Why Japan is so important to American fashion

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Hiroshi Fujiwara’s gray hair is a moppy bob and he wears what I can only assume are hard-to-find Nikes. My cousin asks why he showed up in sneakers, but what she really means is, “How dare you show up to a formal family event in casual attire?”

Right now Fujiwara is serenading my sister and her husband as they have their first dance as a married couple. I’m impressed, and not just because he hauled a guitar from Japan to Kansas City — but to be fair, the groom is American streetwear impresario Jeffstaple. What really amazes me is the sight of the man responsible for Japanese street fashion as we know it today, the so-called godfather of Harajuku.


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While for Japanese fashion insiders, Fujiwara is linked to a host of brands, from Head Porter to Nike, its name may not be familiar to Americans. Maybe it’s because he’s never worked on just one thing: he’s a musician, fashion designer, and curator of lifestyle trends. But now the curious can read all about Fujiwara, its most famous protege, Nigo, the founder of cult brand A Bathing Ape, and other innovators in Ametora: How Japan Saved American Styleby W.David Marx.

Photo-rich periodicals helped spread American dress codes among young Japanese men.

Ametora is an exhaustive and often compelling history of how Japanese menswear industries have imported and updated American styles over the past 150 years. The title refers to one of the many menswear styles that criss-crossed the Pacific from the United States to Japan and back again, and is a portmanteau of “American Traditional”, a style we might otherwise call Americana. Think social club dress codes: navy blazers, popped polo necks, leather loafers.

Like Fujiwara’s Harajuku, which reached prevalence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, each of the styles described in Ametora is linked to an enterprising individual – almost always a man – and his team. The most important of these characters is Kensuke Ishizu, the founder of the famous clothing brand VAN and the popularizer of “Ivy Style”, a dated facsimile of the preparation of the East Coast. Ishizu introduced Ivy Style through savvy marketing, from the micro (packing VAN products in prized boxes and bags that would themselves become coveted items) to the macro (he designed the official Japanese delegation uniform, a controversial red blazer with gold buttons and white trousers, for the 1964 Olympics). Ivy Style and subsequent trends – ski and surf, rockabilly and delinquent chic – had defining moments in the pages of photo-rich periodicals such as Heibon Punch and Popeye magazine, which helped spread these styles among young Japanese men. in the golden age of publishing. .

Other trends have followed similar paths. In the 2000s, the world discovered the growing know-how of Japanese denim manufacturers in terms of selvedge. Although originally an American invention, the Japanese versions would become the new benchmark for quality jeans: according to Marx, this technique (“selvedge” is a truncation of “self-finishing edge”) was left to the historically forgotten in the United States until Japanese garbage collectors learned to use it as one of many checkpoints to authenticate vintage Levi’s. Meanwhile, the Japanese men’s casual wear trend cycle, which originally found its model in Gap, Inc., has come full circle with the success in the United States of its reigning king of fast fashion, Uniqlo.

Photo: Getty Images

The comprehensiveness of Ametora’s research demonstrates Marx’s pedigree as a business school graduate of the prestigious Keio University, and will delight followers of his neo-Japonism blog.. The book reads like a management bible, with financial metrics and anecdotes about successful entrepreneurs. Japan scholars will find that Marx has done his historical and linguistic homework. For example, I had only seen the role of “pan-pan girls” (prostitutes who solicited American soldiers) referenced in books in Japanese, but Marx adds depth to their story, describing how they earned a side income reselling GI clothes at import shops on Ameyoko Street, the home of an ersatz exchange in Tokyo that still exists today.

But, while Ametora could easily be used as a reference for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of running a legendary brand (Ishizu’s VAN) or dominating the fast fashion industry (Uniqlo), it stands out. focuses almost entirely on men’s style, and readers shouldn’t expect information or expertise on women’s clothing. Descriptions of men unable to meet magazine beauty standards, for example, will sound downright odd to any woman who has picked up a fashion rag.

The American style undoubtedly benefited from its incubation in Japan.

The focus on style over fashion also has its limitations. For Marx’s purposes, style largely refers to lifestyle branding, rather than innovation in clothing design. Even a high fashion milestone such as Rei Kawakubo’s epic 1981 “Destitution” line for Comme Des Garçons, which challenged Western notions of glamor and refined beauty with tattered garments, is widely discussed in context. spinoff brands of casual wear in Japan that sought to replicate its puffy silhouettes and natural fibers.

Marx cleverly addresses the political ironies of the history he unearths, though he stops short of suggesting that menswear trends in Japan have always been the result of American history. For example, he points to the incredible irony of Japan’s fetishization of American jackets, culminating in the A-2 flight jacket unearthed by vintage salvagers in the late 1980s, replicated by a Kobe-based clothing company called Real McCoy’s, then by Toyo Enterprise’s Buzz Rickson brand in 1990; it was the same jacket worn by American GIs attacking Japan in 1945. The question of whether the Japanese style conservatives who championed this style were fully aware of the irony of wearing the uniform of an oppressor is answered by a clerk at the Voice Harajuku second-hand clothing store, whom Marx quotes: “It’s all because Japan lost the war. If Japan had won, Americans right now would probably be competing to wear kimonos.”

Bomber

Photo: Getty Images

AmetoraThe timeline sometimes veers into hyperbole, with many events documented that have inexorably altered the status quo. Popeye magazine “changed forever” when it launched its first catalog style issue full of “looks”, while VAN “changed forever” menswear. Amid the exaggerations, however, the book makes an important, if subtle, point: that American style benefited from its incubation in Japan. (For the record, it’s not just menswear: Japan also saved American mixology during Prohibition, developing bar accessories and cocktail recipes that American bartenders still depend on today.)

If Japan saved the American style, it was never thanks to the United States itself, as Marx suggests in his penultimate chapter. Growing up in California in the 1980s, I can testify first-hand to the generally dismissive view Americans had of Japan’s obsession with Levi’s. It’s an ongoing type of American chauvinism that tends to make us view Japanese style sense as mere “copycat”.

But why is it so surprising that iconic American artifacts have been mastered by people halfway around the world? The Swedes did it with American pop music. You could say that’s just the way the world changes. Just as Indian rice sacks were repurposed as $40 tote bags on Abbott Kinney Boulevard and katana swords are more valuable to San Diego Comic-Con nerds than Kyoto aristocrats, so are the mavens of the Japanese style have turned denim into an artisanal treasure and brought back American military jackets.

If all the clothes are an appropriation of someone else’s jam, maybe American designers should just expect the inevitable Japanese upgrade and consider a men’s product that might work at home. global scale, regardless of cultural soil – and I hope the Japan that Marx described in Ametora will be there to demonstrate how to make it a blockbuster. After all, even though my cousin hasn’t realized it yet, wearing sneakers to a wedding has been commonplace for a while now. Even in Kansas City.


Anne Ishii is a New York-based writer and editor, and the owner of MASSIVE GOODS.

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