Engineered Garments: Daiki Suzuki’s Remix of American Workwear
Engineered Garments: Daiki Suzuki’s Remix of American Workwear
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date April 16, 2018
The story of Engineered Garments is the story of Daiki Suzuki and, to a lesser extent, that of Keizo Shimizu and New York City. While the brand is merely one of Japanese umbrella company Nepenthes’ growing number of brands, it does not function like a traditional in-house label that might simply offer cheaper, simplified iterations of what a store carries from other designers. Instead, Engineered Garments acts as an expression of Suzuki’s varied interests and experiences, as well as a reflection of New York City’s diversity and its historic, albeit shrinking, garment district.
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Born in 1962 in Hirosaki City, Japan, Daiki Suzuki spent his childhood surrounded by nature. For the first 13 years of his life, Suzuki’s interests centered on baseball, fishing and cycling. While he was still in elementary school, he became friendly with the owner of a bike shop, who eventually asked Suzuki to work part-time during holidays; Suzuki dreamt of being a professional cyclist, but his father wouldn’t let him go to a high school with a cycling club, instead forcing Suzuki to attend a local school ranked highly for its academics.
Around the same time, Suzuki’s interest in fashion emerged with the first publication of seminal Japanese magazines Made in U.S.A. Catalog in 1975 and Popeye in 1976. In fact, Suzuki became so entranced by outdoor style that he joined a mountaineering club, thinking that members would wear Sierra Design jackets and JanSport backpacks, but he was sorely mistaken: “There was a strict rule in the club and we couldn’t choose what we wore freely. Actually, I had to carry an old filthy Brown Duck backpack which weighed like an elephant. I looked like a war veteran with the gear and it was not what I wanted [laugh],” he explained to Hideki Goya for Nepenthes’ “Story of My Life.”
Disappointed at the reality of the mountaineering club, Suzuki avoided participating and instead used his wages from his part-time job at the cycling shop to buy clothes from brands such as J. Press, Hang Ten and Way-Out at a store called Van Shop Shimizu. Suzuki eventually befriended other teenagers who shared his taste in clothes and music, and the group struck up an unofficial competition over who could buy the newest or rarest items first. Suzuki’s group was initially drawn to Ivy Style and American-made garments, but the members’ tastes began to expand as they tried to one-up each other. Suzuki went as far as to buy Izod Lacoste clothing from Beams in Tokyo through mail order. As his tastes grew to include brands like Comme des Garçons, which had recently introduced its men’s line, Suzuki vaguely imagined a future in fashion, despite reservations about his background: “I thought that a country boy like me couldn’t compete with sophisticated people in Tokyo,” he recalled during the aforementioned interview with Goya.
After graduating high school in 1980, Suzuki went to a university in Saitama Prefecture, but it wasn’t a good fit. The campus was more rural than Suzuki had expected and he longed to follow in the footsteps of his friends studying fashion in Tokyo. After a year and a half, Suzuki left the university for Tokyo without his parents’ permission, understanding that he would have to pay his own bills from now on. He worked the 12-hour night shifts at a printing company while saving money from his ¥8,900-per-day income with the hopes of attending Vantan Design Institute, which admitted him the following year.
After graduating, and having Beams reject his application despite the fact that his friend worked at the shop, Suzuki got a job with Union Square, a clothing and shoe importer that also had two storefronts, Union Square, which sold women’s clothing inspired by American surf culture, and Namsb, which sold casual clothes from Italian and American brands like CP Company and Gitman Brothers. It is at Namsb that Suzuki met Keizo Shimizu—a graduate of Japan’s renowned Bunka Fashion College and former employee of legendary Japanese Ivy-style brand VAN—who shared Suzuki’s love for outdoors gear and made-in-U.S.A. products.
Suzuki left Union Square after six months for a made-in-Japan brand, but quit the job not long after. When he struggled to find work with a similar company, Suzuki reached out to Shimizu who convinced him to join the staff at Redwood, the shop he opened in 1982 inspired by Made in U.S.A. Catalog and operated by Union Square at the former location of its women’s store. Since Suzuki dreamt of being a designer, he again considered leaving for a made-in-Japan brand, but this time Shimizu convinced him to stay by promising to look out for him in the future. And, as Suzuki became more involved in the daily operation of store, he realized how much he loved it: “After working at Redwood with Shimizu, however, I began to recognize the depth of American made clothes. I enjoyed knowing something new every day. I then started to think that I should get enough knowledge on American clothing before being a designer. Later I also realized that creating and running a shop was really fun. I gradually changed my dream from being a designer to running my own shop,” he told Goya.
After running Redwood for over five years, Shimizu left to start his own store, Nepenthes, in 1988 and Suzuki took his friend and former boss’s position. However, after talking to Shimizu about his buying trips to the U.S. and receiving a postcard from a teenage customer of Redwood who was studying abroad there, Suzuki decided to quit his job and travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York for three weeks. When Suzuki returned to Japan, he initially found work as a stylist and fashion writer, but soon joined Nepenthes as a buyer for the store. Shimizu sent Suzuki to Boston for six months, where he bought and shipped shoes back to Japan; Suzuki split his time between Tokyo and Boston for the next year and a half as his role with Nepenthes grew to include buying goods from surplus shops and negotiating deals with American manufacturers.
Suzuki’s role with Nepenthes expanded further when he moved to New York, and he began to exercise a level of creative direction over the store’s buying philosophy despite living overseas: “Since other import shops in Japan started to handle work clothing and products made by American outdoor brands, I wanted to do something different. That was the reason I began buying from up-and-coming designer brands in the U.S. I thought it would be also good to handle clothes that attracted us only by how it looked as it has different charm from classic masterpieces. It was quite a new idea for Nepenthes and no other shops in Japan bought things in that way at that time,” he explained to Goya. While Suzuki was scouring surplus shops and courting manufacturers in the U.S., Shimizu focused his energy on developing their first original products, producing clothing under the Nepenthes and Hoggs labels. Unfortunately, Shimizu was forced to close Hoggs due to a trademark dispute, but he rebounded quickly with the introduction of a more refined line, Needles.
Then, in 1994, Suzuki moved to San Francisco where Nepenthes’ main business partners were based to run the brand’s American office and to open a small collaborative shop with the brand 1 By 2. A few years later, Suzuki’s friend Kevin called him from New York to let him know that a storefront had recently opened below his apartment on Sullivan Street in SoHo. After consulting with Shimizu, the two decided that Suzuki would move to New York to open a Nepenthes store that would feature up-and-coming American brands alongside the company’s Nepenthes and Needles labels. Nepenthes New York opened in 1998 and sold Suzuki’s first Engineered Garments products, among its many other offerings.
Suzuki’s first product was the precursor to the 19th century Button Down Shirt (although it was under the Nepenthes New York brand), which was produced by a bespoke shirt manufacturer that Suzuki’s business partner, Todd Killian, recommended. Suzuki subsequently started Engineered Garments to produce American-made pants, which had become relatively scarce by then. Suzuki’s decades of retail and buying experience had finally led him to his dream of designing his own products: “Everything came from my experience as a salesperson and a buyer for stores in Japan. I have seen so many great American outerwear companies in the past 28 years working in this industry. I picked up a few things,” he told Refinery 29 in 2009.
Although the initial iteration of Nepenthes New York only lasted a few years, Suzuki continued to search out New York-based manufactures and Engineered Garments was born as a fully-fledged brand in 2002 with the idea of showcasing made-in-NYC clothing. “I don’t exactly think of Engineered Garments as being a ‘made in USA’ brand in that same way as the products I encountered in the ‘70s,” he explained to Oi Polloi in 2013. “The concept behind Engineered Garments is more ‘made in NYC’ than anything else. We live in New York and are dedicated to making our clothes locally. This, for me, is the most significant origin of Engineered Garments.”
While Suzuki initially hoped to exhibit his debut collection at Pitti Uomo to contrast with some of the trade show’s more formal collections, he missed the deadline to apply. So, instead, Suzuki opted for Designers Collective where he intentionally showed garments with dramatically rugged fabrics as a representation America’s rich history of producing workwear: “As I used 14oz canvas and 24-30oz wool fabrics to make the series of clothing, each item became so thick that it doesn’t look wearable by today’s measure [laugh]. I think staff of sewing factories got annoyed with us,” he recounted to Goya.
Although buyers did not immediately flock to the Engineered Garments booth, the designer John Bartlett took notice and brought a buyer from Bloomingdales to view the collection; the buyer placed an order, which led to people from Woolrich Woolen Mills noticing the clothes at Bloomingdales the following season. Suzuki would serve as the creative director of the collaborative project between famed wool producer and outdoors clothing brand Woolrich and renowned Italian fashion company WP Lavori from 2006-2011, giving Engineered Garments additional exposure. In 2008, Suzuki won the GQ/CFDA Best New Menswear Designer in America Award and received $50,000 and a contract to produce a capsule collection with Levi’s, again increasing the notoriety of his brand.
In 2010, Suzuki and Shimizu opened the second-coming of Nepenthes New York on West 38 Street in the Garment District on the first floor of the building where Nepenthes had recently moved its offices. The pair had not planned to open a new Nepenthes store, but Suzuki liked the look of the storefront and Shimizu agreed after seeing it when he was in New York for an exhibition. Opening a shop in the Garment District was a long time coming for Suzuki, considering his fascination with New York’s longstanding history of garment production and his dedication to producing his collections there: “It’s easier to manufacture here for us. It’s getting smaller and smaller every year but New York still has a great garment center that has great factories and resources. We love New York and we live here so we manufacture here as well, just like the old days when US fashion was made in NYC,” he explained to Kevin Kafesu of Norse Store in 2017.
In many ways, Engineered Garments could not exist without the Garment District. According to Noah Johnson’s 2017 article in GQ Style, the brand’s work shirt “is assembled using five different types of sewing machines—and not the kind that just any sewer can operate and operate well.” Suzuki has even gone as far as to purchase industrial sewing machines and other equipment in partnership with factories so that Engineered Garments’ clothing has the unique construction he wants while the factories have an additional level of commitment from the brand.
But, while EG could not be manufactured without the highly skilled sewers and patternmakers of New York City, the brand’s off-kilter workwear and outdoors-inspired collections are solely the product Suzuki’s imagination. With a 40 year love of American outdoors gear and a wide-ranging knowledge of vintage Americana and high-end designers alike, Suzuki forges garments that conjure American classics, but are far more than remakes: “I like the idea of Engineered Garments being made up of lots of different influences and ideas and lots of little details. And instead of coming together to form one particular theme, there’s always a certain sense of disintegration, of disparateness. That’s where the real beauty lies—in the lack of completion or lack of wholeness despite all the elements involved,” Suzuki explained to Oi Polloi in 2013.
Although fashion’s obsession with classic American workwear has died down during the 2010s, Suzuki’s influence on the industry has only grown. Sure, the brand may have recently decamped to Queens as part of a new initiative to maintain production in New York while acknowledging the changing landscape of NYC’s iconic Garment Distrcit, but that doesn’t mean that Engineered Garments has slowed down in the slightest. Former Engineered Garments employees such as Abdul Abasi of Abasi Rosborough and Dominic Sondag of S.K. Manor Hill are following in their former boss’s footsteps by creating technically superb, locally-produced collections, while unaffiliated designers like Craig Green and Greg Lauren have adopted Suzuki’s remix-based approach to workwear—it is only fitting then that Suzuki calls New York City, the birthplace of hip-hop, home.