A History of Needles
A History of Needles
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date September 8, 2020
Keizo Shimizu always wanted to be cool and, from the time he was a teenager, he saw clothing as a way to further that. At 13, Shimizu became obsessed with the ease of young American’s style, roped into Americana and traditional northeastern prepwear thanks to an issue of Men’s Club dedicated to Ivy Style that his brother had.
From that point onward, Shimizu devoured new issues of Men’s Club, with the magazine becoming his style bible. Alongside the Made in USA Catalog, a tome of American-made clothing, Men’s Club deeply informed his appreciation for American-made brands and Americans’ manner of dress. By the time Shimizu moved to Tokyo at 19, he knew that he wanted to work in fashion.
He enrolled at the Men’s Fashion Academy, partly because one of the professors there was a contributor to Men’s Club—such was the influence that the magazine had on Shimizu. After being expelled for showing up late to an exam, Shimizu enrolled at Bunka Fashion College. As back-up schools go, Shimizu could have done worse—Bunka is widely considered to be one of, if not the, most prestigious and prolific fashion schools in the world. Shimizu’s studies were mainly geared towards the business side of things; he dreamt of importing American garments to Japan.
Beginning in 1982, Shimizu cut his teeth at Redwood, which specialized in imported Americana and counted among its most loyal customers the likes of Yohji Yamamoto. It was there where he met Daiki Suzuki, another young, like-minded creative with an appreciation of traditional American workwear, albeit inflected with some unique Japanese flair.
In 1988, Shimizu set out on his own and launched Nepenthes, which he envisioned as a distribution company that would import American garments to Japan; Suzuki, with whom he shared stylistic sensibilities, was recruited to join him in the new project. The duo travelled to the United States and visited outlets and factories throughout Massachusetts and Maine. When the first Nepenthes store opened in 1989, in Tokyo, it was filled with L.L. Bean, New Balance and Ralph Lauren—a slice of New England in Tokyo.
But Shimizu felt something lacked; to get something truly special, he and Suzuki agreed that Nepenthes would need an in-house brand. First, they started with some small collaborations with niche American brands, and even began producing some Nepenthes-branded garments in the United States. But by the early-to-mid-’90s, American factories became harder and harder to find. Plus, what was once something that set Nepenthes apart, was now commonplace: countless stores in Japan were sourcing their wares in the United States and the nascent internet would make it even easier for those seeking to get in on the action.
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Thus was born HOGGS, in 1995. HOGGS saw the production of Nepenthes’ in-house garments shift from the United States to Japan—ironically, at the same time, Suzuki moved to the United States to open a Nepenthes store in New York and start Engineered Garments.
Shortly after launching HOGGS, Shimizu was forced to shutter it over a trademark dispute. In its stead, he introduced Needles, in 1997, which, other than having a different name, also had a slightly different, more refined approach.
Needles became as much about experimentation and making products that Shimizu and Suzuki couldn’t find elsewhere as about keeping the Nepenthes store fully-stocked. As Shimizu told SSENSE, Needles was “making something that didn’t really exist otherwise, something suited to a more mature clientele.”
One of the first Needles pieces was a loose-fitting blazer, inspired by one Miles Davis had worn in the 1960s. “I draw heavily [on] films, actors, musicians and artists,” Shimizu told GQ Style. The pieces themselves were still influenced by American style, albeit in a flashier way—with stars like Miles Davis and Steve McQueen as the source of inspiration, rather than Ivy League prepsters. But alongside the Miles jacket, the inaugural Needles collection also featured tailored raglan, a fishing shirt jacket and other pieces that have gone on to define not only Needles, but other Nepenthes brands, like Engineered Garments and South2 West8.
As Needles evolved in the late-’90s and 2000s, the brand began delving into some of the weirder aspects of Americana, by integrating, among others, traditional Western motifs and taking aesthetic cues from the hippy movement. All the while, Shimizu did so using Japanese factories and production techniques to create a unique breed of garments informed by both America and Japan; by no means is Needles the first to do that, but it has done it in a way that few others have managed to replicate.
From blazers, to lightweight floral shirts to billowing BDU pants, the Needles repertoire is as vast as it is funky. Each season, Shimizu manages to create a collection inspired by a very specific person, album or event, but one that fits within the overarching Needles narrative. The clothes can look like they were found at an army surplus store, plucked from the closet of a 1970s chemistry teacher, or from that of a ’70s drug kingpin. Whether it’s simple suits, military-style outerwear or exceedingly luxurious loungewear, Needles central ethos oozes ease.
Still, the success the brand enjoyed up until the 2010s was relatively muted. Nepenthes and its various sub-brands, including Needles, were successful, but appealed to a very niche market in both New York and Tokyo. Shimizu and Suzuki have touted the positives of keeping the enterprise small—it allows them to quickly execute ideas—but it also means that the likes of Needles and Engineered Garments haven’t scaled the same way other brands have.
That said, the 2010s brought a new energy to Nepenthes, in large part because of two Needles diffusion lines: Needles Sport and Rebuild by Needles.
The former is probably what many are most familiar with when it comes to Needles, as Needles Sport is the label found on the brand’s now-ubiquitous tracksuits. Like so much of Needles’ archive, Shimizu drew inspiration for the butterfly logo that adorns the tracksuits—and which has become a bit of a meme—from a bit of American pop culture: Steve McQueen’s tattoo in the movie Papillon. For years, Needles Sportswear has been home to an eclectic mix of elevated retro-inspired sportswear, drawing inspiration from warm ups to running attire—it’s highly specific, but it’s still firmly rooted in a small subset of Americana.
But back to the tracksuits. In the latter part of the 2010s, those are what really put Needles on the map. Sports-inflected streetwear was undeniably trending from 2015 onwards, with track pants making for a particularly good match with sneakers. By 2017, the Needles track pant was already highly coveted and covered, but a Spring/Summer 2018 collaboration with AWGE, an A$AP-affiliated creative collective, and an A$AP Rocky-fronted lookbook pushed demand into overdrive.
Around the same time, in the late 2010s, Needles’ other diffusion line, Rebuild by Needles, was making waves. First introduced in 2012, Rebuild is Shimizu’s take on upcycling, with the designer repurposing old garments to create imaginative takes on wardrobe staples.
Many of the Rebuild pieces—from 5-Cut T-shirts with faded university logos on them to the warped and zippered denim jeans—are grunge-inspired, seemingly drawn straight from the ’90s Pacific Northwest. But no Rebuild piece fits more squarely within the grunge aesthetic than what has become the brand’s signature piece: the 7-Cut flannel. Using strips from 7 different shirts, Rebuild by Needles 7-Cut flannels are stitched back together to create a textured, unique piece with an off-kilter hemline and visually imperfect stitching. It’s a labour-intensive process, to be sure, but the result, is a series of beautifully-made garments that sit somewhere between a “clothing-as-art” and DIY masterpiece.
A 7-Cut variation—Ribbon Cut—took off on the back of the success of the 7-Cut. A key difference between the two is that, while the 7-Cut is literally seven thick cuts of flannel shirting sewn together, the Ribbon Cut shirt uses one shirt as the base for the body and sleeves, with multiple, thin strips of fabric (generally around seven, but sometimes more) that are sewn together to make up the center, placket-area of the shirt.
Before Needles Sportswear and Rebuild by Needles took off, the artisanal nature, high price point, and unique aesthetic of the brand had kept Needles relatively niche. Sure the brand enjoyed coverage in more mainstream publications and was stocked by a handful of well-respected retailers, but it was inarguably a brand reserved for the “if you know you know” crowd.
Almost all of the brand’s now-revered pieces—from the BDU Pant to the Asymmetric Ghillie sneaker to the aforementioned flannel and track suit—were pieces that have been Needles staples for years. But it wasn’t until around the AWGE collaboration, in 2018, that the brand, and its core pieces, became highly sought-after. That period, from 2017 through 2019, coincided with a collaborative streak that boosted Needles’ visibility.
In both 2017 and 2018, Needles teamed up with Vans; the 2017 collaboration also involved BEAMS, and featured a logo-driven Slip-On, while the 2018 edition featured a more Needles-esque crushed velvet Slip-On with tassels. Also in 2018, Needles worked with Reebok and, again, BEAMS, on the decidedly unique Beatnik sandals, as well as with Dr. Martens on a trio of boots, and Trickers on three slip-on leather shoes.
As the streetwear mania began to subside in 2018 and 2019, Needles was well-positioned. It had been introduced to the average streetwear client thanks to collaborations with AWGE, Vans, BEAMS and Reebok, while a second collaboration with AWGE for Spring/Summer 2019 underscored the brand’s appeal. But the most important thing was this: The vast majority of the product that Needles offered was exactly the blasé-yet-somewhat-refined menswear that was about to be in vogue as those same clients matured—the brand even had the garments necessary to satisfy those who dove head-first into Western-wear at the height of “Old Town Road”’s popularity!
Not to be forgotten, though, was that what had allowed Needles to put out such impeccable product—a small, nimble operation—also meant that the brand was having a hard time keeping its most sought-after products in stock. The AWGE track pants sold out quickly, so too did the brand’s non-collaborative track suits. Rebuild by Needles struggled to keep T-shirts and hoodies and flannels in stock throughout 2017, 2018 and 2019, and so, too, did the brands’ retail accounts.
The limited nature of Needles pieces, coupled with the fact that they get better with age and wear—given the overarching aesthetic and craftsmanship—paved the way for an important second-hand market to emerge. The brand’s consistent aesthetic also played a role in maintaining the secondary market: Much like fellow Nepenthes label Engineered Garments, a Needles piece from Spring/Summer 2020 and one from the early-2000s are hard to tell apart.
In a way, the importance of the secondary market for Needles pieces is exemplary of the brand’s very identity. The brand is cool enough, the pieces timeless enough and quality good enough, that people are willing to buy years-old Needles pieces second-(even third-)hand. Shimizu has always wanted to be cool, but has claimed that he’s always been too shy for the spotlight. Shimizu and Suzuki have never played into trends—sure, they’ve been aware of what’s “in style,” but they haven’t hopped onto trends in a disingenuous matter, and instead have ended up setting them. Needles was—and is—about Shimizu making things that he and Suzuki wanted to see. It was about servicing their curiosity and, in that sense, a little self-serving. Hardly a negative, it means that Shimizu can be happy spending time fishing or riding his bike rather than fretting over maintaining an absurd pace of growth or chasing a trend.
So, while Needles is as popular as ever, the brand hasn’t really changed in the two decades it’s been around. What started as a funky, fun, examination of the intersection of American and Japanese fashion remains exactly that.