A Brief History of Beams
A Brief History of Beams
- Words Andrew Craig
- Date August 15, 2017
It's no secret that Japanese designers have long shared an obsession with American fashion. It was perhaps first and most famously documented in the 1965 book Take Ivy: a proto-street style book of fashion photography candidly showcasing the preppiest of prep style in American universities of the early '60s, and whose printing has since taken on a kind of iconic status in the menswear canon. But you can find plenty of examples elsewhere, stretching from the mid-century through today.
Selvedge denim might be the most easily seen example of Japan’s ability to preserve the old while revolutionizing it for the present day in the context of the mass market, as Japanese textile mills made stiff, unwashed, red-lined selvedge jeans on shuttle looms to mimic old Levi's long after American denim producers moved to more cost-efficient ways of production. As any denim obsessive with a pair of well-faded Pure Blue Japans or Samurais will tell you, Japanese denim is now considered some of (if not the) best in the world, and you can find brands both high and low producing raw and/or selvedge jeans. It was a standard part of American style—as common as any garment can be—which Japan adopted, perfected and reintroduced to the world.
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That idea is exactly what Beams—scarcely known in the States but massive in both size and influence in Japan—was built upon. Founded by Etsuzo Shitara in February of 1976 as a single 21-square meter shop in Tokyo's Harajuku neighborhood, the store was modeled after a UCLA dorm room, selling not just apparel (like varsity-inspired sweatshirts) but home wares and knickknacks (like mousetraps and roller skates) to convey a sense of place. Popeye, the Japanese men's fashion magazine, was also founded that year, and also with a focus on “West Coast Americana.” The two companies worked together on projects to further their mutual vision of California-by-way-of-Japan, marking the beginnings of Beams' collaborative efforts.
Soon after came a second store, opening in Shibuya in 1977, with the first of what would become many new Beams lines arriving shortly thereafter: Beams F (for "future). While still focusing heavily on East Coast American prep, the brand gave a contemporary spin to Beams’ already well-established penchant Take Ivy-style. The pattern continued—Beams opened up more stores as the Americana-obsessed Japanese fashion market continued to grow. In the early '80s, with the Japanese economy surging, Beams opened another specialty shop called International Gallery Beams, selling artwork alongside increasingly sophisticated apparel from high-end European maisons. More new sub-brands followed, including three women's lines: Lumiere Beams (focused on modern styles), Lapis Beams (high-quality basics), and Beams Boy (menswear-inspired apparel for women).
Meanwhile, Beams began looking inwards to Japanese designers for more partnerships and inspiration. High-minded Japanese labels like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons were putting Japanese fashion on the international stage, gaining serious worldwide recognition when both brands presented debut collections in Paris in 1981. Tokyo was developing its own unique style identity, adapting international looks through a Japanese lens rather than being solely concerned with buying and imitating brands from overseas.
Despite Japan's bubble economy popping in '89, the country's fashion scene continued to grow, and Beams was in greater company with the appearance of other specialty shops like United Arrows (founded by former Beams employees), Tomorrowland, and Ships, as well as Japanese streetwear brands like A Bathing Ape and Milkfed (started by the movie director Sofia Coppola). Japanese fashion was becoming a powerful force, and while its designers and customers were certainly influenced by American and European styles, they began to carve out their own space by blending disparate international styles—French casual wear, European tailoring, American prep—and evolving into something new and uniquely Japanese.
Beams spread into more and more places in the Japanese market. New sub-brands included a record label (Beams Records), a furniture shop (Beams Modern Living) and home goods (bPr Beams). A variety of corporate partnerships led to Beams-branded phones, magazines, cafés, art galleries, magazines, and books. The company had fully moved beyond its humble Americana-shop roots into a cultural force in the Japanese retail world, but the apparel lines were still very much in focus. In 1999, Beams launched what is likely it’s best known among American menswear types: Beams Plus. The concept was to focus solely on what Beams saw as the golden age of American menswear—a period spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s—and adapting those styles with a gentle contemporary touch and detail-oriented, quality-minded construction so that the pieces could be worn for a lifetime. It was a hit.
Despite all of Beams' success, though, the company had stayed almost entirely domestic—walk around Tokyo and Beams shops would be everywhere, but mention them to an American shopper and you'd be met with a blank stare. While that's still largely the case outside of hyper-aware fashion circles, Beams Plus has pushed the company tentatively into the American market in recent years. Mr Porter and Unionmade both began selling Beams Plus in 2011, with similar retailers following suit. Its other labels are still all but impossible to find in the US, but if you know where to look, Beams Plus clothes can be had without a plane ticket to Tokyo.
But in the States, at least, Beams' employees are perhaps more popular than Beams' clothes themselves. You need only look at street style shots or the Instagram accounts of Tatsuya Nakamura (Beams' creative director), Shuhei Nishiguchi (the director/buyer of Beams F), or Shuhei Yoshida (Beams' dress director), and their fellow Japanese fashion insiders like Motofumi "Poggy" Kogi (director of United Arrows) to see how Beams’ perspective on American and European style has evolved into the modern day. They, and other buyers and creatives—both for Beams and other Japanese brands—are recurring characters in Pitti Uomo street style roundups year after year for their masterful take on fashion that (like many things in Japan) they've adopted from other countries and perfected. By co-opting and honing Western tailoring traditions—hallmarks of Italian sprezzatura, New England-ready gold-buttoned navy blazers, Saville Row-inspired contrast-collar shirts, “3-roll-2” suits and ticket pocket— all while adding a Japanese flair, the Beams men have made themselves into minor celebrities in the menswear world.
Beams' founding and subsequent expansion was a turning point in a burgeoning Japanese menswear market. It’s always been more than just a clothes retailer; Beams was concept store well before there were concept stores, a lifestyle brand far before there were lifestyle brands. Now, 40 years after its founding, Beams has grown into 28 different private labels—Beams Plus and Beams F still chief among them—and stocks hundreds of other brands throughout dozens of stores in Japan, not to mention Taipei, Hong Kong, Beijing and Bangkok. There are 10 Beams shops in Harajuku alone, where its humble Americana-inspired storefront first opened. While it’s still relatively unknown to the Western market (for now), the company shows no signs of slowing down.