Nonnative: How Satoshi Saffen and Takayuki Fujii Turned a T-Shirt into a Lifestyle
Nonnative: How Satoshi Saffen and Takayuki Fujii Turned a T-Shirt into a Lifestyle
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date October 22, 2018
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.
Enter Fujii, arguably the most integral member of Nonnative and TNP Company, the overarching business that now includes the Nonnative and Hobo brands, as well as the Vendor and Roots to Branches stores. Born in Nara, Fujii became interested in clothing in middle school and eventually moved to Osaka to be closer to its fashion scene. He then moved to Tokyo to study fashion design in the Scenography Department at Musashino Art University but dropped out as a sophomore. Fujii soon got a job as a sales assistant at Beams: “As I folded tens of thousands of clothes I naturally came to understand the construction of garments,” he explained to Haven. Fujii then moved on to work for the brand Silas, where he met Saffen, who happened to work in the same building. Saffen initially asked Fujii to help expand his brand’s offerings beyond graphic T-shirts, and Fujii officially joined the Nonnative team in 2001 as its head designer.
Arguably, the partnership between Saffen and Fujii has worked so well because of their shared nontraditional entrance into the world of fashion and fascination with culture and travel: “He had no formal education in this area, but neither did I regarding graphic design and business, and we enjoyed being self-taught and independent. Just like people producing music or art, it was more about making and producing things that we thought were cool and making sure the quality was where we wanted it to be,” Saffen told Man / Woman. In the aforementioned interview with Haven, Fujii explained: “Since I was younger, traveling to the United States and Europe, watching foreign movies and listening to western music, these things all had an impact on me. My ideas have always been influenced by things outside of Japan.” He continued: “Travelling overseas and drawing inspiration for making clothes is an extremely important part of the process for me. Fundamentally, the clothes I make are foreign, this is not traditional Japanese attire. To me ‘clothes’ (non-Japanese) equals overseas.” The “foreignness” of Nonnative is not only apparent in the brand’s name, but also in the way it reinterprets garments that are widely considered American classics, from jeans and denim jackets to hoodies and fleeces to M65s and paratrooper pants and everything in between. While an interest in Americana does not make Nonnative unique, the brand’s use of unusual silhouettes and details (such as multi-pocket collarless denim jackets) mixed with functional fabrics, does.
Despite the perception of Nonnative as a more fashion-centric streetwear brand, both Saffen and Fujii stress quality and functionality over almost anything else. Saffen told Man / Woman: “Trends are superficial and we are more concerned with the quality of a product that would last longer.” Fujii further clarified to Haven: “I don’t like clothes that are too stylish. I want to make real clothes. I am conscious of both comfort and functionality but my main focus is thinking about what is necessary and what is not necessary for daily life.” Saffen and Fujii’s shared interest in daily functionality over trends has led Nonnative to use fabrics that subtly increase flexibility and water resistance, such as cotton/polyurethane moleskin (for its Trooper Trousers), as well as highly technical fabrics such as Gore-Tex (for its Handyman Hooded Pullover), which offers waterproofness and breathability, without creating garments that look like they’re meant purely for climbing mountains. In 2010, Nonnative also introduced Gore-Tex to its line of footwear with a pair of white canvas sneakers: “At the beginning, they got a real critical hammering. They’re expensive, about ¥30,000 per pair. Still, I was sure people would recognize how necessary they were. You wear normal sneakers in the rain, your feet get soaking wet. You wear my sneakers and you’re okay even if it’s bucketing down,” Fujii told Hypebeast for its “Six Stories of Gore-Tex” in 2014. And, while the price of Nonnative’s garments—and its footwear in particular—may be hard for some streetwear fans to swallow, it is more an indication of the brand’s dedication to product development and Japanese manufacturing than it is of pure price gouging.
Saffen and Fujii’s shared obsession with quality also led to the founding of Hobo in 2004, an accessories line designed by Hideki Asakura that strives to bring the functionality of Nonnative’s clothing to bags, belts, wallets, keychains and footwear—among other offerings. While the name may come off as crass to English speaking audiences, it is meant to pay homage to the “[…] travelling workers of late 19th century USA, honoring the independent and free spirit of the journeymen who wandered the American railways in search of jobs with their lives possessions packed into a small bag on their backs.” Additionally, quality has played a role in TNP Company’s expansion into retail: “As a consumer myself, I really do not like the department store experience when purchasing things. Passion is lost. Smaller retailers like us have the opportunity to be a little closer to the end consumer. We are able to show and create the atmosphere that we personally like,” [Saffen explained to Man / Woman](https://issuu.com/manwomanshows/docs/mag-ss15.
So, in 2005, Saffen opened Vendor on the second floor of an apartment building in Daikanyama, hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the streets below. While, of course, Vendor (which now includes the Coverchord online shop) carries Nonnative and Hobo products, it also stocks numerous other Japanese brands—such as And Wander, Bedwin & The Heartbreakers and Wacko Maria (plus a few foreign ones like Folk and Ten C)—that share Nonnative’s dedication to superior production and detail. In 2010, Saffen and the rest of the TNP Company team moved the Vendor store to Nakameguro, the same neighborhood where their head office was already located. They opened another Vendor shop in Nagoya in the fall of 2011 and then another in Sapporo in the fall of 2012.
Then, in 2015, Saffen opened Roots to Branches across the river from the Vendor store in Nakameguro. While the shop does carry clothing (both men’s and women’s), its main focus is home goods, from glassware and tableware to pottery and records and everything in between. “The interior concept of the store is to be as comfortable as someone’s house,” Saffen explained to Man / Woman. “The curation concept is that everything is either handmade or uniquely produced with fine material,” he continued. In many ways, Roots to Branches is the logical manifestation of Saffen’s ongoing interest with clothing and culture, which also led to the founding of Transit, a men’s travel and culture magazine, in 2007 and Bird, its sister magazine, five years later.
While Nonnative is currently stocked in some of the best boutiques around the world (Ssense and Haven to name just two), it isn’t even close to the most widely distributed Japanese streetwear label. But who says Nonnative wants to be the biggest brand in the world, anyway? “At all times we make efforts to improve the quality of the brand. Probably we should do our exhibitions earlier for overseas dealers (laughs),” Fujii told Haven. Instead of endless growth, Saffen and Fujii seem more interested in maintaining a loyal following while continuing to create platforms to express their shared creative interests, namely making well-designed, versatile products—an ethos apparent in not only Nonnative’s clothing, but also in its promotional materials (including its Spring/Summer 2017 “Beer, Bread & Shelfish” collection video) and collaborations with designers such as Takahiro Miyashita and brands such as Kith, New Balance and Seiko.
“I don’t like changing my outfit based on where I happen to be. Just because I’m abroad, I don’t want to dress differently. Just because it’s snowing, I don’t want to go around in hiking boots. I want to go wherever I want in whatever I’ve got on now,” Fujii explained to Hypebeast in 2014. As Saffen and Fujii continue their travels, where they want to go may change, but based on the past two decades, it’s unlikely much will stop them from getting there.