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The Portfolio

Five Japanese Brands You Should Know

Meet Blue Blue Japan, Beams Plus, White Mountaineering, Neighborhood and Remi Relief

  • From left: Messrs Goto, Aizawa, Takizawa, Nakada and Tsuji

There are moments when one city will punch above its weight when it comes to style. Recall the buzz around the “Antwerp Six” in the mid-1980s, or those two Bronx upstarts with the surnames Klein and Lauren who emerged from New York a decade earlier. Right now, though, it’s Tokyo turn – and what’s inspiring is that there isn’t just one trend. Look to the achingly hip streetwear of Neighborhood, whose Americana with attitude is so well crafted it would look at home in an Indian Motorcycle poster from the 1950s; the beautifully indigo-dyed farm wear of Blue Blue Japan, whose shirts, jackets and jeans are re-engineered for city life and will look better every day you wear them; or the surf-inspired classics of Remi Relief, whose hoodies and washed-out tees, updated with modern fits, have a vintage feel so authentic you’d think they were dug out of a Malibu attic. Today, Tokyo’s designers are reinventing multiple menswear archetypes (the outdoorsmen, the Ivy Leaguer, the surfer dude) – and their near-fetishistic attention to detail reminds us why we loved them the first time around. 

There’s something uniquely Japanese about how the men we met on our recent trip to the Japanese capital remain as forward thinking as they are respectful of heritage – and this has a great deal to do with the Zen koan that is Tokyo itself. With 35.8 million people it is the world’s most populated metropolitan area – yet arguably its most tranquil. The immediacy, the mass consumption and the chaotic neon signs can overwhelm you, but you'd struggle to think of another city that takes as much time to quietly contemplate the turning of the four seasons. It is arguably more Westernised than the West, yet resolutely holds on to its Eastern traditions – with ancient cedarwood shrines standing shoulder to shoulder with the austere, concrete masterpieces of Mr Tadao Ando and co.   

So, what did the men we met have to say about life in the city? That family matters, that no commute is ever too long, that a brand is much more than the sum of its parts – and that the surf’s always up come Saturday…

After graduating from Tama Art University in 2001, Mr Yosuke Aizawa, 37, worked as an assistant to Mr Junya Watanabe. A lifelong passion for outdoor pursuits including mountain climbing, snowboarding and fishing led him to create White Mountaineering in 2006. The brand’s use of heritage and technical materials, from corduroy and tweed to Gore-Tex and Windstopper fabrics, soon established Mr Aizawa as one of Japan’s new fashion innovators – his streetwear creations being as wearable in the city as they are in much harsher environments. “A fusion of outdoor style and fashion is what I aim to express,” he says.

  • “White Mountaineering has a main line called Wardrobe... which I designed with my everyday clothes in mind”

What does your typical day look like?

My studio is 15 minutes away from my home by car. When I arrive I play music, make myself a coffee and tidy up. I run a company, so I do administration work in the morning and I also study English. After lunch I’m usually at the studio designing.

How do you dress for work?

I wear navy blue shirts, navy trousers and white sneakers. White Mountaineering has a main line called Wardrobe, which I designed using those colours and with my own everyday clothes in mind. I dress the same in my private time, although at home you’ll find I’m mostly in pyjamas.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I snowboard and visit Japan’s snowcapped mountains for inspiration. My favourite spot is Niseko in Hokkaido.

Can you sum up Tokyo style in a few words?

People enjoy adding a little bit of high-end taste to a casual look. Japanese people used to take influences from abroad – mostly Western countries. However, we’ve started to understand who we are and what suits us. From a creative point of view our brands are often described as “Japanese style”, but I think we express this naturally, not intentionally.

Where do you like to hang out?

I love the eel restaurant Hosakaya and the Japanese pub Kaneda, which are next to each other in Jiyugaoka. Hosakaya only serves skewered eel and its alcohol menu offers only beer, shochu [a distilled alcoholic drink] and sake. Your bill is totalled up based on how many sticks you’ve eaten. It’s a very Japanese restaurant and somewhere I’d like to take visitors from abroad. Kaneda has been open since before WWII and many of Japan’s great writers were once regulars at this historical izakaya [Japanese pub], which is often referred to as the “Kaneda drinking school”. When I’m there I try not to be noisy and I take my hat off. I prefer Japanese pubs because I like sake and shochu; in terms of the latter I like the brand Tori Kai, which is made by rice and really flavourful.

Beams, founded in 1976 in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, is one of Japan’s most successful and respected fashion empires with around 140 stores spread right across the country. The Beams Plus line was started in 1999 as a purveyor of American heritage clothes, producing both rugged workwear and Ivy League-style classics. Mr Shinsuke Nakada, 37, started out part-time on the Beams shop floor in 2000, and in less than 15 years worked his way up to the Beams Plus director and Beams chief buyer positions. “The Beams Plus line specialises in American casualwear from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, which [in style terms] was America’s golden era,” he says. “Since I started working for Beams Plus my everyday life has been influenced by American culture. One of the reasons I chose to live in Kamakura is for the surfing, and I also collect American mid-century furniture and home wares.”

  • “Since I started working for Beams Plus my life has been influeneced by American culture. I also collect mid-century furniture and homewares”

What does your typical day look like?

Lots of what I do is related to the US, and the time difference means I focus on this during mornings. After lunch it’s usually product planning and looking at the direction of our retail stores with the visual merchandisers. I stop by our Harajuku and Shibuya stores every day after lunch to check on sales and to communicate with the floor staff. As a buyer, I go abroad around seven times a year – mainly January, February, July and August in New York, California and Italy. Oh, and of course London too.

How do you dress for work?

There is no dress code at work so I choose my clothes depending on what I’ll be doing for the day. For example, if I’m going to a buying suite I wear a suit; if I’m at a sneaker exhibition I choose something that works with sneakers.

Where do you go to find creative inspiration?

I get inspiration when I’m abroad, mostly from the atmospheres of the towns I visit. Berkeley in San Francisco recently inspired me: the styles of the people there and the colours in the town led me to delve into its past. Researching history and attempting to make it contemporary again is one of the most important aspects of my job; it normally takes one year for an area of inspiration to manifest itself as an actual product.

How has Tokyo style evolved over the past few years?

Recently, Japanese fashion has been influenced by America’s Ivy League and traditional styles. These have certain rules but were very on-trend. Currently, I feel Tokyo is moving towards a more expressive style where people add their own individual tastes – a revival of the 1990s in which an essential element was mixing things up.

Where would you suggest going to eat or drink?

There’s quite a distance between my office and my home so I tend to eat and drink late in Kamakura, as I get back around 11pm. I often visit Oicheech, which is like a tapas bar. It attracts a creative crowd – photographers, artists and editors – and they tend to be around my age. Spending time with like-minded people makes Kamakura a comfortable place to live. The bar there serves a local beer from Zushi City called Yorocco. It’s an ale type beer, only two years old and quickly becoming famous – finding it on tap is pretty rare.

  • Mr Takizawa in his office, Sendagaya

Take a look at Mr Shinsuke Takizawa’s Instagram feed and it’s easy to see why Neighborhood, which the 47-year-old founded in 1994, is known as one of Tokyo’s coolest streetwear brands. Mr Takizawa’s love of custom vintage motorcycles and cars, rare Paul Newman Rolex Daytonas and subversive Americana seem to run through every stitch of the clothes he designs; the distinctive printed tees, impeccably constructed workwear and premium jeans are as notoriously hard to find outside of Japan as they are long-lasting. Or as he says, “My brand varies from season to season, but my basic aim is to make people’s lives fuller with my clothes. Fashion trends are interesting and reflect the events of the times; I hope that my clothes exist in another category – but not in a negative way.”

  • “Tokyo's original style is evolving... It has recently become cleaner, mixing heritage and sportier styles”

What does your typical day look like?

A typical morning involves waking up at 6am, having breakfast with my family and then going to work. I choose how to get my office – by car or by motorbike – depending on the weather, my mood and my schedule. I normally get to work around 9:30am and I leave around 9:30pm, spending 12 hours a day at my office.

How do you dress for work?

I wear Neighborhood jeans 365 days a year. My tops are dictated by the day’s schedule or my mood, for example I’ll choose a smarter shirt if I have a meeting.

Can you sum up Tokyo style in a few words?

Since around the 1980s people have been mixing different categories and genres. This is Tokyo’s original style, and it’s always evolving – but it has recently become cleaner, mixing heritage and sportier styles. I also think it may be less commercial in Tokyo now than it was during the 1990s.

Where would you suggest going to eat or drink?

My favourite place to eat is Ukai [a kaiseki restaurant, specialising in tofu] just next to Tokyo Tower. The area does have a sightseeing element, but I love Tokyo Tower.

Blue Blue Japan is a brand totally rooted in Japanese culture, and its clothes are so comfortable you’ll want to wear them every day. With a focus on traditional construction techniques, natural fibres and the richest indigo hand-dyeing methods, the garments embody wabi-sabi (an appreciation of natural imperfection) and will develop a unique patina the more you wear them. Mr Kenji Tsuji, 38, joined Blue Blue Japan (Seilin & Co) in 2002 and has been designing and managing production since 2006.
 
Of Blue Blue Japan’s approach, he says, “Our brand is based on indigo and old farm workwear, called noragi. Taking good care of things is essential and I think this stems from the Japanese sense of beauty. For example, traditional Japanese farm workwear items were mended with cloth from the inside, with the hand stitching seen on the outside. If you turned a garment inside out you’d find several different materials. Using something for a long time and looking after it maintains its beauty and this is what we focus on. It’s also important to use colours and materials that relate to Japan’s four seasons.”

  • “Our brand is based on indigo and old farm workwear... It's also important to use colours and materials that relate to Japan's four seasons”

Describe your typical working day.

I normally go for lunch and after-work meals in Nakameguro, where our office is. It’s a relaxing place despite its central Tokyo location, there’s a slow atmosphere and the cherry blossoms in spring are great to see – especially in the early morning. I normally arrive at 9am. The first thing we do is clean the office. Our company believes cleaning is important work, and everybody does this before they start their jobs. We have several factories across Japan – Akita, Kyoto, Okayama – so I need to correspond a lot. I often visit the fabric makers and dyeing factories early in the morning. These factories have various strengths and we have built up a good relationship.

How do you dress for work?

Our brand is mainly a casual line so I dress to reflect this – normally I’m in 100% Blue Blue Japan products, which means I tend to be a totally blue person. For example, a typical look would be indigo trousers, an indigo T-shirt and a patchwork coverall. Oh, and even my Vans sneakers are blue!

How has Tokyo style evolved over the past few years?

Fast fashion has become a big influence, especially the concept of items being disposable. Our brand’s focus is on wearing something for a long time and taking good care of it – the opposite of fast fashion. I hope people start appreciating the things they have a lot more.

Where do you go to find creative inspiration?

For me, inspiration comes from within Japan – especially my hometown, Fukui City in Fukui Prefecture, where I go mountain climbing or visit the beach. I often get inspiration simply from everyday life, especially old things, both Western and Eastern.

Where would you suggest going to eat or drink?

My favourite restaurant in Tokyo is Tatsumi in Nakameguro – a small Japanese teishokuya [restaurant serving set meals]. I’ve regularly dined there since I joined Blue Blue Japan. My frequent visits to this restaurant led me to carrying a mikoshi [a portable Shinto shrine believed to transport a deity] at the area’s local festival.

Mr Yutaka Goto’s love of surfing pervades everything he designs for Remi Relief, the casualwear brand he founded in 2007. The distinctive worn-in, faded look it has become famous for is specifically inspired by California’s sepia-tinted surf and skater scenes of the 1960s and 1970s; and such is Mr Goto’s meticulous pursuit of that authentic vintage feel that he set up his own factory in Okayama Prefecture – the home of Japanese artisanal manufacturing.

“I’m interested in new things and technology, but when I start researching I often discover old techniques and ideas,” says Mr Goto, 44. “For example, modern dyes are high in durability, but old dyes fade as time passes. This explains why clothes from the 1930-1960s are admired as ‘vintage’ all over the world. However, people don’t find value in clothes from the 1990s that are made with new dyes. It’s the visual sense of history that attracts people, and I use this essence to produce modern clothes.”

  • “I'm interested in new things and technology, but when I start researching I often discover old techniques and ideas”

What does your typical day look like?

Basically I’m working Monday to Friday, but most Saturdays too. My office is in Gakugeidaigaku in Meguro Ward, and my factory is in Kojima in Okayama Prefecture. It takes four hours to get there by shinkansen [bullet train] and then a local train. I normally spend one week per month at the factory. Most mornings I check emails and then spend a lot of time planning and running projects, not necessarily just for my own brand but for others as well, such as Ron Herman.

How do you dress for work?

I like casual clothes, such as T-shirts and shorts in the summer. I don’t wear my own brand very often. I design them from my own factory and see them constantly right through to release six months later, so by the time they’ve become actual products I feel as if I have moved on – my head is occupied by next season’s ideas. I actually prefer to be a consumer like everybody else, and other brands also look fresh to me. Each season there are one or two of my own articles that I never lose interest in, which makes me realise I’ve done a good job.

Can you sum up Tokyo style in a few words?

There used to be trends, and although people in Tokyo wear various styles I don’t think we can categorise them. I still believe the base is American casual, though. Back in the day certain places had dress codes – modish clubs that required a jacket, for example – and these dictated what people wore. These days people can wear whatever they want, and this is a reflection of Tokyo’s environment.

Where would you suggest going to eat or drink?

I love Japanese food. One of my favourite restaurants is in Shirogane, called Kokoromai. It has a wide range of barley and branded rice from all over Japan and you can order your own choices and mix brands. Your rice is cooked in a special pot and served with fish, pickled vegetables and miso soup. I go there when I want to eat really tasty rice.

And your favourite surf spots?

Where I go depends on the waves, but normally Chiba Prefecture, Ibaraki Prefecture or Shonan in Kanagawa Prefecture. I decide where using an app and also by checking the waves via webcam from home. I leave at 4am, get to the beach at 6am and surf until 10am, then it’s back to Tokyo before noon. After surfing I see my friends, have dinner together and watch films – pretty ordinary. I take yoga classes as well, and one of my male friends is an instructor at my sports club. Yoga keeps my body flexible and prevents me from becoming too tired.