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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