Innovation feeds on growing flux in male looks

by Paul Mcinnes

From their bases on opposite sides of the Pacific, Japanese and American menswear labels have begun to rip up the rule books and reinvent how men think about fashion.

Long gone are the days when ostentatious Europeans, such as heavyweights Armani, Gucci and Dior Homme, dominated the industry. Even the elder statesmen of Japanese and American menswear such as Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein no longer have the influence they once had — while the recent closure of Takahiro Miyashita’s cult label Number (N)ine and the bankruptcy of esteemed Yohji Yamamoto Inc. have only added to the menswear market’s state of flux.

The “New Americans” spearheaded by Thom Browne and including other hotly tipped labels such as Band of Outsiders and Adam Kimmel — and their Japanese counterparts Julius, Kolor and John Lawrence Sullivan — are the young(ish) Turks seeking to transform and reinvigorate the male sartorial landscape.

Although a few high-profile Japanese brands such as Junya Watanabe, The Viridi-anne and Attachment show their collections in Paris, there are many lesser-known ones rising through the ranks with domestic labels such as Kolor, which, along with outdoor/work-wear labels including White Mountaineering and Inpaichthys Kerri are increasingly impacting magazine pages and blog entries.

Meanwhile, mass-market retailers such as Uniqlo, Beams and United Arrows do roaring trade in slightly more, though no less stylish, affordable clothing — often in collaborations with many of these emerging brands.

However, menswear buyer Lorenzo of the famed Los Angeles boutique H. Lorenzo — which stocks Japanese labels such as N.Hoolywood, Julius and The Viridi-anne — believes Japanese labels still stand apart from their European and American cousins. In a recent interview with The Japan Times, he cited “the workmanship, the creativity and the style,” before going on to declare that “Japanese designers put love into their designs.”

“My customers love the Japanese designers,” he said. “They are very popular. The designs have adapted very well and they do extremely well in all of my stores.”

Similarly, Rafael Dominguez, a Paris-based PR for Japanese brands, commented in an e-mail chat that Japanese approach fashion in a fundamentally different way.

“I do think that there is a bigger depth in their work, everything is more radical and personal,” he wrote. “It’s more about wanting to tell us a story, and to reopen a new chapter of their style book every season.”

So, despite the demise of Number (N)ine and Yohji Yamamoto Inc., Japanese menswear in general seems to be going from strength to strength. Its design influences, too, can also be seen in many areas of contemporary global menswear — from the functional workwear of U.S.-based Japanese labels such as Woolrich Woolen Mills and Engineered Garments, both designed by Daiki Suzuki, to the patchwork aesthetic and experimentation of Rei Kawakubo’s famed Comme des Garcons.

According to Dominguez, Japanese menswear collections can be idiosyncratic because they have more freedom from commercial and traditional constraints: “They don’t need to include three different styles of jacket, or to add denim pants because it sells, or to do swimwear because it’s a spring/summer collection.”

One look at the intense monochromes of The Viridi-anne and Julius, or the vintage-inspired “New Workwear” labels, and it’s clear that the contemporary Japanese menswear scene is dancing to a different tune and leading the way in how men dress around the world as the 21st century gets into gear.