Fashion

The Essential Beginner's Guide to Japanese Menswear

These are the brands to know if you want to sound like an expert, even if you're not.
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Whoo boy, I'm about to get dragged for this one. I'm well aware I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, but no one asked you, man. This list ain't for you. If you already consider yourself an expert on the nuances of Japanese design, from selvage to shibori and back again, you can show yourself out ASAP. This one's for the folks just joining the conversation, and let me tell you, the conversation can get intense.

I once walked into a small specialty store in NYC to browse around for a bit and ended up getting sucked into a 30-minute seminar (to be clear, I was the only student) given by an extremely erudite salesperson on how, exactly, Japan became such a force in the world of denim. Dude, I just wanted a pair of jeans. Now I have a PhD in the post-war politics and fiscal policies of Allied Occupation-era Japan. Japanese menswear is so good it inspires people to wax eloquent for half an hour on all, and I mean ALL, the ways in which "Japan just does it better, bro."

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If you're a novice, don't you worry your pretty little head: Here's a list of the brands you need to know, presented in alphabetical order because ranking them based on any sort of preference would mean opening myself up to deeply cutting criticisms from you fucking monsters, and my dangerously fragile ego definitely wouldn't be able to withstand that. Let me live a little, man. I have a doctorate in the post-war politics and fiscal policies of Allied Occupation-era Japan. Trust me.

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THE TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW

COMME DES GARÇONS

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After a groundbreaking debut in Paris in the early ‘80s, Rei Kawakubo, the diminutive mastermind behind Comme des Garçons, continued to do things her own way. Kawakubo's deeply cerebral, sculptural designs shocked audiences, and she's widely regarded as one of the greatest designers of her generation (in 2017, she was the first living designer since Yves Saint Laurent to be honored with her own retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Bucking convention might still be her calling card, but the Comme universe today is a vast, multi-pronged critical and commercial success story. As owners of the Dover Street Market retail empire, Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe routinely support the designers they admire most—DSM has evolved into an incubator of sorts for young design talent, and the Comme imprimatur instantly confers a certain degree of authority on up-and-coming labels. Plus, Comme's extensive collection of different lines–Play, Shirt, Homme Plus, and more—means that there really is something for everyone, whether you're in the market for a standard OCBD or the wildest possible version of a button-down you can find. Kawakubo, or someone in her orbit, has you covered.

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FRAGMENT DESIGN

Hiroshi Fujiwara really needs no introduction (cue introduction). Fujiwara is an OG of the Japanese streetwear scene, and has been working behind-the-scenes with your favorite tastemaker's favorite tastemaker since before the term was a bona fide thing. Fujiwara launched Fragment as a design studio, and he's used to partner with his favorite brands on some of the most covetable collaborations of all time (and for our money, one of the best Jordan 1 silhouettes ever). The man's been around for a minute now and seen it all—Fragment reflects his singular taste and deep knowledge of the culture, and if its designs no longer seem as revolutionary as they once did it's because we've all been biting his style for so long we lost track of the source material.

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ISSEY MIYAKE

Roughly around the same time Kawakubo was staging revolutions on the Paris runways, another Japanese designer was quietly working on a small revolution of his own. In the late '80s, Issey Miyake began experimenting with a permanent type of allover pleat—a previously unexplored aspect of a design detail he eventually patented and would later launch a separate line solely dedicated to—in what would become a signature style. Miyake's unparalleled understanding of proportion and shape, plus his knack for incorporating the cutting-edge technologies of his time into designs informed by a deep appreciation for fabric, earned him endorsements from some of the most discerning aesthetes around the world (he famously dressed Steve Jobs in hundreds of black turtlenecks after the Apple head honcho reached out expressing his admiration). Miyake hasn't been designing at his brand for decades now, but his influence as a pioneering master of silhouette, and the popularity of his permanently-pleated polyester pants, still stands.

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JUNYA WATANABE

After graduating from Tokyo's prestigious Bunka Fashion College, Junya Watanabe scooped up a coveted apprenticeship as a pattern maker for none other than Rei Kawakubo. Watanabe quickly worked his way up the company ranks, and in the early '90s launched his own eponymous line under the Comme umbrella, debuting in Paris, where he still shows today. Watanabe has a rich history of remixing classic menswear silhouettes through his use of contrasting materials, and is perhaps most famous for multimedia pieces that routinely feature unconventional fabric combinations in surprisingly approachable ways. Since starting his own label, Watanabe has collaborated with a rotating mix menswear of stalwarts, and his partnership with Levi's is a perfect encapsulation of his ethos as a designer: tried-and-true styles in precise cuts updated with patches, patterns, or even a poignant piece of poetry printed cleanly on the back.

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KAPITAL

Kapital might just be the hottest Japanese label on the planet right now, and for good reason. The brand famous for its smiley-face motif is beloved by a who's who of big names and some of the best-dressed dudes in the world, and its look books are a phantasmagoria of drool-worthy drip. (Seriously. The amount of product the brand routinely packs into its collections is staggering, every time.) Kapital's truly singular reimagining of archetypal American characters like the counter-cultural '60s hippie, blissed-out surfer bro, or disaffected liberal arts student, and the design tropes associated with them, makes for a maximalist hodgepodge of completely anachronistic, instantly recognizable cool. Kapital borrows freely from different eras of American style, and its references are famously far-reaching, but its riffs on classic Americana consistently incorporate elements distinctive to traditional Japanese design. Kapital started out as a small brand dedicated to just making a really good pair of jeans ("meticulous" is the word often used to describe its early efforts at recreating classic styles), and it still does denim better than almost anyone else.

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NEPENTHES

Okay, I'm cheating a bit here: Nepenthes isn't technically a brand, it's a small chain of stores (with outposts in Japan, London, and NYC) that happens to produce and stock a collection of some of the best Japanese labels in the world. Notable among them are Engineered Garments, designed and manufactured by Daiki Suzuki in NYC, and Needles, designed by Keizo Shimuzu (a founder of the store) and made in Japan. Shimuzu started Nepenthes as a distribution company for hard-to-find U.S. goods in the late '80s, and opened his first store, in Tokyo, around the same time. Suzuki came on board shortly afterward, and soon the duo was responsible for designing two of the most idiosyncratic takes on Japanese style around, slowly growing a small but loyal following of diehard fans eagerly waiting on each new drop. Today Nepenthes' collection of brands has fully hit the mainstream (so to speak), through crucial cosigns by people like ASAP Rocky (who collaborated with Needles through his AWGE imprint last year) and any of the many, many rappers who've been spotted rocking the brand's signature tracksuits. Needles and EG are two of the biggest draws in-store, but any brand stocked by Nepenthes is one to watch, including the recently launched AÏE, so don't sleep on a single one of 'em.

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NUMBER (N)INE

After getting kicked out of school as a teen, Takahiro Miyashita wound up working at Nepenthes and started visiting the U.S. frequently, developing an appreciation for the styles he saw abroad that would later manifest in the designs of his own label, Number (N)ine. Miyashita was heavily influenced by his interest in music growing up (Number (N)ine is a riff on the title of a Beatles song from the '60s), and throughout his work, references to music, both mainstream and not, are a constant, often in the form of graphic-laden collections that serve as an early predecessor of sorts to the elevated streetwear that's now the norm. Miyashita is famous for his attention to detail and wholehearted commitment to craft—Number (N)ine routinely sent almost ludicrously technical pieces down the catwalk, a throughline of difficulty in the brand's designs that belied its more casual-leaning aesthetic. Although Miyashita left Number (N)ine over a decade ago (subsequently launching TAKAHIROMIYASHITA TheSoloist), the brand's coveted status on the secondary market today is a testament to the degree to which his designs still resonate.

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UNDERCOVER

If Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake were some of the first Japanese designers to garner international acclaim, Takahiro Miyoshita and Jun Takahashi are the rightful inheritors of their mantle, the next generation of design talent coming out of Japan to influence scores of creatives around the world (in fact, Takahashi credits a Comme runway show he attended as a student for, in part, inspiring him to pursue design). Takahashi started Undercover while studying at Bunka College of Fashion, and after a seminal encounter with the work of Martin Margiela, began to develop his signature aesthetic, a pioneering blend of streetwear tropes he helped make a standard, strongly influenced by his deep-rooted interest in youth culture and masterful command of technical ability. Although Takahashi only introduced a dedicated men's line in 2001, his distinctive take on the punk-inspired style he's made his trademark has continued to evolve, often spurred by surprising collaborations and intricate IRL presentations.

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VISVIM

Hiroki Nakamura is a legendary figure in the world of Japanese design. Nakamura launched Visvim, his artful ode to high-minded Americana, in the early aughts and quickly racked up an enviable roster of stockists. The brand's often astronomical prices have inspired memes online and made fans out of more than a few notable names, but Visvim's tendency to veer into the realm of wearable art doesn't detract from the results of its no-expense-spared approach to the design process. Nakamura is a fiend for details, and through his singular take on the hallmarks of American style he goes to painstaking lengths, incorporating hard-to-find natural dyes and other rare production materials, to make the best possible version of every piece he turns out each collection.

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YOHJI YAMAMOTO

Yohji Yamamoto is one of the most masterful designers of his generation. Long before Rick Owens, the reigning Dark Lord of men's fashion, was a glint in the eye of any buyer with a penchant for all black everything, Yohji was, quite literally, cutting a mean figure on the Paris catwalks. Yohji (like genre-defining artists in any other discipline, his first name is always enough) pioneered an aesthetic now synonymous with his brand: dark, languid silhouettes that defy easy categorization in their intricate layering and simple, almost haunting deconstruction. By now Yohji's won almost every award a designer can (and many of the ones typically reserved for public figures of particular import), but most customers likely known his name through Y-3, his line with Adidas, a partnership between a high-end "designer's designer" and a big-name retailer that opened the floodgates for the era of collaborations we currently live in. Yohji's most recent runway collection was a season standout and he's said he has no interest in retiring. His take on the state of menswear today will be one I'm willing to listen to for as long as he chooses to voice it.

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PLUS A FEW MORE TO SOUND LIKE A PRO

BEAMS

Beams is almost like the J.Crew of Japan, if J.Crew had a penchant for assiduous recreations of classic American styles. What started as a small brand gradually evolved into a chain of department stores across Japan stocking an increasingly broad array of lines, including the heritage-oriented Beams Plus and the tailoring-focused Beams F. Distribution through Mr Porter and a recent partnership with Nordstrom means the brand is now easier than ever to track down stateside.

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SACAI

If you only know Sacai through the brand's wildly successful collaboration with Nike on the latter's LD Waffle style, educate yourself: the label founded by Chitose Abe has been around for two decades and is one of the most exciting takes on Japanese style, as typified by Abe's technical ability (she trained as a pattern cutter at Comme des Garçons) and her seemingly always-on-point creative instincts.

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UNIQLO

If Beams is like J.Crew, Uniqlo is The Gap. The Japanese retail giant is the go-to spot for surprisingly idiosyncratic basics, and through its collaborations with the fashion industry's rising stars (and its Uniqlo U collection) the chain is a consistent source of some of the best high-fashion takes you can score on the low.

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UNITED ARROWS

In a world where "curated" as a term has been applied to everything from Instagram feeds to fine wine selections, United Arrows is that rare thing: a chain of specialty shops actually worthy of the "curated" modifier. United Arrows stocks a range of brands (and a solid selection of hard-to-find vintage goods), but the store's various in-house labels are the real draw.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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About The Author
Avidan Grossman
Avidan Grossman is the Style eCommerce Editor at Esquire, covering men’s fashion, shoes, grooming, and accessories. He spends way too much time deciding what to wear. Needless to say, his parents still have no idea what he does.
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