly understandable appeal.

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