What is Suicoke?
What is Suicoke?
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date July 31, 2019
For a long time, Gucci was the pinnacle when it came to luxury sandals. Slides bearing the brand’s colors have long been popular with rappers—among others—who boasted about them in songs; they were luxe beach attire or feet accoutrements to wear around marble-floored mansions. In recent years, though, a new name has come to be synonymous with the intersection of fashion and sandals: Suicoke.
Suicoke is, rather frustratingly, covered in a veil of mystery and anonymity. Jinichi Leung occupies a curious dual role for Suicoke—he is both the brand’s international sales manager and its de facto salesperson, quoted by the publications that have sought to shed light on Suicoke’s business and history. Leung explained to Highsnobiety that the mystique was intentional, pushing “people to focus on the products, rather than the designers or founders.” It isn’t just the individuals who remain a mystery; the brand’s origin story—something so many other brands preach about incessantly to establish cachet and credentials—is equally cloudy.
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What is known, is that Suicoke was founded in Tokyo in 2006, long before the brand started to earn plaudits in the mid-2010s. Part of that may owe to the fact that Suicoke’s early products weren’t sandals, but niche accessories. Just how niche? “Hand-painted Russian matryoshka dolls”-type niche. In fact, one of the first Suicoke products to be referenced outside of Japan was homeware: a Matryoshka lamp circa 2012. In 2007, Suicoke diversified, expanding into footwear, though the brand was still not synonymous with sandals—instead, suede boots were on offer. Throughout the remainder of the ‘00s, it was much of the same: weird accessories here, experimental footwear there. The eclectic offering spoke to the fact that Suicoke has been run by a band of creatives that value their anonymity because it allows them to challenge the conventional norms of product.
Consider the Corthethu as a standout example of Suicoke’s offbeat approach. Released in 2010, the Corthethu was a true Frankenstein’s monster. It was based on the Nike Cortez, featured garish insect-print uppers and a ’70s-inspired Suicoke word mark. In other words, it was the antithesis of what Suicoke is today, but quite emblematic of what Suicoke was in its earliest years. The same year, Suicoke introduced the Flipper Boot which, like the Corthethu, was based on a well-known silhouette. The Flipper Boot appeared to be based on the Clarks Wallabee, albeit with a cup sole in the place of Clarks’ iconic crepe sole. The round outsole and squared toe box made for a rather clumsy-looking silhouette. Again, like the Corthethu, this stands in stark contrast to the classic, crisp and contemporary models that Suicoke is known for today.
While Suicoke’s footwear and oddball accessories had earned some coverage, the brand was virtually unknown outside of Japan. Hypebeast, writing about the Spring/Summer 2014 collection, mistakenly declared Suicoke “a new footwear brand” that was “debuting out of Japan”. Even with that oversight, the writer can hardly be blamed: Even the most fervent fashion heads only started discussing Suicoke in 2014 on forums like Superfuture’s Supertalk. New or not, Suicoke contented itself with three models of sandals for Spring/Summer 2014, the DEPA, the CHIN and the SHACO. Noticeably absent from the mainline offering was what has gone on to become Suicoke’s most famous silhouette, the KISEE-V. It’s possible that this was by design, as the KISEE-V instead figured at the center of a Spring/Summer 2014 collaboration with Danish imprint Norse Projects.
In hindsight, collaborations have played an integral role in turning a small, obscure Japanese brand into the influential player that Suicoke is. Leung, explained to Footwear News that because, “sandals are a unique category compared to sneakers […] collaborations help to create new demand for customers and give a chance to reach customers who haven’t met Suicoke yet.” A quick review of the brands that Suicoke has worked with in the last three years certainly underscores Leung’s point. The brand has worked extensively with Japanese brands like BAPE, Mastermind Japan, Wacko Maria and Beams, while also partnering with European and North American labels and retailers like Norse Projects, Stussy, Brain Dead, John Elliott and Aimé Leon Dore.
Equally important, from a product standpoint, has been Suicoke’s unwavering commitment to Vibram, the Italian outsole manufacturer. “We succeeded in producing an original sandal equipped with a Vibram sole, which is an industry-first achievement,” Leung told Highsnobiety. Its partnership with Vibram has helped Suicoke gain a reputation for comfort, but also for quality—something necessary to justify a near-luxury price point for its sandals
While collaboration—including with Vibram—has been a constant thread from 2014 until today, Suicoke has maintained the experimental edge that defined some of the brand’s earliest products. The sandals have grown from being decidedly “gladiatorial” to exploring the creative limits of casual luxury. For Fall/Winter 2015, Suicoke debuted the NOTS-VM closed-toe and mouton-lined sandal that brought to mind both Uggs and Tevas. Gradually, models other than the KISEE-V have gained cult-like followings; Tabi-inspired BITA sandals and boots have also come to be important parts of Suicoke’s offering.
The brand’s growth has been increasingly apparent in recent seasons, as the number of retailers, collaborations and styles has seen a dramatic uptick since 2016. Today, Suicoke counts more than 200 stockists, many of whom—Kith, END., Ssense, Beams—are considered to be among the best in the world at what they do. The list of collaborations from 2018 alone is noteworthy, made all the more impressive considering that the brand was virtually unknown in 2013 (and those who did know of Suicoke thought of Matryoshka dolls).
Beyond a connection to streetwear, the brand has also become a collaborator of choice for runway designers. Palm Angels and Moncler both featured collaborative Suicoke sandals in their runway collections (Francesco Ragazzi serves as designer of the former and a collaborator of the latter, hence the coordination) while other higher-end designers like Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall* have tapped Suicoke as part of specific projects.
In short, Suicoke has become the fashion world’s contemporary—and Japanese—equivalent of Birkenstock, the storied German producer of cork-bedded sandals. It has a viable business in a relatively niche market, but maintains a fashion presence by being a collaborative partner for other brands seeking a highly-specialized product. And, like Birkenstocks, Suicokes have become somewhat ubiquitous among a certain crowd. If Birkenstocks were the footwear of choice for the hippie rockstars of yore, then Suicoke champions the casual-luxe aesthetic favored by the rappers and streetwear icons that define pop culture. A great example of this dropped in Fall/Winter 2018, when Suicoke collaborated with Tyler, The Creator’s Golf Wang imprint.
It’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago, Suicoke was making Russian nesting doll-themed homegoods and clumsy-looking suede boots. Today the brand is synonymous with laidback luxury. Is Suicoke’s base product the most unique or inherently creative? Hardly. The KISEE-V is, after all, reminiscent of Teva and countless other sandal brands from the ’80s and ’90s. But the Suicoke magic—the aesthetic—is derived from experimental models like the BITA-V and RON-VM-MID and the brand’s ability to play with brands spanning from BAPE to Moncler.
Suicoke is varied and eclectic—it always has been—but it’s clear that it’s ability to contextualize collaboration is the true secret to its success on the global stage. As for what the brand has next up its sleeve? That’s shrouded in that carefully orchestrated veil of anonymity… just as Suicoke likes it.