The New and Old Pillars of Japanese Americana

Written by Kion You
July 25, 2020

 It's well known that Japanese brands make American-style clothing better than Americans can:

Momotaro denim, Hender Scheme sneakers, and Blackmeans leather, just to name a few.

The phrase "Japanese craftsmanship" itself connotes images of gray-haired artisans hunched over at their desks, honing the same denim jacket throughout their entire lives.

W. David Marx, in his book Ametora, goes as far as to say, "Japanese consumers and brands saved American fashion in both meanings of the word—archiving the styles as canonical knowledge and protecting them from extinction."

Marx details the history of American fashion in Japan: American GIs brought Americana style with them during WWII, but it was only in the 1960's, after Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket introduced "Ivy League style" to Japan youth, that Japanese Americana blew up. By then, America was seen less as a military force and more as a Hollywood-esque fantasy, with its workwear and rock 'n' roll and Western films. It also helped that the Japanese government started pumping money into its textile industry, creating quality infrastructure to support the "Made in Japan" ecosystem.

Although vintage Levi's 501 jeans and MA-1 flight jackets are still shipped over or replicated in Japan today, "Japanese Americana" has expanded far beyond just copying. By employing their own unique sewing and dyeing practices, brands that range from Undercover to The Real McCoy's to Needles have taken from Americana motifs and shaped them to their creative whims. It is this fresh take on our own, American culture that has caused Americans to flock towards these Japanese designers, who present us with an alternative vision of our own fashion history. As Engineered Garments’ Daiki Suzuki said, “Who is to say traditional American styles are American? The Japanese have definitely made them their own.”

In Ametora, Marx mentions shu-ha-ri, a form of artistic pedagogy in Japan in which pupils are first instructed to "protect" tradition, then "break" it, and finally "separate" from it.

I've picked out three pieces—visvim's FBT, Kapital's bandana trucker jacket, and Junya Watanabe x Carhatt's paint splatter chore jacket—that take from a deep lineage of Japanese Americana, but also break from it in a way that represents our contemporary, Instagram hype based fashion culture. These items toe the line between flashiness and craftsmanship, and only time will tell whether they stay in the archive.

In our current racial moment, there's also the question of cultural appropriation: do Japanese designers get a pass on playing with whatever designs they see fit? The FBT has its Native American origins, the chore coat has roots in the French working class, and the paisley bandana comes with all kinds of cultural baggage. Where on the spectrum from exploration to exploitation do these items fit? There are no definitive answers, but it appears that these three brands, at bare minimum, have devoted themselves to genuine, long term appreciation of the various designs they come into contact with.

The FBT captures visvim founder Hiroki Nakamura's vision of "future vintage": the timeless moccasin upper, worn by numerous indigenous groups across North America, with an EVA-phylon midsole, most commonly found on sneakers. The FBT was named after an 80's British band called Fun Boy Three, which Hiroki Nakamura was a fan of, and was first launched in 2001. Since then, there have been countless iterations of the shoe, like a 2008 COMME des GARÇONS collaboration in which the phrase "MARKETING MACHINE" was plastered all across the upper. There have been patchwork corduroy FBTs, FBT boots, and FBTs with fringed shrouds. Over the years, FBT hype in America has undoubtedly been buoyed by its appearance on celebrities like John Mayer and Kanye West.

With the question of authenticity, it seems that visvim is on one hand wholly authentic in its commitment to quality and cultural appreciation, publishing "dissertations" on production and dyeing methods. On the other hand, visvim is wholly inauthentic in where it gets its influences from: wool coats from Tibet, reindeer-skin boots from Norway’s Sami tribe, kudu pelts from Africa, and kimonos from Edo-period Japan.

In regards to the FBT, moccasin-esque shoes have been worn by indigenous groups all over the world, and have become morphed into fluffy house slippers by UGG and LL Bean. Certainly, charges of appropriation have their merits, but visvim, with its low stock and high price points, appears to dedicate itself much more to proper archiving than a hasty commodification.

Kapital: Patchwork Bandana-Print Trucker Jacket

In this jacket released with Mr. Porter, there resides numerous influences working in concert: the trucker jacket, which came from Levi's in the mid-20th century and was popularized by rockstars and Hollywood cowboys. The patchwork detail, symbolic of Kapital's devotion to boro style, with its Japanese roots in rugged and tattered patches that fixed up old clothes. And the paisley bandana motif, whose history spans several continents and thousands of years.

Today, the paisley bandana is often associated with cowboys and gangs, but the design emerged in 2,000 BCE in modern-day Iran and was called boteh. In the eighteenth century, paisley made it over to Europe via the British East India Company and was heavily reproduced in the Scottish textile town Paisley, hence the name.

The paisley bandana moved its way over to the United States shortly after, but it was only in the early 20th century that the paisley bandana, specifically in red, became a symbol of patriotism during the World Wars. Bandanas also became associated with cowboys and blue-collar laborers, who needed to keep dust out of their faces, and it was only much later that they became associated with California gangs.

Paisley then continued to travel west until it reached Kojima, Japan, where Kapital has its headquarters. Kiro Hirata, Kapital's creative director, has even erected a bandana museum at company headquarters, showcasing a love for Americana that he had cultivated from a young age, when he studied abroad in the States. Since then, the whimsical Hirata has mixed up hippie culture and biker fashion and prep-wear into rugged, first-rate clothing.

Junya Watanabe x Carhartt: Paint Splatter Chore Jacket

Perhaps the flashiest piece from Junya Watanabe's spring 2018 collection, the paint-splattered chore jacket highlights Watanabe's long career in experimenting and playing with traditional Americana brands. In previous collaborations with Levi's, for example, he has added intricate patchworks and screen printed poems onto his denim. And in the same 2018 collection were collaborations with The North Face, Karrimor, as well as Levi's. Even the models looked as if they were ready for repair work.

The chore coat is another item of clothing rich in history. Carhartt began manufacturing their chore coat in 1917 and updated it over the years. They introduced its brown duck cotton in 1928, added corduroy collars ten years after, and eventually updated the fabric to become water repellant. Yet the chore coat was actually created in France, in the late 19th century, as an all-purpose jacket for laborers. The item traveled from France to the United States and eventually to Japan, where it was then taken back to France and shown during Paris Fashion Week. Such is the nature of our globalized, all-access world.

Although brands like Helmut Lang and Maison Margiela have been splattering paint onto boots and jeans for decades, the past few years have seen an explosion of "paint-splattered" everything, with brands such as Fear of God, Off-White, and Junya Watanabe himself joining in on the trend. A simple eye test shows how successfully Watanabe has melded the blues, whites, and greens to exude both spontaneity and tight control. And overall, Junya Watanabe, alongside visvim and Kapital, has demonstrated time and time again the dedication needed to do "appropriation" right, the care needed to expand the imagination of fashion while giving due diligence to its origins.


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