W. David Marx is the author of Ametora, a book that traces the history of how Japan imported, copied, tweaked, mastered and finally improved American fashion and clothing. From Ivy League and the “American Traditional” (amerikan toradishonaru in Japanese) the book derives its title from, through to denim and streetwear, Ametora follows the trajectory of Japanese menswear in the post-war era through the personal stories of influential protagonists ranging from style mavens to factory bosses. A must-read for anyone with an interest in classic American style and the transmission of fashion trends and manufacturing techniques around the globe.
We sat down with David to talk about the motivation behind the book and his thoughts on the contemporary Japanese fashion industry.
Why are Japanese brands such high quality?
There’s a couple of things. It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Well, it’s their national character, and that’s it!’ But one of the things I was trying to do with the book was figure out the answer to that question and look at the evolution of that quality. I found out that from the ’60s onwards, when Japanese brands started making American style clothing, it was already very high quality. After the war, Japan was completely destroyed and the government needed to be very top-down and centrally coordinated. They asked, what’s an industry we can build up very quickly that’s going to make a lot of high-quality things for export? The answer was the textile industry. So they were creating all this amazing high-quality cloth for next-to-nothing, and in the beginning 90 percent of it was exported. Once Japanese domestic consumption really started growing in the late ’60s, and they started thinking about making things like denim for the Japanese market, they had great production quality for the market to start with. The second reason is because Western fashion was basically an import: both the idea of it or the good itself. There’s always been a premium to clothing. When I was growing up in the US, a pair of jeans was $25 and a t-shirt was $20. Meanwhile Japanese people in the 80s were willing to pay literally $200, $300, and $2000, for a pair of dead stock 1966 Levi’s. So the price point has always been high enough to have really good production. In the US they would have thought these were crazy price points, but now the global men’s fashion world has become so big, people expect to pay $300 for a pair of jeans or a shirt. The third thing is, there’s a real pride and identity in making high quality things and people want to connect their things back to the Japanese craft tradition. One of the easy ways for them to do that is through quality.
How did Japan prompt the U.S. to go back to making selvedge jeans again?
Well, Levi’s idea to make all their 501s from the different years started with Levi’s Japan, rather than Levi’s US. The concept of it is super Japanese, no one in America would have thought of it. Levi’s America, for example, didn’t think they were interesting until they noticed Japanese were buying up all the dead stock from the warehouses and collectors. If you were into vintage in the 1980s it was all about 1950s gabardine dresses and Hawaiian shirts and so on, but nobody was thinking about jeans. I don’t think American were turned onto it until the Japanese were already taking everything out of the country. In the ’80s when people started saying, “Let’s make selvedge denim that feels like ’50s selvedge denim”, it was a really radical idea in Japan and no one had thought about it until these crazy little brands started thinking about it. But they had all these selvedge looms had never been thrown away, and they were much higher quality than the looms America had used to start with. The Japanese textile manufacturing industry hadn’t been hollowed out like it had been in America: they still had highly skilled people and all the machinery.
Are there any other examples beyond selvedge where America has copied Japanese Americana?
In a lot of cases I bet the brands wouldn’t admit that that was true, but Brooks Brothers recently redid its button-down collar shirt, which is much more retro than their other recent ones and reflects what the shirt used to look like the in ’60s. I don’t think that they ever would have said, “This is because Japan did it,” but the kind of obsession around a perfect button-down collar is certainly a very Japanese thing. Then, for example, there’s bomber jackets, as well as souvenir jackets, which are actually from [American troops based in] Japan. The Real McCoys and Buzz Rickson really created the gold standard of what reproduction garments could be, and were very influential. Even if it wasn’t forcing them to bring things back it was giving respect to these pieces of clothing which would have been otherwise just military gear.
When did Americans realise that Japanese-made versions of American style dress had surpassed American versions?
It’s almost conventional wisdom now. When I bring it up outside of Japan people are not even like ‘Oh, that’s an interesting point’, they’re like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I think there was a couple of steps to get here. In the ’80s and until the mid-’90s, Japanese people were still kind of ridiculed for their style: even if they wore the same clothes as Americans, they were accused of not “getting it” in the way that Americans did. Jeans were the first step. I remember someone in college [in the late 90s] talking about how 45rpm and Evisu were better than American brands and the price points were reflective of that. At that point, there was a rumor going around that the Japanese had bought up all the old looms. So there was this realisation that the Japanese were so obsessed with American style that they were perfecting it. By 2007, the men’s fashion scene was blowing up and focused on Americana in particular. And people were just like, “Whoah, where did this whole country come from?” Because if people had never seen things from Japan before, they were shocked at how much higher quality and higher level it was than what was in the US. After that, a lot of the stuff started to be distributed all over the world so people could actually buy it. Now, when I talk to people they often list five brands I’ve never heard of. The extent to which brands are getting exposure overseas is just incredible. Flathead, Iron Heart, Sugarcane: these are just not brands I would have heard of it if I’d not interviewed someone who mentioned them. (A lot of people say the Japanese are masters of mimicry and copying things and not so great at innovation. Would you agree with that?) There’s two parts of this. I would definitely disagree in the long run.
However, there is a point in traditional Japanese arts of mimicking towards innovation. So in ikebana or karate or whatever, there’s forms that you learn to master. As you perfect them, you can start breaking those forms and doing your own, and then you finally separate from the original form and make your own forms. It’s a very conservative form of cultural innovation but it does lead towards innovation. You get there, but first you imitate perfectly. I think there’s no stigma towards being a faithful student and leading to innovation in that way. Whereas in the West there’s this idea of pure creativity, and innovation has to break as quickly as possible from the master. In the book one thing I wrote about is the degree to which, for example, Junya Watanabe and Visvim and Engineered Garments know everything in the world about the history of American clothing, but they desperately don’t want to make rip-offs, they want to make something different. Engineered Garments don’t look like Ivy League clothes but [Daiki] Suzuki knows everything about the Ivy League. It’s inspired by it but it’s different. Visvim is completely on its own wavelength and [Hiroki Nakamura] is interested in bringing in folk traditions that aren’t Anglo-American. There is now a set of very studied and educated set of designers but they are definitely pushing towards new things and not just trying to repeat old things.
In the book you also wrote about 45rpm and Kapital connecting Americana with Japanese and ethnic traditions.
Yes. What’s amazing was how the idea of jeans in Japan seems so Japanese, especially if you go to a 45rpm or Kapital store. They make it look like there was this centuries-old Japanese tradition of making jeans, and you have to stop yourself for a second and think “Wait a minute!”. They’ve just made it look so seamless. Indigo is the bond there, but I realised that Japanese indigo dyeing was so much more sophisticated than American dyeing. If you use the Japanese dyeing style, you permeate the yarn all the way right down to its core so they never fade. The Japanese actually had to learn how to make a worse kind of industrial dyeing process to make jeans that faded. That was an innovation of its own, to bake jeans and that kind of clothing into Japanese tradition even though it had never been there before.
As you describe, Japanese fashion is quite rule based, and the way that trends are generated, emerge and develop is quite different to the US and Europe in the way that they’re generated. Why do you think that came about, and do you see it continuing?
I think there’s always been somewhat independent things that are not dictated. There’s almost nowhere where trends aren’t in some way influenced by media. It’s just impossible. But there are things that are dictated by the media, and there are people who are influenced by what they see in the media, and they’re separate things. In the ’70s the bosozoku gangs and rock’n’roll culture was all totally influenced by things in the media, but it was original and not dictated, and the media wanted nothing to do with it. But with young people, I think there are a just a lot of people who want to participate in a trend. They think, “Oh, I don’t know how to dress, I’ll just read this magazine”. Japanese magazines make it very obvious what’s on trend, and then if you go to the store, any store, everything is laid out for you in outfits. We don’t live in a monolithic world, so there’s always three or four acceptable styles in every culture, but it does make things very predictable and trends change kind of like clockwork in a way that they don’t in more chaotic places.
Do you think this is why fashion in Japan is often accused of being superficial and divorced from ideological origins? How did that come to be? Why does a quiff mean something different in Japan to what it does in the States?
Well, there are things that definitely are divorced from their ideological origins. But I think the idea that “nothing means anything in Japan” and that it’s this “perfect, postmodern world where there’s all these signifiers” is not quite true. If you wear a quiff that is absolutely a sign of defiance. It’s always been one in Japan, and that predates Elvis and rockabilly. The Regent, as it’s called in Japan, showed up in the late ’20s because they used so much pomade back then. It was supposed to be gentlemanly but it ended up being demonised because you were supposed to save pomade for the war effort. Then after the war when everyone had a shaved head, everyone started wearing their quiffs again to show that they were done with this postwar era and that they were going back to the elements of pre-war. So the quiff always represented defiance, it’s fairly clear. That’s because it’s rooted in local history. It’s when things are foreign and they’re imported by media, stores or magazines trying to sell things, that the media takes out the political element. I mean, Ivy League fashion has all this class baggage in the United States. But when you take it to Japan, you take that class baggage out of it. So a lot of these things disappeared.
Talking of subcultures — whenever you you scratch away at the surface of any subculture in Japan it feels like you’ve fallen into a rabbit hole and there is this enormous warren that you had no idea existed.
Yes, it always blows me away that those rabbit holes are so big. Which is a good thing. About ten years ago, we were all worrying about Japan’s terminal decline because spending is down and the population is shrinking and there’s fewer young people. But what saved these niche fashion genres is that the foreign interest has kept it stuff alive, because foreigners are talking about how great it is. If their domestic sales are dropping for a niche Japanese brand, their foreign sales are skyrocketing. It’s balancing it out and letting them continue. So I’m really optimistic at the moment that this culture, which was supposed to be disappearing because there’s not enough people to buy it in Japan, now has enough scale overseas to stay alive.
(This article originally appeared in Journal de Nîmes 13, written by Sophie Knight. For more in-depth reads check our special Journal de Nîmes section here)