For a kid growing up in 1960s America, an Oxford cloth button downs and chinos were as familiar as Wonder bread. They were a part of your culture, you needn’t be taught how to wear them — you learned by osmosis. Now, imagine you’re a teenager in Japan, seeing these garments for the first time, without any cultural or practical context for them. How would you react? This is one of the stories told in W. David Marx’s just-published Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, an examination of the deep, reverent relationship between Japanese and American fashion. Marx’s book does more than catalogue aesthetic movements, though — by studying the origins of specific trends and the personalities responsible for popularizing them, he traces complex patterns of cultural exchange. From the preppy, Ivy League style pushed by Kensuke Ishizu and his VAN Jacket empire, to the small-batch denim manufacturers recreating the golden age of American denim with monastic devotion, to the streetwear surge led by A Bathing Ape, much is revealed about both Japan and America. We caught up with Marx in Tokyo to chat about how trends operate in Japan, misconceptions surrounding their culture of design, and his future projects. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The book you’ve written is a cultural history of Japan’s past hundred years, told through a series of trends and movements, and the way that they seem to function, on surface level, isn’t so different from fashion trends in America. You have something that begins subcultural, catches on in the mainstream, gets fully subsumed into it, and then becomes uncool and passé.
I’m wondering if you could explain how trend dynamics are actually distinct in Japanese fashion.
With most global trends, you notice at some point that everyone is doing the same thing. But it’s often hard to go back figure out the exact person who started it.
In the case of American fashion in Japan, I could actually pinpoint the individual who started a trend, because these styles had to be directly imported from the U.S. And that also made it easy to figure out how the styles spread.
For Ivy League fashion in the ‘60s, the brand VAN Jacket very intentionally imported Ivy League fashion. The illustrator Yasuhiko Kobayashi pushed the Outdoor boom in the ‘70s through a couple of magazines. The rock’n’roll boom came from one guy, Masayuki Yamazaki, who started a store called Cream Soda in Harajuku.
There are organically created trends in Japan, too, like the working class Yankii subculture. But trends that are part of the commercial complex — brands selling goods in stores that are represented in magazines — move in incredibly orderly ways.
And among most mainstream consumers, the attitude in Japan isn’t, ”Oh, if he’s doing it, I don’t want to do it,” it’s very much, “Let’s all be on trend together.” That helps things go from zero-to-sixty in a heartbeat.
Do you think it was inevitable that the trends you cover in the book would have entered the Japanese market, or did it really come down to these strong personalities with serious vision driving them themselves?
It was 100 percent Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket’s idea to bring Ivy League style to Japan. He single-handedly imported those styles. The irony is that he himself had no personal interest in Ivy League style — he loved British suits and British style. He just thought it was the right style for Japanese youth.
When it comes to the post-hippie styles of the 1970s — for example, straight leg denim and back-to-nature rustic outdoor gear — that was encouraged by certain individuals but it was also a big trend in other places. I remember seeing all these distinctive street photos from Japan in ’75, ’76 showing everyone wearing this earthy, organic kind of style.. And then finding an image of London at the same time and the caption was “Dust Bowl look.” So, there was a global trend, but, again, for it to spread to Japan, it could not have just happened organically, because very few people were travelling out of Japan. For American outdoor gear to come in, you had to have a few dedicated people say, “Let’s make a magazine called Made in U.S.A. that’s all about American goods.” And then kids read about Red Wings, and Levis in the magazine and ran out and bought them.
Streetwear is similar. I don’t think there would be a true streetwear scene in Japan if it weren’t for Hiroshi Fujiwara and Nigo [ed.: founder of A Bathing Ape]. That group was at the intersection of a lot of movements in music, skateboarding, and fashion, connected to people around the globe. Streetwear has a lot of chaotic influences and sources, but in Japan, the scene had a few sole instigators.
The sense I got from the book was that the streetwear scene was the first time Americans were following Japanese fashion rather than the other way round. Is that accurate?
Yes, that’s right. Before the late 1990s, it only happened in small doses. For example, David Bowie wore a lot of strange Kansai Yamamoto creations, and John Lennon and Aerosmith loved the Harajuku rock’n’roll shop Cream Soda.
But the big changes were the ‘90s with A Bathing Ape. Bape made this high quality streetwear that was far beyond what was getting made in the U.S. And it was extremely hard to get because they weren’t exporting to New York or London in any true quantities. The only people wearing it were friends of the brand, making it was incredibly exclusive and desirable.
And then when Pharrell became friends with Nigo, it exploded into U.S. mainstream culture. In about 2005 or so I went to the local mall in my hometown in northwest Florida and there was an entire fly-by-night shop filled with fake Bathing Ape. Four years before you could only find it in one t-shirt shop in New York City, and now it was, like, fake Bape everywhere in the most boring mall.
A little before all of this, Evisu Jeans had a big run in the ‘90s, especially in the U.K. and they established the idea that the Japanese were making premium denim higher quality than the iconic American brands.
Between those two things, a lot of plugged-in Americans started thinking, “I’ve got to get my hands on this Japanese brand.”
A Bathing Ape was also the start of a kind of fashion culture in the US. The first time I went there in ’98, I literally waited in line for three hours to buy a $60 t-shirt. Now that culture is global. When I see the videos of the kids lining up for Supreme now, I think, “That’s exactly like Harajuku in ’98, ’99.”
Cool. I’m going to read a short passage: “The Bosozoku look eventually crystallized in to a single form, a floppy region haircut held back by a head band emblazoned with the group’s name, a blue jumpsuit, a thin mustache, shaved eyebrows and sunglasses tilted at a forty-five degree angle.” Where do these rigid codes and systems come from?
There’s the cultural explanation and there is the structural explanation, and too many people like to go to the cultural explanation first and just essentialize all Japanese behavior as stemming from centuries-old traditions…
Sure, we’re very bad at that in the West.
So there are two structural reasons for these rigid codes. The first is that it’s a result of how these styles are imported.
Think about American kids in the ‘50s at Ivy League universities. Yes, they were dressing in “Ivy League style,” but they didn’t read a manual or magazine to dress that way. They were just looking at the upperclassmen and saying, “Okay, I will do that.” And when they went to the campus store, there were two shirts on sale, a white Oxford button down and a blue Oxford button down. And so that’s what they wore. Their style was an organic outcome of the campus culture.
In 1960s Japan, no one had any clothing like that, and no one had any experience with it. So if you wanted to dress in “Ivy League style,” you had to read a magazine to learn how to style things and then buy a small set of clothing from a very specific brand. ThaThat alone is going to make everyone look the same.
Then there’s another thing that creates rigid codes which is subcultural cohesion. The Bosozoku motorcycle gangs did not use the media to come up with their uniform, but people were dressing in similar ways to prove their membership to the group.
But even media can impact outlaw subcultures. If you look at photos of the Bosozoku in the ‘70s, there really wasn’t a uniform. They’re wearing a mix of Hawaiian shirts, leather jackets, beat-up jeans, flip-flops. Some have shaved heads, some have “punch perms.” By the ‘80s, a distillation of the style started showing up in the media, mostly as parody. And from there the bosozoku look starts to get codified and groups started dressing in a more expected way. Then, by the ‘90s, you have these photos of motorcycle groups all literally in the exact same uniform like an army.
Another thread that runs throughout the past hundred years of Japanese fashion is the replica. Taking a garment and doing it better than the original. What’s behind that impulse?
As much as I don’t like automatically linking contemporary Japanese culture with pre-modern traditions, there is a tradition in Japanese culture that you see in ikebana and martial arts where learning focuses on forms called kata. And as you learn, your job is to imitate those kata as closely as possible. Then, later on, when you get really good you can start breaking the kata, and once you’ve broken the form, you can start making your own forms. It’s a really long process, and a very conservative way of cultural change. So I do think there’s that tendency in Japanese culture to see a past form as the golden ideal, and everyone wants to replicate the ideal. Japanese jeans makers in the 1990s were going to insane lengths to make jeans that felt identical to early post-war Levi’s with long-staple cotton, uneven yarns, and selvedge denim.
But now, the idea of perfect replica is incredibly boring to the most talented designers. When you talk to Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments or Junya Watanabe, they have no interest whatsoever in making replicas. There was a replica period where making replica was really important but now people are like, Yeah, we get it. We’re going to do something else.
I think replica gets overly-analyzed as being the one thing the Japanese do, and it certainly got a lot of attention. But the most interesting Japanese brands don’t necessarily do replica. They’ve got the entire history of American fashion in their heads, and now they’re going somewhere else with it.
With all that being said, what do you see as the next step for Japanese fashion?
Japanese fashion has never been globalized the way it is now. When I first heard about Visvim more than a decade ago, maybe some people overseas knew about it but basically Hiroki [ed.: Nakamura, founder of Visvim] was just making things in the Japanese fashion scene, for the Japanese fashion scene. Now, everything that a designer does in Tokyo goes on the Internet in an instant for everyone to see. It’s all tied up in a global, internationalized fashion industry. And that will impact how these designers are designing. On the bright side, it means more sales for these brands and having bigger, more sustainable businesses.
At the same time, I think something will be lost. There was this, like, hermetically sealed chamber in which Japanese fashion was growing. Americans would come over and be like, “What in the world is going on? What are these things I have never seen before?” But now, you’ve probably seen them before you get here. It’s like, you literally opened the menu at this restaurant and said, “Oh yeah, Bear Pond, I’ve read how good their espresso is.” That wasn’t true a decade ago. It was really hard to know what was going on in Japan. Right now Japan is better known than it ever has been, and it’ll be interesting to see what that does to Japanese fashion.
But since a lot of Japanese styles are being replicated overseas and re-imported, that’s going to change things as well. The most important engine for cultural change is people getting bored with something. So, Japan has a real moment in the sun now where its culture is spreading, and hopefully that’s going to cause designers to try and do something else when they get copied too much. That will be good.
One of my favorite little surprises in the book is that Fast Retailing is actually a descendant of the VAN Jacket empire. Do you have any thoughts on whether or not they’ll realize their ambitions of being the number one clothing retailer in the world? How do you think their global expansion is going?
I’m sure there are lots of experts out there saying, “Uniqlo has got to quit doing basics and has to have more of a personality and more of a strong brand.” But I love that I can go in and buy the most generic items that just look good and nobody will necessarily be like, “Oh, that’s from Uniqlo.” Uniqlo and Muji’s basics are really great.
I’m just really happy to see Uniqlo have such huge ambitions. There are still too many Japanese companies comfortable with just being in Japan. To see Uniqlo’s retail presence explode globally is, I think, a great sign. They’ve done some very good collections with talented designers over the years and have been a pretty good patron to up and coming designers.
What’s next for you?
I’m trying to turn thousands and thousands of words of extra material cut from Ametora into additional articles. I met a researcher once who wrote a book on something in Japan and I was like, “Oh, hey, you must be excited because this type of music you wrote about in is back in style.” And he was like, “That research is done. Never ask me about it again.” I don’t want to be that guy.
Honestly, I feel like my work has just started. There are so many people in their 80s who were part of the story of American style in Japan that I haven’t gotten around to talking to, and it’s very, very important to get their experiences on the record. I’m hoping the book actually opens the door to do more research on the topic. I’ll probably work on a completely different book, but I don’t think Ametora is the end of this research. I built a frame for understanding Japanese fashion, and now there’s way more that I need to fill into the frame.