“Is Japan the new international center for bespoke suits, shirts and shoes?”
This was the arresting proposition put forward on May 22 at the “Japanese Bespoke Menswear: Thomas Mason and Permanent Style” symposium held at the Quartz Gallery in Shibuya, Tokyo, where some of Japan’s most celebrated menswear ambassadors gathered to outline their views and tell their individual stories.
The event, part of an international series sponsored by the textile manufacturers Albini Group, drew around 200 industry heavyweights, style journalists, and an assortment of Tokyo’s most style-conscious men for a panel discussion, chaired by influential London-based author and journalist Simon Crompton of Permanent Style, a world leading menswear blog.
The idea of Japanese centrality in the world of bespoke may come as a surprise to traditionalists, who are more used to the sartorial grand tour of London, Naples, Milan, Florence and Paris. But its possibility says much about the advances made in recent years in high-end menswear in Japan. Crompton, one of the world’s most knowledgeable and well-traveled style journalists, opened proceedings by declaring Japan to be “the most exciting place in the world for bespoke menswear.”
How did this come about? Panelists shirtmaker Masanori Yamagami of Strasburgo and master shoemaker Yohei Fukuda, both stressed the importance of Japanese artisans learning their craft at the point of origin, the now long-established practice of aspiring craftspeople making pilgrimages to the style capitals of Europe to study under the masters.
A reputation for hard work and dedication to craft has seen many young Japanese hopefuls taken on as apprentices at legendary ateliers despite language difficulties. Of the panelists, Fukuda trained in Nottingham and worked at John Lobb in the U.K.; and tailor Noriyuki Ueki (Ciccio) learned his skills at Dalcuore in Naples, Italy. Once proficient, the apprentices returned home ready to open their own businesses. It appears that in Japan such artisans have had no difficulty maintaining the standards of their former mentors and even, in many cases, exceeding them.
The participants, which included journalists Kanae Hirasawa and Yoshimi Hasegawa, mentioned the positive influence of the traditional Japanese artisanal ethos — the scrupulous attention to detail that as a deeply ingrained principle is applied equally across disciplines. Compton noted that unlike the Europeans, who tend to specialize in one area and one kind of product, Japanese craftspeople benefitted from having a broad range of interests and crossover skills — at one point Yosuke Kagami, head of bespoke at Isetan, even likened Ueki’s meticulous trouser making to the skills of a sushi chef. The philosophy of wabi sabi (nothing is perfect) was also mentioned as a guard against complacency.
Another advantage, at least in terms of quality, is scale. It was noted that many of Japan’s bespoke artisans work alone, or with no more than one apprentice. This allows for far greater quality control and a more personal service than large European houses. Add to this Japan’s impeccable service ethic and a traditional squeamishness about raising prices (“un-Japanese,” commented Fukuda), and a clearer picture begins to emerge as to why Japanese bespoke is becoming increasingly attractive to a discerning and globalized customer base.
The internet has helped, too; placing Japan firmly on the list of must-visit destinations for globe-trotting sartorialists. Crompton, himself, has done much to boost the profile of Japanese craftspeople with a series of posts and personal endorsements. Tokyo was also recently listed as one of the world’s best destinations for bespoke menswear in the Financial Times How to Spend It magazine, while Fukuda’s almost too beautiful to wear shoes have been wowing footwear fans on Instagram.
But before we get carried away, a mild note of caution was sounded by Mark Cho of the Armoury menswear store in Hong Kong, an attendee to the event. He sagely observed that people tend to view anything produced in a distant land with a sense of wonder and are, perhaps, predisposed to feel impressed by Japanese-made goods, especially since Japan is also exceptionally good at managing the image it projects to the outside world. His comments were met with nods and murmurs of assent from the panel.
Concerns were raised too about the way forward. On the panel, Yasuto Kamoshita, cofounder of United Arrows and creative director of Camoshita, and Kagami were generally optimistic, though it was noted that there may be limits to what can be achieved in the domestic market. As for global expansion, the Japanese bespoke industry’s current one-man-band business model would likely require outside help for it to fully realize its potential. Small is certainly beautiful, was the message, but it has practical limitations. Kagami cited the unavoidably long wait times required by sole traders, while sheer geography, in terms of arranging fittings, is also a problem.
Still, as the sun began to set and the discussion wound down, Japan establishing itself as an international center of bespoke menswear appeared a realistic goal.
At the after party on the venue’s terrace, the panelists relaxed with wine and canapes and gazed across the unobstructed neon-lit Tokyo skyline at a view that, like the future of the Japanese bespoke menswear industry, appeared bright and full of possibilities.