Even a decade ago, Japanese fashion was one of the best-kept secrets in menswear. Clearly, that's no longer the case.
Of course, brands like COMME des GARÇONS, A Bathing Ape, and UNDERCOVER have been fashion heavyweights for a long time, but it’s only in the past few years that the global fashion audience has begun to learn about the wealth of Japanese clothing brands that have been pushing the envelope of style and creating amazing, high-quality product just out of sight of the masses.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to some of the best Japanese clothing brands that all Highsnobiety readers should know about. For the already familiar, it’s a chance to reflect on the best of the best. For those less informed, the door’s about to open to a whole other level of style.
Shop the best Japanese clothing brands below.
Jun Takahashi’s UNDERCOVER is probably the epitome of Japanese streetwear. For nearly 30 years, the designer’s distinct visual perspective has been influencing design to where contemporary fashion stands today, and early UNDERCOVER designs are now some of the most coveted and sought-after pieces for collectors.
The aesthetic of this Japanese clothing brand is best explained by its own motto: "We make noise, not clothes." UNDERCOVER is about disruption, subversion, and rebellion, blending pop culture iconography with punk, bondage, goth, and post-modern aesthetics to create the quintessential “punk” streetwear brand.
Besides Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto is arguably the most famous Japanese fashion designer of the 20th century. At its foundation, Yohji Yamamoto’s designs are a cross-pollination of traditional Japanese design with contemporary perspectives, and the Japanese brand has produced consistently stunning pieces throughout its 35-year history.
What makes the label more interesting, however, is the impact Yamamoto’s work has had on broader fashion, when one considers how many of his signature elements have become commonplace, from extended silhouettes and drop-crotch to asymmetric design and draped, layered style. And yet, with all this considered, the only constant of Yamamoto’s work is the color black, a color the designer himself has described as saying, "I don’t bother you — don’t bother me."
Beyond his own label, Yamamoto has worked with adidas Originals on the hugely successful Y-3 line, birthplace of the Qasa, one of fashion’s most coveted sneaker designs — no mean feat when you consider revered labels like Chanel, Louboutin and Balenciaga still struggle to make a shoe with half the appeal of a simple Air Jordan. Such is the magic of Yohji Yamamoto: decades of craft and timeless appeal like no other.
Tetsu Nishiyama, aka TET, was a protégé of Shin in the early '90s when he started FPAR, a T-shirt brand inspired by the DIY aesthetic of punk and anarchic movements. In 1996 he started WTAPS, pronounced double-taps, taken from the military term for two shots at the same target in quick succession.
As the name suggests, WTAPS is a Japanese fashion brand inspired by authentic military designs, infusing this with streetwear sensibilities and contemporary perspectives to create some of the most sought-after pieces in Japanese streetwear. In Japan, WTAPS is as notorious as Supreme for long lines on release days and rapid sell-out product.
Their Jungle Stock cargo pants and M-65 jackets sit alongside Supreme’s box logo hoodies and BAPE camouflage in streetwear royalty and are essential to any wardrobe — if you somehow manage to get hold of them.
Working out of Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya, and Wander was founded in 2011 by Keita Ikeuchi and Mihoko Mori. This burgeoning brand has experienced a quick rise to popularity over the past year having been carried by the currents of the techwear revolution. Known for second-to-none technical fabrics and craftsmanship, And Wander has wooed a fashion-conscious audience thanks to a collection of stylish clothing, outerwear, and utilitarian accessories.
Think utility basics like taped seams, GORE-TEX, and a plethora of toggles, then combine all of that with an understated, earth-tone color palette with the occasional explosion of vivid color. Inspired by a deep love for the natural world, and Wander’s collection is intended to get you up, out, and into the wilderness.
Porter Yoshida & Co.
Porter Yoshida & Co. has long been synonymous with superior Japanese craftsmanship. Established in 1962 as Yoshida’s first private brand marketed under Yoshida & Co., Porter uses the highest quality of materials, including a durable nylon that repels dirt and water. Porter bags are characterized by their timeless appeal, with each model being produced exclusively in Japan.
Started in 1994 by Shinsuke Takizawa (often referred to as Shin), NEIGHBORHOOD or NBHD is one of the OGs of Japanese streetwear. NEIGHBORHOOD was part of the original Harajuku streetwear scene of the early ’90s, a Tokyo-based movement of friends and peers who effectively founded the Japanese streetwear scene, birthing labels including BAPE, UNDERCOVER, WTAPS, Hysteric Glamour, and GOODENOUGH.
NEIGHBORHOOD draws from Takizawa’s deep passion for historic motorcycle subculture, creating classic American clothing such as leathers, shirting, sweats, flannels, and headwear, all with a distinct biker gang twist.
Though recent collections have seen NEIGHBORHOOD expand into military, prep, Native American, and even early-20th century industrial workwear styles, the brand is still best known for its authentic selvedge denim, manufactured to strict traditional specifications and customized with intricate, natural distress washes that range from classic indigo fades to their iconic “Savage” series.
One of the oldest names in our roundup, Snow Peak was founded way back in 1958 by Yukio Yamai. Yamai founded the company in the Niigata Prefecture, a region known for a mountain range that reaches heights of 8,051 km. To this day, Snow Peak’s headquarters is located in the region which continues to be the main source of inspiration for the brand.
Reaching the USA in 1999 under the control of Yukio Yamai’s son Tohru Yamai, Snow Peak has grown to become a name in style as well as performance. The company is still a family business, the third generation being Lisa Yamai who introduced Snow Peak Apparel in 2014.
Prioritizing high-performance materials over branding has ensured that Snow Peak has earned the respect and support of a cult following. From city streets to mountain peaks, Snow Peak apparel is comfortable, exceptionally durable, and stylish as it looks back through the archives of Japanese style for inspiration. The brand also makes the best camping equipment — think barista-worthy coffee makers, travel chopsticks and lanterns — meant to foster restorative experiences in nature and help customers reconnect with others as well as the outdoors.
With perhaps the most fascinating backstory of all, Wacko Maria was founded by Nobuhiro Mori and Keiji Ishizuka, two J-league professional footballers. Starting out as the Rock Steady bar in Tokyo, the venture eventually evolved into Wacko Maria, a Japanese menswear brand inspired by Latin American style and rockabilly subcultures.
Known for its ornate shirting and outerwear with elaborate, embroidered details, and combining traditional artwork such as religious iconography and classic Americana with oversized slogans, the brand has carved out a niche for larger-than-life clothing with an addictively absurd twist, making it a favored brand of style pioneers.
This season the brand created a capsule collection with notorious graffiti artist Neck Face, finding a perfect partner to their unique approach to the no-holds-barred psychobilly aesthetic.
There's not too much information on designer Miyagi Hidetaka, founder of MIYAGIHIDETAKA, online. But there's a lot to be said about his quality-first approach to fashion. It's an approach that has led to him keeping a pretty low profile, focusing on producing the clothes that he and his peers want to wear, while shunning seasonal collections.
MIYAGIHIDETAKA revels in Japanese fashion's decade-spanning flirtation with the paisley bandana, a garment steeped in history and subcultural paths. Miyagi Hidetaka started his design career with Mythography, a footwear brand formed in 2012. It was in 2016 that his beloved paisley print was applied to his footwear for the first time.
From sandals and shoes, MIYAGIHIDETAKA has gone on to apply the bandana print to puffer jackets, pants, vests, shirts, and everything in between.
Auralee finds beauty in subtlety. Here, you won’t come across over the top brand narratives or bold flashy clothing.
The Japanese label is driven by the evolving traditional notions of minimalism. Its garments and color palettes are gentle, always thoughtfully placed on the cusp of sophistication and comfort. Collections are streamlined, with only the most essential pieces produced, and with textiles always taking center stage.
Consciously sourced wools and cottons make up the brand’s earthy winter coats, fluffy knitwear, versatile oversized trousers. Auralee will quickly find a home in your rotation.
Now in its 20th year of operations, the Medicom Toy company is deeply interwoven with Japanese fashion and streetwear, as strange as the crossover of toys and clothes might sound on paper.
Though digital culture has revolutionized the world, Japan remains in many regards a physical culture: purchases are made in cash, as the idea of spending money you don’t have is frowned upon; vinyl, CD and even cassette sales are still strong; and much of the stories of subcultures and tribes that you read about are because fashion in Japan is about going out and being seen.
With this considered, Medicom Toy’s popularity is no mystery. From replica dolls of cultural icons like Andy Warhol and the Sex Pistols to reproductions of street culture characters such as Futura2000’s Pointman, KAWS’ companion, and A Bathing Ape’s Baby Milo, Medicom Toy has built a name for producing physical representations of the culture we all obsess over.
Most notable of this is the brand’s Bearbrick series, adorning a distinctive bear figurine with all manner of graphics and visual artifacts celebrating everything from the Grateful Dead to Star Wars to Daft Punk and beyond. Perfect for any maturing streetwear fan thinking of a move into the homewares department...just check with your partner first.
Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary Japanese clothing brands of all, visvim was started in 2000 by Hiroki Nakamura after leaving his position as a designer at Burton Snowboards. Inspired in equal parts by the technical elements of his previous position and the traditional crafts of different cultures that he learned about traveling the world, Nakamura founded Cubism Inc., whose "Free International Laboratory" or F.I.L. endeavors to blend natural, traditional techniques with pioneering contemporary perspectives to create the pinnacle expression of classic clothing.
Dyes made from indigo, mud, and cochineal beetles are applied to textiles as intricate as linen/hemp/silk/angora blends, then treated with modern technologies such as Gore-Tex to find the perfect balance between the functionality of modern manufacturing and the timeless appeal of traditional techniques.
The most famous expression of this technique is Nakamura’s reconfiguration of Native American moccasin, the FBT, a shoe that blends natural leather construction and ornate tassel details with a durable Vibram® outsole and has grown to be one of the most coveted footwear designs of the 21st century.
Founded in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka, ASICS has grown to become one of the leading names in the world of sportswear, above all for its range of footwear. The name ASICS is an acronym of the Latin phrase: anima sana in corpore sano, meaning “healthy soul in a healthy body”, referring to the sporting foundations of the brand. ASICS’ running trainers constitute the company’s biggest focus, consistently ranking among the top running models of the year.
In recent years, ASICS has succeeded in breaking the lifestyle boundary by pushing silhouettes such as the 360 Quantum or Gel Lyte 3 which acted as the blank canvas for a number of high-profile collaborations with names like Ronnie Fieg, Afew, Atmos, and more. With sneaker tastes shifting further in favor of utilitarian, running, and hiking styles, ASICS looks set to dominate both technical and lifestyle markets in coming years.
First founded by designer Masaaki Honma in 1997, mastermind JAPAN (often shortened to mastermind or just MMJ) is a case study in timeless cool from a Japanese perspective. At its core, mastermind is characterized by two raw ingredients: the color black, and its iconic Skull & Crossbones logo. While so few elements might sound limited on paper, mastermind demonstrates how far you can push the envelope, and in doing so has created one of the most iconic Japanese clothing brands ever.
Fundamental inspirations come from punk and goth aesthetics, but highly technical production techniques such as form-hugging silhouettes, multiple-layered T-shirts and Swarovski® crystal detailing — combined with the brand’s notoriously close-chested operations from which virtually no information ever leaks — have culminated in a brand that creates the pinnacle of streetwear cool at eye-wateringly high prices.
Karl Lagerfeld, notorious Creative Director of Chanel, once cited mastermind JAPAN as one of his favorite labels, and MMJ is one of very few brands to have collaborated with historic French luggage manufacturer, Maison Goyard. Honma closed the brand’s doors unceremoniously in 2013 after 15 successful years, though the brand has recently resurfaced with modest collections and collaborations with the likes of adidas Originals.
Born from true passion, like so many of the most revered Japanese brands, Needles is one of many brands that were created as an offshoot of Nepenthes. Nepenthes was founded by friends Daiki Suzuki and Keizo Shimizu, starting out as a menswear store that imported classic American brands with a heavy influence from Ivy League and prep style.
Over time, the business birthed a number of labels including Nepenthes New York, Engineered Garments, and Needles. Though each brand is worthy of note in its own right, Needles’ bold reworking of classic American military and casual clothing has cemented the label as a wardrobe essential amongst discerning retailers like Haven, Goodhood, and END.
The people behind Cav Empt (often shortened to C.E) are a bit like those elusive musicians who write hit songs but never chase fame themselves: though you might not know them, you definitely know their work.
Founders Sk8thing and Toby Feltwell have deep respective histories in the Tokyo fashion and music scenes: Sk8thing is a graphic designer who has created graphics for heavyweight Japanese clothing brands like BAPE, NEIGHBORHOOD, UNDERCOVER, Bounty Hunter, and many more, as well as designing the logos and graphics for NIGO® & Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club and ICE CREAM lines; British-born Feltwell started out working in the UK music industry running A&R operations at James Lavelle’s iconic Mo’Wax records, subsequently moving to XL when they acquired Lavelle’s label in the early ’00s.
An invitation to Tokyo to provide legal advice to NIGO® led to positions as Operations Director and Creative Consultant for BAPE, BBC, and Ice Cream. Following the sale of BAPE to IT, Feltwell reconvened with Sk8thing and productions expert Hishi on a new project helmed by three creatives with no financial direction — "Debt through chaos."
C.E’s collections are a visual exploration of post-modernism, blending far-flung references like 20th-century Italian horror films, French post-structuralist philosophy, Internet 1.0 iconography, and digital archaeology to question the very nature of physicality, permanence, value, and truth. Even the brand’s name is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase, "caveat emptor" — or "buyer beware."
One of the world’s most respected contemporary menswear designers, Japanese or otherwise, Junya Watanabe worked under Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons before launching his own label within the CdG family in the early ’90s. Much like the output of COMME des GARÇONS itself, arguably the originator of Japanese avant-garde, Watanabe plays heavily with cuts, textiles, and form to create bold reconfigurations of classic menswear designs.
In recent years the Japanese brand is perhaps best known for its use of multiple fabrics in patchwork designs, such as in its ongoing collaborations with Levis, but at the heart of Watanabe’s work is a fascination with different styles of clothing and how the wearer uses them.
As a result, workwear designs are reimagined with modern cuts and futuristic touches, elaborately decorated jackets are designed to be just as easily worn inside-out, and classic pieces like suits and overcoats are disrupted with unexpected touches and textures. If Kawakubo’s avant-garde is a disruption of the visual elements of fashion, then Watanabe’s might be argued to disrupt the functional: it’s a denim jacket like any other, but unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Launched in 2010, TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist (often abbreviated to The Soloist) is a pure continuation of Miyashita’s previous work, though some argue the name suggests an even stronger focus on the designer’s own personal perspectives. The designer’s distinct style is present as ever, though arguably with a slightly more refined, matured touch than NUMBER (N)INE.
Collections have taken inspiration from cultural phenomenons such as Oasis, David Bowie, and Country & Western, bringing Miyashita’s impeccable eye for evolution and elevation to each subject.
COMME des GARÇONS
Truly, no list about Japanese fashion would be complete without a special mention to COMME des GARÇONS. Founded in 1969 by Rei Kawakubo, COMME des GARÇONS grew in popularity in Japan throughout the ’70s before debuting in Paris in 1981. At first, Kawakubo’s collections were dismissed by critics as “ragged chic,” and her avant-garde approach to fashion design continues to attract praise and scorn in equal measures from across the fashion spectrum.
And so it should, because COMME des GARÇONS is inarguably fashion’s avant-garde. The Japanese brand’s modus operandi has always been to turn things on its head — exemplified by Kawakubo’s recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton, where she cut huge holes into a tote bag, defying the bag’s primary function of holding things.
From designs that bloat and transform the natural human form, to perfumes that some have described as smelling of burnt rubber, to Dover Street Market – a department store (first in London, then more recently opening new branches in Ginza and New York) that turns the entire retail experience on its head – the essence of COMME des GARÇONS is disruption of the norm.
And between high-end lines such as CdG Homme and CdG Shirt and diffusion lines like CdG Wallet or the CdG Play line and its inimitable heart logo, COMME des GARÇONS truly offers something for everyone in a way that no other brand has, or perhaps even could.
Don’t let the Papyrus font logo fool you: nanamica has been one of the true pioneering Japanese fashion brands combining form, fashion, and function for nearly 15 years now. Eiichiro Homma founded the brand in 2003, creating product that combines weather-ready technical elements with a rustic, natural aesthetic.
Maybe you don’t have to dress like a nylon Gore-Tex ninja whose whole outfit rustles with the slightest movement just to stay dry? Maybe you can dress in your usual style, but know there’s a wealth of hidden touches that mean your canvas chore jacket will see you through the day? Enter nanamica, bringing with them a wealth of iconic styles that slot into any outfit, but with a technical edge you’re unlikely to see anywhere else.
Still need convincing? The brand is also responsible for The North Face’s highly coveted Japanese sublabel, The North Face Purple Label, revered across the streetwear landscape for its elevated takes on classic TNF pieces. These guys don’t just get technical style, they define it.
Like many of his contemporaries such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake is a true revolutionary. Where Kawakubo introduced the avant-garde and Yamamoto collided tradition with progression, Issey Miyake brought the power of technology and technicality to fashion.
From pleated garments produced in such a way that they “remember” their pleats through washes to his iconic prism handbag, covered with geometric panels that fold and fluctuate like pixels in a computer game, there’s a thread that runs through all of Miyake’s creation that points to a true understanding of fashion design as design — as the creation of a functional item with purpose that should improve the quality of life of the wearer.
Perhaps it’s this mentality that made the Japanese fashion label one of Steve Jobs’ go-to brands, leading to Miyake producing dozens of black turtleneck sweaters for the Apple CEO, eventually becoming part of the legend of the man himself.
Cult Japanese brand Suicoke opened its doors for business in 2006 selling small accessories. Since then, the label’s direction has changed, now centering on performance sandals. Offering a modern take on the sandal through the use of high-quality components and a string of coveted collaborations, Suicoke has opened the style up for a new demographic of customer.
Famed for its technical aesthetic, numerous straps, and neoprene panels, Suicoke has received so much attention thanks to its distinctive visual identity. That’s not to say that durability and comfort are any lower on the priority list, though. Vibram sole units are a common denominator throughout the Suicoke collection, from the most minimal iterations such as the Depa to intricate, engineered models like the Moto.
Originally established as a physical store, South2 West8 was born in Sapporo in Northern Japan. Founder Kaname Nagaoka styles the label after Tenkara fly fishing, borrowing the technical aspects of the waterproof fishing gear while imbuing each piece with urban sensibility. South2 West8 makes up part of the Nepenthes, an umbrella company founded by Keizo Shimizu which also includes Engineered Garments, Needles, RANDT, and AIE.
While many brands take inspiration from sports and activities, few hold it as closely at South2 West8. Instead of borrowing styles and materials from the world of fly fishing, South2 West8 still makes items specifically intended for use within the sphere of fishing. This commitment to the founding inspirations has garnered a cult following for the brand thanks to an honest dedication to effective utilitarian design.
In recent seasons, South2 West8 has taken a more modern approach, with each collection featuring a handful of heavily patterned or brighter pieces intended for an urban environment. The brand’s most recent collection married tie-dye prints to traditional netted fishing vests, showing that staying true to outdoor roots doesn’t mean ignoring modern style.
Originally founded in1985 by Toshikiyo Hirata, Kapital was originally called Capital after its hometown of Kojima, otherwise known as the denim capital of Japan. At first, Capital was a sewing and dyeing factory that laid the foundations for what would grow to become one of the world’s most highly respected denim specialists in the world.
In 1996, after honing its craft designing and manufacturing for other companies, Capital was renamed Kapital and began to perfect its signature artisanal, handmade, cut-and-sew style. Over the past 30 years, Kapital has become known for perfecting Americana style with innovative crafting and dyeing techniques as well as premium-quality denim.
Kapital clothing can usually be recognized thanks to its unusual levels of detailing and high-quality materials, but other tell-tale signs include patchwork bandana prints and the brand’s favorite motif: the smiley face.
Blue Blue Japan
Beginning life in 1996 as the in-house brand for Tokyo clothing shop Okura, Blue Blue Japan outgrew Okura relatively quickly. Now known worldwide for its own sake, Blue Blue Japan takes inspiration from classic workwear styles and classic dyeing processes using indigo.
As the name suggests, Blue Blue Japan is best known for its traditional use of indigo. We can trace the tradition of indigo dyeing (Aizome) back to ancient times when kimonos that displayed the deep blue hue that ties together all of the label’s clothing were treasured.
Blue Blue Japan honors its home country’s history by producing seasonal collections of understated, timeless workwear styles lacking overt branding that emphasize the patterns and colors associated with Japanese history.
Founded in 1976 by Etsuzo Shitara and Osamu Shigematsu, Beams began life as a lifestyle store in Tokyo. Carrying interior products and furniture as well as clothing and footwear, Beams’ all-encompassing approach has been gradually refined over time. In 2005, Beams became an international enterprise, opening a store in Hong Kong.
Beams released Beams Plus in 1999, the menswear line of the company which has overtaken the other verticals in the international market. The label is known for its workwear-inspired collections that place a central focus on traditional style and premium quality materials.
Beams has maximized its reach and cultural weight through a string of highly successful and sought-after collaborations. From Clarks to Arc’teryx, Timex, Levi’s, and many more, Beams has positioned itself as one of Japan’s most relevant sartorial exports in the 21st century.
Sacai was founded in 1999 in Tokyo by Chitose Abe who had previously worked at Japanese powerhouses Junya Watanabe and COMME des GARÇONS. Having learned from the best, Abe set about breaking boundaries with men’s and women’s collections that blurred the line between formal and casual.
As well respected in high-fashion circles as it is in the world of streetwear, Sacai has been led to such high praise thanks to intelligent positioning by Abe. Sacai's main collections look to androgynous silhouettes with subtle design flairs for impact while Sacai’s collaboration collections often steer more to the world of streetwear.
Perhaps best known for its recent collaboration with Nike on the LD Waffle silhouette, Sacai’s future looks bright. At a time when luxury and streetwear are merging more by the week, Sacai looks comfortably positioned to garner attention from both sides of the spectrum.
Sasquatchfabrix is the offspring of Tokyo design collective Wonder Wonker Guerrilla Band (WWGB). Hiromichi Ochiai and Daisuke Yokoyama design each collection with a distinctive 90s skate aesthetic as well as a sprinkling of unique unorthodoxy. By connecting the dots between experimental, conceptual design, and more accessible streetwear, Sasquatchfabrix has secured a niche in a market in which it’s becoming increasingly hard to do so.
Taking inspiration from skate and graffiti culture, Sasquatchfabrix’s collections are fundamentally rooted in street style, but in keeping with the brand’s founders — a multidisciplinary creative collective — the collections encompass much more than that.
It’s in this ability to touch on multiple cultural references throughout each collection that has really distinguished Sasquatchfabrix from the crowd. Traditional Asian motifs sit alongside technical fabrics, eye-catching modern graphics, and workwear silhouettes in one harmonious whole.
Portvel / NULABEL
Portvel was launched in October 2014 by Hiroaki Hamada. Being Hamada’s first foray into the world of fashion, it’s testament to the brand’s burgeoning success that it stands alongside names like COMME des GARÇONS in this roundup. Spring/Summer 2015 stood as Portvel’s first collection and Hiroaki Hamada has since gone on to win the Tokyo New Designer Fashion Grand Prix 2019.
For Autumn/Winter 2020, Portvel’s name changed to NULABEL CM1YOK42 which made its debut in Paris in January 2020 with a collection entitled NUROMANCER, inspired by a 1984 cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. Hence, the label’s collections focus on a futuristic dystopia in which technology has evolved past the control of humans.
Illustrating this image are technical materials such as an innovative reflective tweed which ushers in a theme of futuristic takes on traditional formal and workwear silhouettes. A silver broach acts as the understated centerpiece of the collection, symbolizing the disappearing crafts of Japan due to advancing machinery.
Ryo Kashiwazaki displays a through-and-through dedication to premium leather and handcrafting, both heavily connected with Japanese tradition, with his label Hender Scheme. Founded in 2010, Kashiwazaki finds a balance between craftsmanship and modern design by famously reproducing modern sneaker models by hand in high-quality tan leather.
Alongside the luxury updates of popular sneakers such as the Air Jordan 4, Nike Presto, Vans Authentic, and more, Hender Scheme is known for its range of leather accessories. From notebooks to belts and keychains, Hender Scheme products have been spotted on Justin Bieber and Sean Coombs among others.
In the arena of modern Japanese culture, few names loom as large as Nigo. Founder of A Bathing Ape and long-time friend and collaborator of Kanye and Pharrell, Nigo began his life as the DJ of Japanese rap group Terriyaki Boyz. Human Made began as a side project for Nigo as a place for the creative to release things that did not align with A Bathing Ape.
Human Made has grown to become a coveted brand in its own right, testifying to the endless appreciation of NIGO’s creativity. With a more homemade, playful aesthetic, Human Made ticks all the boxes for the Japanese market and has become a major player in America during its 10 years of life thanks in large part to ongoing collaborations with adidas.
Informed by a seasonal trip to the wilderness by founder Kobayashi Setsumasa and close friends, Mountain Research returns each season with a fresh offering of highly technical clothing that also takes design cues from modern style. Originally founded in 1993 under the name General Research, Setsumasa changed the name to Mountain Research in 2006 in honor of the brand’s main source of inspiration.
Mountain Research distinguishes itself from the multitude of Japanese technical brands with an eye for subversion. At its core, the brand deals in engineered pieces for the outdoor, but where others often fail, each Mountain Research piece is equally as comfortable slotting into a modern everyday wardrobe.
In recent years, Uniqlo has made itself comfortable in the streets and shopping malls of numerous major American and European cities, so it’s easy to take the Japanese fast-fashion brand for granted, but when they first appeared in Western countries a few years ago, they really shook things up.
Established in the 1980s as the “Unique Clothing Warehouse,” an administrative error led to the brand being registered as Uni-qlo. What separates Uniqlo from other mass-market fashion brands is their approach to collections, an equal balance of straightforward, uncompromising classics, and fun, wildcard designs.
On the one hand, their jackets and pants feel like the archetype: no superfluous pockets, silly zippers, or whacky decorations. But then their UT T-shirt line (now under the direction of NIGO®) consistently comes through with lighthearted, everyday T-shirts with fun graphics from the likes of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Disney, KAWS, and many more.
Round all this off with the fact that even mainstream Japanese fashion brands have to manufacture product to a higher quality to satisfy their domestic customer, and you’ve got an affordable, everyday brand making quality staples to work into your rotation (side note: it’s also been said that their chinos, chambrays and oxford shirts are quite similar in fit to Supreme’s, so if you fancy saving yourself a few bucks… I’m just saying).
Evisu is another label that’s easy to take for granted in the present day, now that their iconic seagull logo is part of the cultural fabric, but the story of its origin is actually one of the most fascinating out there. Started in 1991 by Hidehiko Yamane, initial production could only support up to 14 pairs of jeans being made, producing raw selvedge denim jeans of exceptionally high quality.
There are several stories about the origins of the brand’s name, a popular one being that Evisu was a deliberate misnomer of Levis — even more convincing when you consider the brand’s origins in Osaka, the knock-off capital of Japan, and the similarities between Levi’s and Evisu’s rear pocket “seagull” designs. In fact, Evisu is a reference to Ebisu, a Japanese god of money, something Yamane was keen to make when he founded the brand.
During World War II, however, rationing and conservation meant Levis was not allowed to stitch the pattern into the back of their jeans, much like their hollowed-out “donut” buttons that saved metal during the war effort. As a result, the brand had to paint their branding on instead, something that Evisu references in their own painted logo.
Yosuke Aizawa’s White Mountaineering is one of a number of Japanese clothing brands that transformed the power of functional, utilitarian clothing into stunning fashion design. Aizawa worked under Junya Watanabe before launching his own label in 2006, producing arctic and climbing-inspired clothing with beautiful details such as embroidery, jacquard weaves, elaborate patterns, and unique fabric blends.
Geometric patterns are particularly prominent in Aizawa’s work, spanning knitwear and shirting to the beautiful parquet floor of the brand’s Tokyo flagship store.
In recent seasons the brand has branched out to collaborate with a number of major labels, including British outerwear specialist Barbour, Saucony sneakers, and adidas Originals — the latter of whom have received widespread acclaim for their elaborate Pitti Uomo presentations.
Ironically, Aizawa has admitted in interviews that his designs are probably unsuitable for genuine mountaineering, but his fascination with the aesthetic and visual elements of cold-weather climates has nonetheless created some of the most interesting creations in Japanese fashion in recent years.
The brainchild of the godfather of Japanese streetwear, Hiroshi Fujiwara, fragment design is but one of a huge roster of labels that leads, one way or another, back to Fujiwara. From launching iconic labels like Goodenough, Head Porter, and Uniform Experiment, to playing the H in Nike’s HTM line alongside Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker, to continuing to reinvent the fashion retail landscape with recent projects The Pool Aoyama and The Parking Ginza.
It’s difficult to choose just one brand that represents Fujiwara’s work, but fragment design is a window into one of Japanese fashion’s most fascinating designers. Distinguished by its unmissable lightning bolt logo, over the years fragment has collaborated with a list of brands as long as your arm, producing subtle elevations of iconic pieces from the likes of Converse, Levis, Oakley, Disney, Starbucks, Stüssy, Casio, visvim…you get the idea.
Often Fujiwara’s adjustments will consist of little more than a material upgrade and a tasteful lightning bolt logo placement, but it is precisely this approach (one that many perceive as lazy or cynical) that makes Fujiwara such a revered designer and tastemaker — a sort of aesthetic Occam’s Razor that understands that often the simplest and most straightforward version of a product is the most effective.
And, though you might not like every piece fragment releases, when they touch on something that’s significant to you, be it a pair of Air Jordans or a Carhartt jacket, the appearance of that lightning bolt logo becomes a mark of that piece’s timeless, untouchable cool.
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