The Evolving Exchange Between America and Japan
The Evolving Exchange Between America and Japan
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date January 17, 2019
The United States enjoys a special relationship with the United Kingdom that extends to politics, economics, military alliances and, yes, culture. To the untrained eye that relationship extends to clothing, and in a very broad sense, that’s true. Similar brands are worn in both countries and the style codes are virtually the same: Suits are office-appropriate attire, T-shirts and jeans are casual, etc. Yet, that relationship is in fact not so clean cut. British and American tailoring are inherently different from one another, as are streetwear and sneaker cultures in each country. As it stands, each country’s influence on the other is relatively limited. In menswear—and fashion at large, really—the special relationship is instead the one between American and Japan.
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For much of the latter 20th century, the United States wielded tremendous influence over Japan, from the country’s constitution to its economy—a result of the terms of surrender following World War II. Small bits of Americana became ingrained in Japanese culture during the US occupation but, stylistically, the impact was limited. The Americans present in Japan were predominantly in-uniform soldiers and the American clothes pictured in Hollywood movies was often too expensive to buy for the average Japanese person. It was only in the 1960s that non-military American style truly penetrated the Japanese sartorial psyche. The release of Take Ivy in 1965 was pivotal to introducing the country to collegiate prep style that definted the American Northeast. Japanese men, in particular, began to dress more and more like their American counterparts. Brands such as Van Jacket produced their own iterations of traditional American clothing, making it more affordable for Japanese consumers. Industries like denim production were sparked almost solely off the strength of American influence on Japanese style.
It all reached a head in the 1980s, when the “Ametora” movement took off. Author of the book of the same name, W. David Marx explained to GQ the terms refers to “American traditional...American East Coast, classic, elite clothing. It’s a combination of Ivy style as well as British items like fisherman's sweaters. It’s anything you’d see on East Coast campuses in the U.S.” But as Marx pointed out, style influences were very much flowing in one direction throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. “When Americans would see that Japanese men were into [Americana], they would get a little weirded out [and] uncomfortable because they think it feels forced.” Symbols of America, like leather jackets, denim and East Coast prep became crucial parts of the Japanese baby boomers’ wardrobe. Similarly, American actors, like Steve McQueen, became revered style icons in Japan. Importing North American vintage clothing became a lucrative business in Japan—wings+horns and Reigning Champ founder Craig Atkinson got his start doing exactly that in the ‘90s—because customers wanted authentic garments.
But Japan’s love of Americana is well-documented—and taken alone, does not constitute a special relationship. The turning point between the two, however, occured in the ‘90s. By then, Japanese Americana brands had become as good as—if not better than—their American counterparts. More importantly, though, there was a nascent subversive subculture emerging in Tokyo. Ura-Harajuku, in particular, became an epicentre of Japan’s streetwear scene. It was there that the foundations for brands like A Bathing Ape, WTAPS, Undercover, GOODENOUGH, Hysteric Glamour, Cav Empt and Head Porter were laid. Other creatives, like Sasquatchfabrix’s designer Daisuke Yokoyama, were launching freepapers, manifestos of sort for graffiti and post-punk subcultures that were inspired by what was happening in America. While buoyed by a vibrant creative scene in Tokyo and predominantly inspired by local subcultures, most of the aforementioned brands considered elements of Americana crucial to their overall aesthetic, whether they be military garb (WTAPS), motorcycle culture (Neighborhood) or punk (Undercover).
While aesthetically different than the Take Ivy-inspired garments that were popular in Japan decades prior, the Urahara brands represented a new generation of Ametora that, by the aughts, was actually starting to flow back towards the United States from Japan. Pharrell’s budding relationship with Nigo in the ‘00s is well documented. The Virginia-born producer certainly contributed to BAPEs growing popularity in the United States, but additionally helped propagate Japanese streetwear’s growing influence through BBC and Ice Cream—more affordable lines created with the help of NIGO and Sk8thing. Yet, equally crucial to the Japanese influence on American style was the emergence of Japan as a unique market for U.S.-based brands.
Consider the phenomenon of sneaker tourism. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, sneaker culture was a decidedly an American East Coast trend, as was “tourism,” where sneakerheads tread a well-worn path from New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore in order to get city-exclusive Air Force 1s. Japanese sneaker heads who happened to be in the United States in the ‘90s, like atmos founder Hommyo Hidefumi, brought back countless sneakers to Japan, bolstering the country’s second-hand sneaker market and laying the foundation for a robust retail market that took shape in the ‘00s. Hommyo eventually launched atmos, part of a gaggle of stores that began as second-hand resellers and eventually graduated to wholesale stockists. Before long these stores were bestowed regional exclusives and collaborations that gave the Japanese sneaker market cachet among collectors the world over—particularly in the United States. The CO.JP regional exclusive program attracted sneakerheads, who traveled to Japan throughout the early-to-mid ‘00s to scoop up the latest and rarest Nike sneakers to flex stateside. Some of the most iconic sneakers of all-time are Japanese exclusives from this era—atmos x Air Force 1s, “Linen” Air Force 1s, UENO Air Force 1s—and are still the envy of US sneakerheads. For the first time, Japan was influencing American style.
At the same time, the Japanese high street brands born in Urahara started to gain a foothold in the United States. Hiroshi Fujiwara—near-universally considered the Godfather of the Harajuku scene—consummated his relationship with Nike in 2002, with the creation of HTM. Neighborhood collaborated with Supreme in 2006, Evisu were rapper’s jeans of choice and brands like WTAPS and Undercover were coming back to the United States in the suitcases of so-called sneaker tourists. By the end of the 2000s, the brands had integrated into those very same American subcultures they sought to emulate from Japan. Suddenly, they were available in some of the best stores in the United States, albeit in limited supply.
Meanwhile, menswear was enjoying a revival of sorts in the United States. Online, it was referred to as #menswear—a mix of tailoring and casual East Coast prep that valued well-made goods and enthralling brand stories. Arguably the greatest influence on the trend, and on American style from 2009 until 2014, became Japan’s decades-old take on the same aesthetic: Ametora.
Brands like The Real McCoys, which was founded in the late ‘90s and sought to replicate classic Americana pieces in Japan, started to grow cult-like followings outside of Japan. Goros and Visvim, brands based on traditional Native American and American aesthetics, also gained followings that saw customers scour the internet for finds and, in some cases, travel to Japan to get their hands on them. Junya Watanabe became the object of adoration for young men in America. Other high-end designers, like Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, suddenly became trendy among a younger and more mainstream audience. Of course, these brands were not new—they were revered in Japan and among the fashion cognoscenti, but now they were becoming integral parts of popular style in America.
Suddenly, stores like Union—which had always been an important player for those in the know—became arbiters of taste to an increasingly large swath of customers for doing what they had always done: stock a mix of American and Japanese brands like Junya, WTAPS and FUCT that blurred the lines between American and Japanese style. Something that, as W. David Marx pointed out, was frowned upon two decades prior. Japanese publications like Popeye, Brutus, Leon and Go Out became go-to references for American men who—while they couldn’t necessarily read them—were inspired by the editorials, with pieces from brands they knew, however put together in ways they hadn’t necessarily thought of.
Denim, more than any of the above, typifies exactly how Ametora made its way stateside. The Japanese denim industry—born from the ubiquity of jeans in Hollywood movies and American style of the ‘50s and ‘60s—has become the most revered in the world. The advent of Japanese selvedge denim in the 1970s gave Japanese manufacturers some cachet, as did their continued use of vintage shuttle-looms, considered a relic in the states. Momotaro, Big John and Evisu became household names in the late ‘90s and early aughts, when designer denim started trending. That said, it was only in the 2010s that Americans truly started paying attention to the craft behind Japanese selvedge denim. Brands clamored to make their products—whether they be jeans or jackets—with the finest Japanese denim; stores touted the Japanese denim brands they carried; new brands—like Naked & Famous—made their name in North America by selling Japanese denim.
Much of the success—of denim, but also of the myriad brands and magazines outlined above—is owed to Japan’s proclivity for perfection. It wasn’t sufficient to replicate the jeans and leather jackets and other symbols of Americana; Japanese brands wanted to make them better, a notion that resonated with American customers in a post-financial crisis market. It was clothing that Americans recognized, but better.
On many levels, contemporary American style is a reflection of itself through a Japanese lens. In the post-#menswear era, where streetwear is the dominant aesthetic, Japanese brands play a leading role. Not only are they amongst the most popular, but the aesthetic they have promoted for decades is now emulated by American brands. Brain Dead, for instance, is deeply inspired by post-punk Tokyo subculture and the graphics-driven freepapers and brands that emerged from that scene. Collaborations between American and Japanese brands have become increasingly important in the streetwear realm—consider KITH’s work with Nonnative in 2017. Stores in America are carrying increasingly large selections of Japanese brands; brands which, in some cases, like Mastermind, have created entire collections for international clientele. While Undercover and Neighborhood were mainstays in the best retailers in America, today other Japanese brands like nanamica, Sasquatchfabrix. and Wacko Maria are increasingly important in determining the hierarchy of retailers.
Japanese men are now considered style icons in the United States—just as American men were revered in Japan in the ‘50s, ‘60s and 70s. Motofumi Kogi, better known as “Poggy”, is but one example of prominent industry figures whose blend of tailoring and casual streetwear has come to typify the reigning aesthetic. Others, like Visvim designer Hiroki Nakamura or former Popeye Editor-in-Chief Takahiro Kinoshita, are icons within specific niches of contemporary American menswear, too.
For decades American style informed the way men dressed in Japan and the clothes that Japanese brands produced. But now, clearly, it is a symbiotic relationship. Today, Japan’s countless brands, publications, retailers and creatives are influencing the way American men dress. With brands like Engineered Garments now championing an aesthetic that is equal parts America and Japan—no doubt a byproduct of having a Japanese designer and being based in New York—it is impossible to deny that there truly is a special relationship between the two countries.