People | 20 QUESTIONS

Vaughan Allison: Transforming nonessentials into essentials

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Vaughan Allison
Age: 36
Nationality: Australian
Occupation: Music promoter, fashion lecturer, editor, model, Instagram @vja
Likes: Kissaten (traditional coffee shops), ceramics and people
Dislikes: Google calendar, chain shops


1. What first brought you to Japan? I won a scholarship to study at a university here. I went home for a stint after that, but soon gravitated back. Tokyo has an irresistible mix of culture, history and upcoming progressive communities.

2. Does anything still surprise you? So many things: how humble a lot of famous people I know are, the understated beauty of the pot plants that line my street, the punctuality of the shinkansen, the care in which Japanese people dress and act in public. … I could go on forever.

3. You’re known for your active presence in the Japanese coffee/cafe world. Have you always been into coffee? My earliest childhood memory is scooping the froth off my mother’s cappuccino, and my father’s espresso machine was my favorite toy growing up! I wouldn’t be surprised if my blood was black!

4. What should a kissaten first-timer order? “Blend.” That’s the face of the kissaten, and that’s the answer the master will expect. After a couple visits, ask for the ura (secret) menu!

5. What makes a good coffee shop? I look for three things: how knowledgeable and open the staff are, the taste of the coffee and the space itself. All of those three elements need to work hand in hand to make the perfect space.

6. What beans are you really into right now? I’m basically into any bean that the barista/roaster has the passion and time to speak to me about.

7. When you brew a cup of coffee, what do you think about? I think about the coffee (smelling, internalizing and sensing) and the person I’m making it for.

8. What would you call your dream coffee shop? I’m working on opening a cafe this year, and I’m thinking of calling it “mia-mia.” It’s an indigenous Australian term used to describe a temporary shelter where family/friends/people gather.

9. Are there major differences between coffee shops in Melbourne and Japan? Coffee in Melbourne is a type of infrastructure — people blend into coffee shops like it’s a normal part of life. In Japan, cafes are still an exciting kind of place. Cafes in Australia are like izakaya bars in Japan.

10. What’s the intersection between fashion, design and coffee? They all exist to make people happy. Sure, some people can argue that they’re nonessential things in life, but many of us would say otherwise.

11. What do you teach at Bunka Fashion College? I teach a general fashion course in English — students learn the names of materials, how to read a tag, phrases they’d use to dress a model.

12. Who’s your favorite Japanese designer? It’s hard not to say Rei Kawakubo. Each and every season showcases fashion with flair and originality — she has inspired many young designers.

13. How did you get your start in music management? I managed my brother’s band for four years. Creating events for musicians to do what they do has become one of my passions, and a big cross-cultural project I’m involved in these days. I’ve got a band coming over to play Fuji Rock this year!

14. Is it difficult to advertise relatively unknown acts to an audience? I usually host music events in coffee shops, furniture shops and spaces where I have a very good relationship with the owner. So it’s mainly word of mouth. Sometimes I get asked by newspapers and magazines to answer questions, which helps too!

15. What’s your best concert memory? I recently took Kyoto band Zahatorte (an instrumental three piece) to Australia. At their Mona show, a couple was standing in front of me — the woman grabbed on to her partner’s arm and said: “I’ve got goosebumps, this is so beautiful.” Moments like that make it all worthwhile.

16. What’s an underrated skill every manager should have? Talk with everyone you meet, really properly. Give them time and treat them with respect.

17. If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, which one would it be? There’s an album full of love ballads called “I Choose You” by Singh & Blanes. It’s very soothing.

18. Do you have any pet peeves? Baristas who are too cool to speak to their customers.

19. What’s the most underrated area in Tokyo? Nishiogikubo has too many hidden gems. Start at Poubelle, a curated antique shop, and then walk the back streets. It’s a secretive area, but one that rewards the intrepid explorer, unveiling its captivating treasures generously at every corner.

20. Any advice for someone trying to figure out what they want to do? Tim Minchin, a good friend of mine, said it best: “Be microambitious and see what happens as you pursue short-term goals.”