Take Ivy: Kensuke Ishizu, The Godfather of Japanese Prep
Take Ivy: Kensuke Ishizu, The Godfather of Japanese Prep
- Words Gunner Park
- Date June 26, 2017
In the past few years, Japanese fashion has proven to be a mammoth in the menswear industry with little question why. Brands such as Comme Des Garçons, A Bathing Ape, and Kapital all share a similar fondness for obscurity and craftsmanship, all while a maintaining a strong sense of individuality. However, before streetwear, avant-garde, and workwear came to define contemporary Japanese style, Ivy League fashion dominated the lives of Japan’s most stylish men. Behind the fanfare of our favorite Japanese brands, there is a deeper anthology that explores western engagement in the evolution of culture within Japan. At the core of this antiquity stands Kensuke Ishizu, a pioneer who sought to create the stylish Japanese man.
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Before Japan became a style mecca overflowing with innovative trends and abstruse styles, it was a secluded peninsula following a strict set of customs and cultural norms. This was until the Meiji Era, a period of time that initiated Japan’s adoption of Western culture. 265 years before the beginning of the Meiji Era, the Tokugawa government enforced a “closed country” policy (sakoku) to isolate Japan from the rest of the world. Sakoku was reversed when United States Naval Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan and demanded they open their borders to trade. Four years later, the shogunate signed several unfair treaties with Western powers, throwing the country into a state of economic and cultural chaos.
During the Meiji Restoration, the country’s leaders worked to integrate Western technology and culture into Japan’s strict lifestyle. The Meiji government instituted a set of policies to move men into western dress styles as part of the modernization process. Before the Meiji Era, members of Japan’s high-ranking caste wore their long hair in topknots, walked through dirt roads in robe, and advertised their status by tucking a sword into their belt. However, by the first decade of the 20th century, Japan’s rulers and bureaucrats attended banquets in three-piece suits and Napoleonic military uniforms. From the 1890s onward, urban white-collar workers wore British-style suits to work. It wasn’t long before Western culture trickled down from state institutions to Japan’s upper class.
Japan’s mass adoption of western style can be traced back to a single individual — Kensuke Ishizu. Born October 20th, 1911, Ishizu was the second son of a successful paper retailer in Okayama. His childhood coincided with the end of the Meiji Era and the beginning of the Taisho Era, a period when the growing middle class joined the upper class in adopting Western customs. Ishizu was fascinated with American culture, choosing baseball as his preferred pastime and opting to eat hamburgers over fish. Most notably, he demonstrated a keen interest in Western clothing, even asking his parents to transfer him to a different school so he could wear a black gakuran with gold buttons. A product of his times, Ishizu preferred all aspects of Western culture over his own.
Around the 1920s, Japan underwent a rapid change in social morale. The notorious Mobo and Moga—“modern boys” and “modern girls”—populated the streets of Tokyo’s lavish Ginza neighborhood. These youth were the first to imitate style from the upper class and take it in new directions. Boys slicked black their long hair and wore wide-leg “trumpet pants,” while girls wore silky dresses with short bobs. Ishizu quickly took notice. In 1929, Ishizu moved to Tokyo to attend Meiji University, promising his father that he would take over the family business. While attending Meiji, Ishizu instantly found himself in the company of other Mogo, where he experienced several brush-ins with law enforcement.
In 1932, Ishizu returned to Okayama and took up his father’s paper wholesale business. After seven years that Ishizu described as, “boring as shit,” he received a letter from his older brother in the Chinese port city of Tianjin asking him to come and help run his family’s successful department store — Ogawa Yoko. Without a second’s hesitation, Ishizu and his family boarded a boat and moved to Tianjin. However, in 1943, the war began to turn against Japan and Ogawa’s Japanese employees decided to close the store and enlist. Ishizu decided to enlist as well, working in a munition factory in China. While China was under the control of the United States, Ishizu befriended an American soldier named O’Brien. The American recalled tales of his undergraduate life at Princeton University—the first time Ishizu heard of the Ivy League.
Upon his return to Okayama in March 1946, almost a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Ishizu found his hometown burnt to the ground. Meanwhile, an American army commanded the streets, towering over a defeated population. Despite this being the first occupation in Japan’s long history, the two contrasting parties displayed a pleasant rapport—as pleasant as could be considering recent events. Shortly after Ishizu arrived home, he sold off the family business and joined the Okawa brothers to work at Renown, Japan’s largest undergarment producer. Utilizing his experience selling expensive clothing at Tianjin, Ishizu eventually earned a position as a menswear designer in Renown’s showroom in Osaka.
Between his growing penchant for menswear and Japan’s occupation, Ishizu built a strong network of fabric providers and sewing talents in Osaka. He gathered fabrics from a U.S. military PX (post exchange) through the help of a Harvard-educated American soldier named Hamilton. Through this extensive connection, Ishizu created the first replicas of American staples, a few G.I. pocket tees and a pair blue jeans. He later quit Renown to start his own business, Ishizu Shoten (“Ishizu Store”). While 1949 was an odd time for Japan’s population to splurge on expensive garments, Ishizu was confident that a market for menswear would inevitably reveal itself.
Sure enough, Japan’s businessmen were flushed with cash from the Korean War boom, and Japan’s apparel industry was once again revitalized. Ishizu Shoten found a niche in high-end sports coats for the elite. Hankyu, a department store based in Osaka, provided Ishizu Shoten with a mainstay pop-up where Ishizu found a healthy customer base in wealthy families from the Ashiya suburb. Given his first retail scene, Ishizu wanted a more memorable name for his brand. In 1951, Ishizu renamed his company VAN Jacket, borrowing the name from a radical tabloid called Vanguard.
While VAN’s true constituency was dependent on the affluent, Ishizu knew that he needed to expand the reach of his brand. His biggest challenge didn’t lay in the price of his garments, but the stigma that men cannot be interested in fashion. Before taking VAN worldwide, Ishizu needed to educate the Japanese male consumer. To accomplish this, Ishizu joined the editorial team at Otoko no Fukushoku (“Men’s Clothing) in 1954. The magazine served as a sort of propaganda for VAN, but moreover, taught men why and how to dress better. However, even with steady press from Otoko no Fukushoku, Ishizu continued to face the same challenge — Japanese men deplored ready-to-wear clothing. Despite feeling discouraged, Ishizu took this opportunity to target an entirely new market: youth.
Otoko no Fukushoku always dedicated a few pages to clothing for university students, but Ishizu’s shift in focus lead him to completely reformat the publication. From the fifth issue onwards, the cover boasted an English translation, “Men’s Clothing,” to appeal to youth’s budding fascination with western culture. Yet, Ishizu ran into another problem. His clothing was not made for students, let alone affordable.
Looking for inspiration, he traveled to the United States in December 1959. Ishizu remembered the “Ivy League,” from his American friend O’Brien, and decided to tour the prestigious universities. While at Princeton University, Ishizu found haven in Ivy League fashion. He watched the identical looking students march to their classes in undone neckties, gray flannel pants, and black wool blazers slung over their shoulders. The effortless, yet cohesive look was exactly what Ishizu wanted Japanese youth to imitate. Once Ishizu arrived home, he began production of an “Ivy model” suit, a detailed replica of Brooks Brother’s timeless Number One Sack Suit.
After several years of building a brand ethos around Ivy League fashion through Otoko no Fukushoku (later renamed Men’s Club), VAN Jacket released its first complete Ivy line in 1962. The collection included an assortment of chinos, navy blazers, seersucker jackets, and repp ties. However, Japan’s apparel industry refused to support the Ivy trend. Retailers declined to stock VAN Jacket as they feared it would turn off their larger customer base. Ishizu knew he would need a way around the middlemen and go straight to the consumer. He decided to use Men’s Club as a vehicle to promote the Ivy lifestyle.
In spring of 1963, Toshiyuki Kurosu, Japan’s foremost Ivy expert and an avid follower of Ishizu, began a column in Men’s Club called, “Ivy Leaguers on the Street.” Kurosu and a photographer routinely went to the streets of Ginza to capture young passers-by who dressed similarly to East Coast preps. This soon became the most anticipated and eye-catching section of Men’s Club and may have even been the conception of “street style” as we know it today.
Around the late 1950s, Men’s Club was the premier trend forecaster for Japan and captured the attention of the entire nation. After seeing Ivy in Men’s Club, retailers flocked to VAN and demanded they stock their short cut chinos and relaxed-fitting oxford shirts in retailers around the country. By 1964, VAN built the basic infrastructure to sell Ivy.
April 28, 1964, marked a turning point for Ivy in Japan. A new lifestyle magazine called Heibon Punch appeared on newsstands, featuring a mix of politics, trends, and cartoons. University students became infatuated with each weekly edition, leading to an even denser cult following than Men’s Club. The magazine decided to add a new lifestyle column on Ivy fashion to exploit the growing trend. Kensuke Ishizu came on board to write columns about menswear featuring illustrations from Kazuo Hozumi. Heibon Punch became an immediate success, selling six hundred and twenty thousand copies within the first year. Its instant success attributed to the rise of the Miyuki Tribe, a group of young people that parked themselves on Miyuki Street wearing white button down shirts, Bermuda shorts, and holding VAN’s infamous rolled-up paper bag.
VAN viewed the Miyuki Tribe as both a blessing and a curse as they proved young people could adopt Ivy into their daily lifestyle. On the other hand, they also brought Ivy’s name through the gutter with parental disproval and negative media attention. Kensuke Ishizu felt content that he was able to sell Ivy to a niche population, but feared that Ivy would be forever misunderstood as a rebellious subculture.
Ishizu had his first opportunity to change public opinion while designing Japan’s uniforms for the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics. The resulting product saw Japan’s premiere athletes enter the stadium in white cotton pants/skirts, navy/red striped ties, white hats and shoes, and three-button red jackets. Immediate reactions ranged from disgust to confusion, but Japan’s wider public agreed it was appropriate and ground-breaking for the occasion. Per Ishizu’s hypothesis, buyers at department stores suddenly changed their minds and demanded they stock VAN’s Ivy League blazer. The next year, VAN also released their SNEEKERS, a replica of the P.F. Flyers-style sneaker that Ishizu saw European athletes lounging in. The sneaker became an instant success, giving birth to the sneaker market in Japan and solidifying VAN’s position as the cornerstone of Japanese menswear.
VAN Jacket was thriving but needed to complete one a final step to bring their Ivy style clothing to the mainstream. Ishizu had to educate the public on the origins of Ivy to eliminate the misconception behind his brand. To do this, Ishizu gathered a handful of VAN employees and traveled to all eight Ivy League campuses in the United States to produce a small documentary. The film featured selects of student life around the eight schools, showcasing sports games, students riding on bicycles, and life in libraries and cafeterias, all backed up by an upbeat Jazz soundtrack.
Upon completion, Kurosu proposed the name Take Ivy — a reference to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s famed jazz piece Take Five. The film premiered on August 20, 1965. VAN rented out the entire Alaska Prince Hotel and invited two thousand distributors, retailers, and young fans. Immediately, retailers and fashion insiders changed their opinion of Ivy after seeing real images of healthy, elite Americans wearing madras blazers and chino pants in front of classic New England campuses. Ishizu released the book later that year, which eventually become a staple for all Japanese menswear fanatics for years to come.
After a decade-long struggle trying to bring Ivy to the people, Ishizu finally changed public opinion. However, by the 1970s, VAN faced a series of hardships when Japanese fashion inspiration shifted towards laid-back West Coat American, “heavy duty” functional clothing, and American blue jeans. It served as an indirect compliment to Ishizu as the industry he brought to Japan was able to thrive and evolve without his help. VAN made several efforts to contemporize their collections but slowly ran away from their original cohort. The company went bankrupt twice in 1978 and again in 1984 after a minor revitalization of the brand thanks to the 80’s prep craze in the United States.
In 2005, Kensuke Ishizu died at the age of 94, long after seeing his vision for the fashionable Japanese man come to fruition. While Ivy League fashion may not be as relevant today, Ishizu and VAN Jacket laid the framework for all menswear in Japan. Distinct countercultures would populate the streets of Ginza in the coming years, wearing new styles Ishizu could not have fathomed, and some that reflect Ishizu’s own oeuvre. Among menswear’s current obsession with streetwear and archival fashion, a small group of “neo-ivy” brands has sustained a niche following. Brands like Engineered Garments, Beams +, and Visvim all exercise their own interpretations of Ishizu’s collegiate and traditional styles to preserve the dialogue between Japanese and American style.
While Ishizu may not be solely responsible for bringing menswear to Japan, his presence surely played a key role. Perhaps Ivy would have arrived in Japan on its own, but Ishizu had the resources and leadership to show youth that style was a legitimate industry to buy into. Kensuke Ishizu is the godfather of not just Ivy, but all Japanese fashion. His legacy continues to live on through every contemporary Japanese designer who strives to create their own trends and bring them to the public.