Untangling the Roots of Nepenthes' Family Tree
Untangling the Roots of Nepenthes' Family Tree
- Words Jake Silbert
- Date April 24, 2017
Everyone familiar with modern menswear knows Engineered Garments. The New York label’s highly wearable takes on workwear and trad clothing have proven consistently popular—the ever-rising demand for Bedford jackets is clear evidence as such. Produced in New York, Engineered Garments is a single member of the Japanese conglomerate known as Nepenthes. Not only the parent company of several fashion labels, Nepenthes additionally handles distribution, marketing, production, plays a role as a major curator of Japanese-American fashion, paving the way for countless labels that followed. Keizo Shimizu, the Nepenthes proprietor, designs several of the in-house lines and still leads the company that he founded.
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Nepenthes began in 1988 with a variety of American goods Shimizu personally shipped over to Japan, including New Balance sneakers, vintage Ralph Lauren, Ike Behar clothes designed for Bloomingdales and even Foot Locker-exclusive shoes. Shimizu continued to import more traditional brands like Lacoste and L.L. Bean until he ventured into younger American labels like Sir Real and John Bartlet. In the hazy era before massive fashion conglomerates like LVMH and Kering cornered the market on luxury labels, Nepenthes became the first store to sell Tod’s driving shoes in Japan. After scouring America for new brands to carry and labels to support, Shimizu began creating in-house designs under both the Nepenthes and Hoggs brands. Needles came about as a successor to Hoggs, and Suzuki’s Engineered Garments was established a little while later.
Nepenthes has several locations around Japan, as well as a store in New York's garment district. As a select shop, Nepenthes offers a variety of goods from the family of labels, as well as other choice brands. Shimizu has demonstrated a strong acumen for selecting interesting shoe brands, which ensures that Nepenthes offers a vast selection of footwear, ranging from boots, derbies, mules, and sneakers, including the vastly popular Engineered Garments x Vans collaborations. Indeed, Nepenthes may take credit for the recent Troentorp craze that broke through in Japan last year. Of course, Nepenthes stocks other labels ranging from American staples like Gitman Bros. to other Japanese brands like Ed Robert Judson and Rough & Tumble. However, the crown jewel of the Nepenthes stores are, of course, the core family labels: Needles, Engineered Garments, South2West8, Needles Sportswear, FWK by Engineered Garments, and EG Workaday.
The Nepenthes brands focus primarily on workwear and outdoorsy garms, heavy on details with a wide variety of silhouettes. South2West8, for instance, puts staple adventuring gear through the lens of modern Japanese casualwear–parkas with technical details and a bizarre pocket array are crafted in a cotton twill that keeps this hiking-ready piece from looking out of place at the office. Meanwhile, Needles’ seasonal collections take influence from various trends in American fashion history, modernizing some pieces and faithfully reinterpreting others. Nepenthes’ nearly 30 years in the business has led to the establishment of nearly a dozen brands, many of which are offshoots of the original labels. For example, the Nepenthes in-house label blossomed into Nepenthes Purple Label, Nepco shoes, Nepenthes 凡, and so on. Other labels like Jacka Lope, RandT, and AïE are revisions of and references to archetypal American brands and styles, and usually produce smaller collections. More niche labels such as Sonic Lab are produced irregularly, often with no regard for season.
While Shimizu isn’t solely responsible for the popularity of American-style clothing in Japan, he did make both the brands and items vastly more familiar to Japanese consumers. Shimizu claims to have introduced the Japanese market to the six-pocket BDU pant, with both the original style and the revised Japanese versions proving enduringly popular. Nepenthes legacy extends well beyond clothing. Shimizu’s store prior to Nepenthes, Redwood, enjoyed important patrons like Yohji Yamamoto, who would occasionally purchase sneakers, particularly Reeboks, and work boots. Daiki Suzuki, the Engineered Garments designer, got his start as a member of the staff. In 1996, Nepenthes hired an aspiring designer named Takahiro Miyashita—future founder of Number (N)ine and TheSoloist.—to work in their press department.
Needles, South2West8, and Engineered Garments retain distinct brand ethos, but share similar points of inspiration, all tethered by the Nepenthes banner. The brands’ boundary-pushing, yet approachable collections consistently include wardrobe staples right alongside bizarre statement pieces – Engineered Garments F/W 17, for instance, juxtaposes ultra-versatile button-up shirts, ties, and pants with capes, mountain hats, and argyle prints. What sets the Japanese labels apart from the torch bearing classics is that the Nepenthes family doesn’t merely re-release old staples, preferring to subvert the ordinary with interesting twists. Needles’ Rebuild line is perhaps the most obvious realization of this notion. The Rebuild line creates new clothes out of old pieces; military tents become ponchos, rock t-shirts are ripped in half and re-stitched together up the middle, discarded jeans are reworked into pants and jackets. Though Rebuild isn’t the only Japanese remake label, it’s a great example of what the Nepenthes family succeeds at year after year: innovation through reinvention, demonstrating creativity through reimagination. Nepenthes has been making the old new again for since 1988, and will continue to do so for many years to come.