Whatever plans we had in life, the pandemic put a wrench in most of them. As lockdowns loomed around the world, there were some who made the quick decision to shake things up before COVID-19 took over.
For Terry Ellis, 60, a buyer and director for Japanese brand Beams Fennica, this meant moving to Japan. He had been splitting his life between London and Tokyo for the past four decades but, until recently, hadn’t spent longer than a two-month stretch here.
An uncertain time for many of us, the beginning days of the pandemic saw Ellis pack his bags and swap his home in Brixton, south London, for an apartment in Tokyo’s counter-cultural Koenji neighborhood.
“I was in London just as they announced the pandemic, I was there for a month trying to buy hand sanitizer,” recalls Ellis, who adds that he’s had a kidney transplant. “My doctor advised me that there would be a lockdown and that I was indeed to go as soon as possible, so I got the next flight out and I came here.
“Five days later it was the lockdown and I haven’t been back since.”
Now very much at home in Tokyo, Ellis and his wife, Keiko Kitamura, have curated a museum-like space in their apartment. The rooms are adorned with carefully crafted displays of Japanese folk crafts, African art and mid-century modern furniture.
“Each time we move, we create a new space,” explains Ellis, dressed in an indigo-blue jacket and sitting in the middle of his tatami-mat living room. “Keiko found this flat for me and it’s been fun figuring out how to live the whole time in a Japanese place.”
The pair met in London in the 1980s, and were established trendsetters. Together, they began working as stylists for record labels such as Island and Virgin, dressing bands for music videos and album covers. Ellis himself had moved to London from Jamaica when he was 7, and his Caribbean roots are a strong contributing factor in his work.
In the 1990s they began working with Japanese lifestyle store Beams, which had launched as a clothing brand in the ’70s and was still a relatively minor player. It is now one of the best-known brands in Japan.
Beams recruited Ellis and Kitamura to guide its buyers around the city and send them information about the market. In other words, coolhunters. The pair have worked with Beams ever since and now head the in-house label Fennica, which was launched in 2003.
Tapping into a heritage
With an eye for aesthetics and deep cultural knowledge, the couple source second-hand designer pieces and create original items that are heavily influenced by Japanese folk crafts and Scandinavian design.
Ellis honed his knowledge of Japanese craftsmanship and artisanal talent during twice-yearly trips here through the 2000s and 2010s. He has visited the country’s many islands in search of inspiration, exploring the world of pottery, kilns and the associated workshops. It was during one of these visits that he met product designer Sori Yanagi, son of Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), pioneer of the mingei (folk arts) movement.
“We started importing Scandinavian design because we wanted things that were made the same way they were made in the 1950s and ’60s, and that was still the case in Scandinavia,” Ellis says. “We were looking around for similar things in Japan and came across Sori Yanagi.”
This friendship with Yanagi, who was then the director of the Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum), gave Ellis invaluable insight into Japanese folk art, ceramics and textiles, helping to shape his creative direction. He was introduced to other artisans who were directly influenced by the elder Yanagi, and began working with both factories and workshops, combining folk crafts and Scandinavian modern design.
Developing the aesthetics of the Fennica brand, Ellis built connections with pottery kilns all over Japan, favoring those (particularly in Okinawa) who work cooperatively instead of individually.
These workshops have a master, Ellis explains, and the potters under the master all work in cooperation; they may make individual pieces but there’s usually a particular style and range for the workshop as a whole, and the kilns are able to produce numerous pots in a honed, highly skilled way — a system attributed by Sori Yanagi to his father.
“Over the years we’ve become very close to the potters and now we’re working with their children and their apprentices,” Ellis says. “I was very lucky because for Western people, normally, unless you’re a potter or some famous intellectual, you’re not going to get taught much about these people.”
A tale of two cities
Dividing his life between Tokyo and London means Ellis is equally at home in two of the world’s most vibrant and artistic metropolises. One month he’s mixing with artisans in the Japanese countryside, and the next he’s walking through Brixton Market soaking up the sights and sounds of London’s Afro-Caribbean community.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, when nobody else was doing it,” he says over the balmy beats of a reggae record in his apartment. “In the 1980s and part of the ’90s, there was no one I could really talk to about Japan because people would just want to know about Kyoto and geisha and samurai … Nobody was traveling to Okinawa.”
Ellis says any chaos associated with managing a life across two cultures is worth it as his aesthetic lies in the very merging of both these worlds and their respective identities. His London apartment is stylishly decorated with Japanese items — so much so that he says he feels like he’s still in Japan when he’s there.
“When I’m in Japan I forget about London and when I’m in London it is difficult to forget about Japan,” he says. “I don’t particularly look forward to getting back to London because it’s ordinary life, but here there’s still this excitement in discovery.”
Another geographical constant that ties in to his work comes from his Caribbean roots.
“I haven’t been there for 30 or 40 years, but Jamaica is everywhere,” he says. “I don’t need to go to Jamaica to experience Jamaica. I experience Jamaica here (in Japan) all of the time. There’s even a reggae bar down the road.”
Ellis’ work often incorporates nods to Caribbean culture, but mainly of the variety that thrives on the streets of Brixton. He tends to take these London-infused elements and tweak them slightly, saying, “I understand it fully and I can do things with it that people who don’t really understand it will be shy to do.”
Ellis pulls out one of the items he’s made for Fennica: a sweater of Rastafarian red, gold and green, slightly subverted with a murky yellow and pinkish hue, and incongruously knitted by hand on Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Kitamura is wearing another of their pieces, a traditional West African dashiki shirt made with Japanese denim and old Japanese indigo fabric, and adorned with an applique lion.
“I’ll try to introduce that culture to people who are not necessarily passionate about Jamaica but who view it as a kind of high fashion, not street fashion,” he says. “I do the same kind of thing with mingei, so it’s just part of my cultural identity.”
Decades of exploring Japan’s islands, visiting cities and rural workshops has naturally had an effect on Ellis’ character. He mentions how he is often left behind at pedestrian crossings in London while everyone else rushes across before the lights turn.
“It’s just small things,” he says, “I think if you live in Japan for a while, you become more patient.
“You take Japan with you. It’s a way of living and a way of thinking.”
For now, Ellis doesn’t have to take Japan anywhere, though, he’s here and established. Even the pandemic hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the country and the culture.
“When I’m in London everything that happens, I expect it to happen,” he says. “Here, it’s difficult to put it into words, but the feeling I have, it’s just endless possibilities. Nothing is really quotidian for me. Every day something strange happens. There’s a sort of bubbling excitement the whole time.
“I’m 60 this year, and there’s nowhere else to go,” he says, laughing. “I’m going to spend more time here, but I’ll always live in London … and I think I’ll always live in Brixton, but I think I’ll spend more time here because my family is here now.”
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