Cult Japanese workwear moves into the mainstream

Niche Japanese brands are the unexpected powerhouses of the American workwear revival, says Simon Crompton, and are finally gaining the recognition they deserve

Clutch Cafe specialises in Japanese-made vintage-inspired workwear and opened a store in London earlier this year.
Clutch Cafe specialises in Japanese-made vintage-inspired workwear and opened a store in London earlier this year.

A rich seam of men’s style in recent years has been the increase in high-quality casualwear inspired by vintage workwear, sportswear and military kit. Perhaps the best examples, however, are from lesser-known contemporary Japanese brands. Japanese makers have been pushing the boundaries of authenticity and quality for decades, but have only recently begun to come to the fore, finding a new audience among western men looking for the same standards in their weekend wardrobes as in their work or eveningwear.

Stock includes the Blue Sakura denim Kimono jacket, £189; Addict x Lightning sheepskin AD-03 jacket, £1,350; Full Count denim HW Brighton jeans, £355
Stock includes the Blue Sakura denim Kimono jacket, £189; Addict x Lightning sheepskin AD-03 jacket, £1,350; Full Count denim HW Brighton jeans, £355

It was the US occupation after the second world war that sparked the Japanese fascination with American clothing, as young men aspired to dress like GIs both on and off duty. Japanese producers were quick to recreate the looks and master the manufacturing, to the point where they were soon producing the same quality of clothing, if not better – particularly in denim. From the late 1960s, when many American manufacturers turned their attention towards the modern, disposable, mass‑production fashion model, the Japanese took the opportunity to buy up their vintage fabrics, brand archives and old machinery. “The Japanese mindset then took over – of trying to perfect every little part of the production process,” says Taka Okabe, director of Japanese workwear specialist store Clutch Cafe. In the 1990s, Japanese brands like Full Count and Evisu began to bring their denim to an international audience, but it was still largely for the cognoscenti – for the obsessives or “denimheads”. Only in the past few years has a broader interest in craft and quality brought these brands to wider attention.

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Earlier this year, Clutch Cafe opened in London’s Fitzrovia. Clutch produces a cult workwear magazine in Japan and also runs a large industry exhibition there; the UK shop helps to bring the brands in the exhibition, plus others, to the international market. Items include biker jackets (£1,350) by Addict Clothes, which grew out of founder Satoshi Ishijima’s obsession with motorcycles and motorcycle clothing from the 1920s to ’70s; chinos (from £245) by Tokyo brand Belafonte; denim Kimono jackets (£189) by Blue Sakura; wool-mix workwear waistcoats from Japanese reinvigorated US brand Brown’s Beach; and the cult L-2B flying jacket by Pherrow’s, which this year is available as a special edition “Aero Medical Laboratory” Test Sample jacket (£399) to commemorate the Aero Medical Laboratory Clothing Branch, established in 1943 to test experimental flight clothing and fabrics.

Pherrow’s nylon L-2B Test Sample jacket, £399, and Cushman cotton sweatshirt, £180
Pherrow’s nylon L-2B Test Sample jacket, £399, and Cushman cotton sweatshirt, £180

“People have responded strongly to our high quality,” says Mr Okabe. “Fitzrovia has a lot of creative people, and they appreciate the craftsmanship, particularly of the denim and shirts. They can go to Savile Row for smart suits – but we’re filling a real gap in the market for high-end casual clothing.”

cotton-canvas Mitchell Camo jacket, £725
cotton-canvas Mitchell Camo jacket, £725

One of the biggest names at Clutch is Full Count, established in 1993 and one of the famous “Osaka 5” group of brands that sparked an international boom for vintage-style jeans in the 1990s. Full Count was among the first makers to use 100 per cent Zimbabwean cotton, which is the modern variant most similar to American cotton from the 1940s. It produces a particularly sturdy but soft denim that the company weaves using original Levi’s shuttle looms from the 1960s. The Full Count jeans on offer at Clutch include two weights, 13.75oz (from £270) and 15.5oz (from £279), and a washed version (£355) for a paler, lived-in look. Even the washing is special – done by hand and chemical free, creating a more natural-looking fade.

The Real McCoy’s offers pieces such as linen trousers, £295;
The Real McCoy’s offers pieces such as linen trousers, £295;

Another standout brand at Clutch is Cushman. When the Japanese started making reproductions of US clothing in the 1940s, one early target was sportswear. The classic sweatshirt with a “V” inserted below the collar – to absorb sweat – was copied cheaply at first, then made using original American techniques. Cushman specifically draws designs from US sports kit of the 1930s to ’50s. Its collections can often be identified by the use of two Vs in its sweatshirts, on the front and back of the collar, and by a so-called “freedom sleeve”. This unusual shoulder seam runs from the collar to the armpit in a looping S shape, giving greater freedom of movement than a regular, straight seam. Perhaps more importantly, the Cushman sweatshirt (£180) is knitted slowly and at low tension (only 30m of fabric can be made every day), which gives the cotton a soft, spongy handle and means it feels even softer as it is washed and worn.

sateen-cotton M-1943 jacket, £565; deerskin A-1 jacket, £1,975
sateen-cotton M-1943 jacket, £565; deerskin A-1 jacket, £1,975

The Real McCoy’s pre-dates Clutch’s arrival in London by a little over three years. The brand was founded in the early 2000s by vintage dealer Hitoshi Tsujimoto, with the aim of meticulously recreating some of the rare garments in his collection. His desire was to bring quality back to casual clothing, as well as the elegance of vintage style. The brand opened several stores in Japan and then, in 2014, an outpost in London. “Initially we were a cult brand, and that was very much our early customer,” says Max Sardi, manager of the London store. “But recently there’s been an increasing number of well-heeled gentlemen coming in wearing tailored suits or bespoke shoes who are seeking an equivalent for the weekend.”

Mr Porter stocks a Kapital cotton-jersey jacket, £290, and Visvim denim jacket, £940
Mr Porter stocks a Kapital cotton-jersey jacket, £290, and Visvim denim jacket, £940

The Real McCoy’s is best known for its leather jackets, which are precise reproductions of pieces from the first half of the 20th century. This gives them an enduring style, but also means they’re built to last. “Pieces like the A-1 deerskin jacket (£1,975) age really nicely, moulding to the wearer’s body,” says Sardi. “They should be with them for life, perhaps even being passed to the next generation.”

Rivet and Hide offers Moonstar canvas and rubber All-Weather shoes, £220
Rivet and Hide offers Moonstar canvas and rubber All-Weather shoes, £220

It would be easy to think such pieces are for vintage enthusiasts only, but the full collection offers a broad, modern wardrobe for men – from jeans to T-shirts, and sweatshirts to pea coats, all made to the highest standards. Many of those T-shirts (£85), for example, are made with a circular knitting machine and therefore have no side seams, making them particularly comfortable. And while linen shorts (£255) and trousers (£295) are taken from a 1920s pattern, they look very contemporary. Slightly higher in the rise and fuller in the leg, they make for a manly silhouette. The quality is there too – a double-thickness fabric is used to create a sharper line and longer life. On the military side, an M-1943 field jacket (£565) is both a great weekend jacket and a practical layer over tailoring. And while there are subtle, everyday versions of these styles, The Real McCoy’s also trawls military archives to find inspiration in unusual patterns or designs – such as for its Mitchell Camo field jacket (£725), which uses a cloth originally made for tent shelters and helmet covers.

The Flat Head horsehide Rider’s jacket, £2,175
The Flat Head horsehide Rider’s jacket, £2,175

Founded in 2012 as a source of rare denim, Rivet and Hide is another shop that made the leap into physical retail, in 2014, just near Clutch in Fitzrovia. Founders Danny Hodgson and Junior Arraes came from rather different backgrounds – the former from the airline business, the latter from Christian Dior – but they were united by their desire to offer high-level workwear to the London man. “There is so much great clothing being produced in Japan that never gets seen here,” says Hodgson. “The approach to details and searching out the best materials is unique.”

 Iron Heart denim Trucker jacket, £322
Iron Heart denim Trucker jacket, £322

In the past few years, the Rivet and Hide team has also noticed more men wandering over from Mayfair. “They walk in with their Crockett & Jones bags and approach jeans shopping with the same attitude to quality that they have when buying their English shoes on Jermyn Street,” says Hodgson. Clothes from a mix of Japanese, US, Canadian, Swedish and British brands include 1950s Americana-inspired checked (£232) and denim (£225) shirts and horsehide jackets (£2,175) from Okayama-based The Flat Head, workshirts (£170) and jeans (£220) from another Okayama-based brand, Momotaro, and sturdy overall shirts (£225) from Stevenson Overall Co, a brand founded in Indiana in the 1920s, but relaunched in 2005 by Atsu Tagaya with the aim of reinventing classics for today’s man, but still using original 1920s single-stitch, flat-felled seaming. Even sneakers get the vintage treatment. Most interesting are those that use vulcanisation to fuse the rubber sole to the shoe’s canvas body, which creates a watertight seal. Moonstar does this with its Mudguard and All-Weather models (£220).

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One brand that is particularly popular at the store is Iron Heart. Originally set up by Shinichi Haraki in 2003, it catered to the motorcycling community – but quickly found an audience among non-bikers. Although the brand encapsulates classic styles and techniques, its aim is to produce modern versions rather than reproductions. Trucker-style jackets (£322), for example, are made from a 21oz denim that is heavy yet loosely woven, making them easier to wear – something particularly useful when riding.

Online, sites like Mr Porter have seen a similar growth of interest in Japanese brands, with names such as Visvim, Kapital and Chimala at the top of the tree for quality. Kapital takes a contemporary approach to its crafted pieces; a lightweight padded cotton-jersey jacket (£290) looks great with jeans, but uses a vintage Japanese hand-embroidered technique, sashiko, for its geometric pattern, while a denim blouson jacket (£230) is enlivened with a bold red collar. And Visvim excels at combining a sharp awareness of street style with those same obsessions for fine quality as its vintage-driven peers. Founder Hiroki Nakamura, who was brought up in Japan but studied in Alaska, brings a unique international awareness to his designs.

“Recently, Visvim has been taking its workwear beyond an American context and hyper-extending its craft traditions into 21st-century streetwear,” says Mr Porter buying director Fiona Firth. “Its jackets and outerwear are particularly popular.” Among the highlights is the distressed denim chore jacket (£940), which would fit seamlessly alongside the denim or sportswear from Full Count or Cushman. “Japanese style embraces the country’s profound, detailed understanding of the history of western fashion, while also being open-minded to new creative ideas,” says Firth.

“Attention to detail is intrinsic to the culture,” adds Mr Okabe at Clutch. “It’s probably a result of the centuries that Japan was closed to the outer world. We became very good at making the very best things completely ourselves.” Clutch Cafe, just months after its launch, is already looking to introduce more products that cater for this new, high-end and sartorially educated customer. Soon, “Big in Japan” might just be eclipsed by “Japan goes big”. 

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