“Let me warn you, I have strong opinions.”
Ethan Newton, the 38-year-old proprietor of niche menswear boutique Bryceland’s and noted sartorialist, is putting me on notice. He is lounging on a sofa in a coffee shop in Tokyo’s Jingumae district, garbed head (Basco Roma beret) to toe (St. Crispin’s shoes), in bespoke finery. A double-breasted gray wool Martingala overcoat and navy wool suit from Liverano (Florence), Ascot Chang shirt (Hong Kong), Bryceland’s seven-fold tie and Simonnot Godard pocket square (France) complete the ensemble.
As the promised strong opinions pour forth he seems the very embodiment of Gore Vidal’s definition of a stylish man: one who knows who he is, what he wants to say and doesn’t give a damn.
“I hate branding, and I hate fast fashion,” he begins, before outlining his theory that for the high-end clothing business, things began to come apart at the seams in the early 1960s, when someone had the bright idea of putting brand names on good quality clothing. “That led to licensing, and finally a situation where only the name mattered. Now we have ‘style by association.'”
This is Newton’s term for the belief that making yourself a walking billboard for designer brands associated with style and sophistication somehow confers those same attributes to the billboard him- or herself. He sees things differently:
“The homeless are better dressed. At least their clothes are an extension of their personalities. There’s an integrity there. I don’t want my customers to be a billboard for my brand, I want my brand to be a billboard for my customers.”
Newton’s passion for his chosen profession pulses through our conversation as he describes, with frequent caustic asides and the occasional “off the record,” the quasi-philosophical approach to menswear he has developed from his early days in the suburbs of Sydney via the cut and thrust of the Hong Kong menswear market, and now to his own bespoke business in this chic little corner of Shibuya Ward.
Newton grew up amongst immigrant communities whose strong cultural identities contrasted sharply with the more remote, almost liminal character of the Anglo-Celtic Australians.
“It was extremely multicultural,” he says. “Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese. If you didn’t have a strong connection to your ethnic background or distinct personality, you had to create it.”
He spent his free time rummaging in secondhand shops in search of vintage militaria — an early and enduring obsession — and classic American workwear, of the sort witnessed in Steinbeckian images of dustbowl America, early signs of the aesthetics-led-by-function approach that would inform his whole outlook.
“Australia was in recession, buying a house was very difficult.” America in the 1920s, he explains, “represented a simpler life, a more honest life, where you got only what you worked for.”
A scholarship to study men’s tailoring led to jobs in the better menswear stores in Sydney, at one of which — Swell store — he had a eureka moment on discovering the Japanese brand Evisu. Later, after pursuing a girl to Tokyo, he visited the Evisu store in Daikanyama, and after a drunken night with its manager — the legendary Osakan Hidehiko Yamane, one of the big beasts of Japanese tailoring — Newton offered his services as an apprentice and was taken on.
A move to Hong Kong saw him become in 2010 one of the three founders of The Armoury, now considered one of the world’s greatest menswear stores, where he worked as creative director. Then, talent-spotted by Ralph Lauren’s brother Jerry, he was, after a long courtship, seduced into joining the international fashion behemoth as an executive in charge of men’s luxury brands.
“A mistake,” he says now. “I was too outspoken.”
Those strong opinions could not be easily contained within the corporate straitjacket, and the job lasted just a year. Despite the rare misstep, he retains affection for his old boss, with whom he would spend hours engaged in deep philosophical discussions.
“Ralph Lauren created the vocabulary of modern fashion,” he says. “The attention to detail was so much better than anyone else. Even the labels on the inside of the clothes were of the highest quality.”
At the very least, the experience showed Newton what he didn’t want to be: “Living someone else’s dream,” as he puts it, was not a good look. He retains respect for the quality of the Ralph Lauren brand, but the cynicism of the corporate world in general, where every last drop of profit is squeezed from suppliers and customers, repelled him.
“Companies are too big. There’s too much product. Big companies make 10 pieces knowing only two will be sold at full price, five will be sold off at a discount, and three will never leave the warehouse.”
He needed an alternative philosophy and found what he was looking for back in Tokyo: a vintage ready-to-wear option named sanpō-yōshi. Basically an Edo Period merchant’s code, sanpō-yōshi is a compact between the craftsman/retailer, the customer and, ultimately, society as a whole that sees respect paid and benefit accrued in three directions. It’s an ethical strategy that prioritizes quality, long-term relationships, fair pricing and, yes, happiness over short-term profits and permanent growth.
“Money is not the goal,” Newton says. “I’ve never been rich so it’s not important.”
But if the business ethics of traditional Japan attracted, the current state of men’s fashion here frequently appalls. Among a menagerie of pet hates, Newton is especially withering about what he calls the “feminization of menswear” in Japan, which sees men squeezing themselves into uncomfortable, fussily designed “gender-fluid” outfits, their true identities spilling out in the process. This anemic geekiness turns clothes, he explains, “into costumes,” and is the very opposite of the characterful nonchalance and classic elegance Newton sees as crucial to a well-dressed man.
“To look good, you need to look masculine,” he explains, employing an almost taboo word these days with total conviction. “To be elegant you need to be comfortable, and that means clothes that fit. If only men who could would plan their wardrobes, and work with tailors, instead of asking their girlfriends what they should wear…”
“The world would be a better place?”
Bryceland’s Tailors is a short walk, but a world away in terms of style, from the Sodom and Gomorrah of fast fashion and brand-name soullessness of Harajuku and Omotesando. It has more the feel of a one-room museum than a clothes shop, with exhibits rather than merchandise. Each item in the carefully curated collection has a back story and personality of its own. Newton is happy to describe the provenance of each piece, many of which are made to exclusive Bryceland’s designs.
The golden age of Hollywood is an obvious reference point, and there’s an almost Hitchcockian feel to the room. Indeed, “Rope” is one of Newton’s favorite films, which makes me wonder for a second if there might not be a body concealed here in one of the cabinets — of a skinny-jeaned Harajuku hipster perhaps?
I ask about his style heroes.
“Fred Astaire, and James Stewart. And Jackie Gleason (Minnesota Fats in “The Hustler”). I have a particular respect for big men who dress well.”
“Anyone more recent?”
It’s the shortest answer of the interview.
Newton explains that Bryceland’s is essentially a “custom shop,” a place where men can pick up “peripheral product” while waiting for their bespoke pieces to be finished by the in-house tailor. Customers are encouraged to drop by for a coffee, or a whisky, and a chat, and the shop is fast becoming a hub for like-minded style-conscious Tokyoites, including designers and craftsmen such as tie maker Kenji Kaga, shoemaker Yohei Fukuda and arguably Japan’s best-dressed man, Yukio Akamine.
As for the future, Newton hopes to be around for a long time yet, deepening his relationships and honing his skills — he does basic alterations himself (“I love it”) and can work wonders with an iron. He seems to have found his perfect job:
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he enthuses. “I couldn’t give value doing anything else.”
The sanpō-yōshi philosophy charts progress in terms of depth, rather than breadth — and there are no plans for expansion.
“I want to keep the operation small and nimble. My ultimate goal is for my customers to bring their children in to have their clothes made,” he explains.
And to close the interview, Newton says something extraordinary, a statement that would probably have you expelled immediately from the boardroom of any corporate fashion house, and make the list of things not to say at a job interview: “If I’m still doing exactly what I’m doing now when I’m 60, I’ll consider that an achievement.”
Ethan Newton — knows who he is, what he wants to say and doesn’t give a damn.