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The Ultimate Guide To Japanese Style

Become an expert on the brands coming out of the Land of the Rising Sun and the timeless trends behind them

  • Photograph by Ms Carola de Armas/Blaublut-Edition.com

Ever since the emergence of the rebellious teenager in the middle of the last century, Japanese men have closely followed the vanguard of American and European fashion, embracing styles both from the fashion industry and from the deepest pockets of subculture. This sartorial hunger started with the importation of Ivy League clothing in the 1960s and grew exponentially over the next few decades, cycling through hippie fringe, rugged denim, British glam rock, outdoor gear, punk rock, East Coast preppy, avant-garde runway collections, vintage Americana, and urban streetwear. In the past 20 years, however, Japanese brands moved beyond the simple consumption of these looks and have started to set the global standard for both quality and creativity in menswear.

The appeal of Japanese fashion can be boiled down to two things: an embrace of menswear’s great heritage and an open-minded creativity bringing new ideas into the industry.

Japan’s focus on heritage was a key part of its imitative years, as the country scrambled to figure out the core of Western fashion in order to replicate its magic. Today, Japanese designers still draw on the country’s profound and detailed history of Western fashion, but Japanese men have experienced so many different styles over the years that they can pull from their own histories. And critically, the Japanese manufacturing base – best-in-class textile weaving, cutting, and sewing – produces clothing that lives up to the designers’ wild ambitions, and often, exceeds the original garments that inspired them.

Designers and brands have ceased to be satisfied recreating historical styles. Japanese clothing now benefits from a complete total freedom to mix styles, layer and tweak. Skateboarding gear can be paired with high-end fabrics, just as military can mix with countercultural defiance. This is a direct result of how menswear initially came to Japan: brands and retailers had to import all of their styles, and the importation process stripped the original “meanings” from clothing. There was classic “Ivy” style without the Ivy League universities, and psychedelic garments without the LSD. In the 1970s, guys wore Sierra Designs 60/40 parkas who had never seen the Sierras, there were kids in surfing T-shirts who had never been on a board (although the country does boast its own surf culture), and Japan was home to the world’s most polite punks. Despite being a society governed, at times painfully, by traditions, Japanese designers feel no pressure to conform to the “rules” of each genre or tradition, and this continues to be a major source of creative power.

Whether workwear, denim, or athletic gear, Japan’s brands have used their heritage and freedom from convention to create true excellence. Here is a snapshot of the timeless trends and recurring themes in Japanese fashion.

Americana

  • Photograph by Mr George Elder

Post-war American traditional styles live on and in some instances have even grown stronger in Japan than in their birthplace. Beams Plus is the perfect example: youthful but faithful versions of Oxford button-down shirts, khaki chinos, and cable-knit sweaters cut with a slimmer and more contemporary silhouette. Rocky Mountain Featherbed — originally an American brand now owned and manufactured in Japan — keeps the brand’s tradition alive with luxury versions of its classic hiking down vests (aka gilets). On another extreme, Junya Watanabe utilises classic garments from the American past as a canvas for his experimental deconstructionist design.

Get the look

  • Junya Watanabe Cotton-Blend Jersey and Faux Suede Bomber Jacket

  • Beams Plus Button-Down Collar Striped Cotton Shirt

Dyed Denim

  • Photograph by Mr Stefano Carloni/Mr Tuft

Indigo dyeing dates back more than a millennium, but Japanese mills only seriously started producing true denim from around the early 1970s. In recent years, these two traditions have fused, with companies taking a craftsmanship-driven approach to all things blue. They find innovation in this archival instinct: most famously embodied in Japan’s revival of high-quality, narrow-loom woven selvedge denim, which would have otherwise become extinct.

Based in Kojima in Okayama Prefecture, Japan’s birthplace of jeans manufacturing, Kapital is a pioneer of expert denim with a Japanese touch. The brand uses ancient dyeing techniques, which create rugged garments to clothe its global tribe of artistic vagabonds. Blue Blue Japan takes a similar tack, applying a singular obsession with indigo to vintage styles common to LA vintage stores.

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  • Blue Blue Japan Slim-Fit Patchwork Cotton Jacket

  • visvim Social Sculpture 04 Slim-Fit Selvedge Denim Jeans

Subcultures

  • Photograph by Mr Adam Katz Sinding/Trunk Archive

The word “heritage” often seems a catch-all for anything old and classic. But in recent years, subcultures such as punk, hip-hop and motorcycle gangs have become so woven into the global social fabric that they themselves now have a lineage and heritage.

Japanese brands have been particularly good at working in the space known as “classic subculture”. Blackmeans finds new design ideas in decades of outlaw motorcycle culture. Harajuku’s Neighborhood, meanwhile, takes biker masculinity and blends it with athletic and military gear to create its much-loved streetwear. Nonnative aims for sleek urban wear with the same influences. And Wacko Maria uses the styles of the 1990s – ironic reappropriation of gas-station shirts, military gear, hoodies, and nylon coach jackets – as classics to be reworked.

Skate and surf culture have also been long-term inspirations in Japanese fashion. Beams opened shop in 1976 as a UCLA-obsessed, easy-going surf brand, and today, that history is still present in its perennial collections of laid-back basics. Remi Relief is more explicitly indebted to California beach culture but with an attention to detail and aesthetics that would be alien on Long Beach.

Sasquatchfabrix. found a way to take skateboarding staples into the realm of high-design, while Cav Empt manages to be high-concept while simultaneously sticking to streetwear’s gritty LA/New York roots.

Subculture has also been a major inspiration for high-end fashion in Japan. Undercover, one of the world’s most influential streetwear brands gone runway, started as deconstructed punk-rock and now finds highly technical solutions to realise the surrealist dreams of designer Mr Jun Takahashi.

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  • Beams Beams Japan Slim-Fit Plaid Cotton Shirt

  • Wacko Maria Zack Twill Trousers

Workwear

  • Photograph by Mr Stefano Carloni/Mr Tuft

In the early 1980s, Japanese buyers started making secret trips to the US to scoop up deadstock from workwear stores in small towns. Once these vintage supplies began to thin out a decade later, new brands emerged to recreate the rugged, functional sweatshirts, jackets, and jeans of American blue-collar workers.

OrSlow is one of the brightest today, using Hyōgo Prefecture’s local materials and small-scale manufacturing industry to create a workwear treated and washed to perfection. Visvim takes workwear beyond an American context, hyper-extending the globe’s craft traditions – from indigo dyeing to leather tanning to Native American moccasin sewing – into a crisp, timeless 21st-century streetwear with unsurpassed functionality.

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  • OrSlow Slub Cotton Shirt

  • Beams Beams Japan Waffle-Knit Cotton T-Shirt

Inspired by Japan

  • Photograph by Mr Marc Richardson

As Japanese fashion matured in the 1980s, designers started to take a new pride in their own traditions. Issey Miyake Men was one of the first brands to do this, and even today, the brand anchors its textile experiments and angular designs on the abstract concepts of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. Likewise, Sacai’s Ms Chitose Abe left Junya Watanabe to pursue avant-garde designs that push Japanese traditional fabrics and textures into new extremes.

Not all “Japaneseness” is self-orientalism. The high-end gentleman’s brand Camoshita looks to Italy for its core concepts of elegant menswear, but the uncompromising high-quality cannot be detached from Japanese ideals of craftsmanship and superior fabrics.

Get the look

  • Sacai Shell-Trimmed Quilted Cotton Shirt

  • Blue Blue Japan Camp-Collar Printed Chambray Shirt




Mr W David Marx is the author of cultural history, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style (Basic Books), a book on the rise of Japanese menswear on the global stage. He lives in Tokyo, Japan

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