While the name Nonnative may not carry the weight of Visvim, Neighborhood or Undercover, the Japanese menswear brand has steadily built a small fashion empire over the past 20 years. Founded by Satoshi Saffen in Tokyo 1999 in the midst of the Urahara (short for Ura-Harajuku) movement that began with the founding of Jun Takahashi and Nigo’s NOWHERE store in the early-’90s, Nonnative has grown from a single graphic T-shirt design to a fully-fledged menswear line. Currently, it’s just one of the many puzzle pieces in Saffen’s TNP Company domain that includes clothing and accessory lines, multi-brand stores and even publications. The growth of Nonnative over its first two decades is not only reflective of Saffen’s business acumen, but also of his multicultural proficiency and his—and head designer Takayuki Fujii’s—love of travel.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Saffen moved to Tokyo when he was 13 years old. Although he was too young to become fully immersed in the finer points of clothing during his time in the U.S., he did become interested in some of the country’s numerous cultural movements (in particular, skateboarding, street culture, hip hop and rock music) that are now reflected in many of Nonnative’s clothes. During his teens, Saffen developed an interest in graphic design and eventually began making and selling T-shirts under the Nonnative label at Motorwn, a shop that was popular during the height of the Urahara movement. Although Saffen has not explained the ideology behind the name of his brand (at least in English), it is easy to surmise that it owes at least some of its ideation to his experience moving between the U.S. and Japan; as Takayuki Fujii, the head designer of Nonnative, told Haven, Nonnative is, “Independent. Unaffiliated. Neutral. Not belonging to a particular country or culture.” In other words, a brand that is “not native”—get it?

Saffen’s T-shirts sold so well that the owner of Motorwn asked him to produce other items as well, also under the Nonnative name, but expanding his brand was not an easy decision for Saffen: “In a sense, it was a dilemma for me because I did not want to design clothing but I was essentially selling my products at a clothing store,” he explained to Man / Woman for its Spring/Summer 2015 issue. With no formal fashion design background, Saffen reached out to other brands and designers to collaborate on garments; his only contribution to the process was taking part in choosing the materials and colors. Despite this hodgepodge approach to building a brand, Nonnative grew, and Saffen eventually realized he needed a person dedicated to designing the clothing.