Business / Corporate | Taking the Lead

Zozotown founder Yusaku Maezawa follows eclectic path

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup cans, a painting by Takashi Murakami and a word sculpture by Jack Pierson are some of the pieces decorating the head office of Start Today Co., operator of Japan’s largest online fashion mall, Zozotown.

The items are just a tiny fraction of the growing collection of CEO Yusaku Maezawa, a billionaire e-commerce mogul and former punk band drummer who sits on one of the many vintage 1950s Jean Prouve-designed chairs accompanying a large, Charlotte Perriand table in his glass-partitioned office on the outskirts of Tokyo.

“When I like something, I thoroughly pursue it,” the 42-year-old said during a recent interview with The Japan Times. “That hasn’t changed since I was in high school.”

In Japan, Maezawa is known as a young, maverick entrepreneur who built a digital fashion empire from scratch. Elsewhere, he’s the talk of the art world for buying a 1982 painting of a skull by Jean-Michel Basquiat for a record-breaking $110.5 million last spring.

Maezawa admits he’s a collector by nature, and his love for art, design and detail fuels his eclectic endeavors — the newest being perhaps his most ambitious: offering a size-free shopping experience using high-tech body suits.

“I think the desire for a perfect-fitting pair of denim (jeans) is universal … If we can provide denim to all the people in the world, for example, we will have 7 billion customers,” he said.

In November, Start Today began taking free orders for the Zozosuit, a sensor-packed, skin-tight black garment produced in collaboration with New Zealand-based startup StretchSense. The suit can capture 15,000 precise body measurements.

Linked via Bluetooth to a special app, the data from the suit’s sensors allows shoppers to find the best fit from the thousands of brands offered on the Zozotown website, as well as purchase made-to-order T-shirts and jeans from Zozo, the company’s new private brand.

The announcements stirred the fashion industry, where the issue of poor-fitting clothing has long troubled online retailers with return shipping costs. It attracted so much attention, in fact, that the company received 230,000 reservations in the first 10 hours of pre-orders, exceeding production capacity and delaying shipping of the suit until late January.

For Maezawa, the concept was born from a personal experience.

“I’m short, and have short legs, which made it difficult to find pants that fit nicely,” he said. “I wanted a pair of pants that someone like me can wear without sewing the hems.”

Maezawa envisioned creating a simple clothing brand that fits people of all shapes and sizes, but something like that would require tens of thousands of size variations and massive data on customer body measurements. Years of research ensued as Maezawa and his team scouted for a viable, cost-efficient method to execute the plan — an effort that culminated in the Zozosuit and a tailored private brand that currently offers ¥1,200 T-shirts and ¥3,800 jeans.

Maezawa said the affordable pricing is made possible by the lack of excess inventory, physical shops, store staff and wasted fabric. More products are in the pipeline, he said, “but they will all be basic items that everyone would have.”

The company is working to speed up production of the Zozosuit and wants it to be an everyday household item — like a thermometer or a scale — that consumers can casually wear to track their bodily changes.

With offices in Los Angeles and Berlin, Maezawa is looking at taking the service global, although he didn’t give precise timing on when the private brand will be available outside Japan.

“I think there’s a chance for us to become the No. 1 apparel company in the world,” he said.

Despite his jet-setting lifestyle, Maezawa comes from a modest background. The older of two sons of a simple accountant and a housewife, he was raised in Chiba Prefecture and grew up with a keen interest in understanding how things are made.

“When construction work took place in our neighborhood, I would go and observe the building site,” he said.

In middle school, he began playing guitar before switching to drums in high school, because “when you want to form a band, there’s always an overwhelming lack of drummers.”

His hardcore punk band gradually drew a following and got picked up by a record label, leading to Maezawa’s first taste of success: a four-song, seven-inch record that sold well for a rookie release.

The band soon signed with a major label, while Maezawa simultaneously pursued his other passion: collecting rare imported punk and hardcore records and CDs, a hobby that turned into a mail order catalog business he incorporated into Start Today in 1998, when he was 22. The company’s name was taken from the title of an album by New York-based punk band Gorilla Biscuits.

In 2000, the company went online and began offering niche fashion apparel in addition to music. The growing business, however, began eating more of Maezawa’s time.

“I was president of my company while touring around the country with the band,” he said. “When it became physically impossible to handle both, I chose my company — that was around when I was 25 or 26.”

In 2004, Start Today launched Zozotown, which initially introduced products from 17 apparel stores. The company was listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Mothers section for high-growth startups in 2007 and continued to expand over the next decade.

Today the site features around 6,300 brands with over 520,000 items, and the company that began with just four staff members now employs nearly 900. With a market capitalization of around ¥845 billion and annual sales topping ¥76 billion last fiscal year, Maezawa, who owns around 39 percent of Start Today’s shares, is Japan’s 14th-richest man, according to Forbes.

Maezawa is fondly attached to Chiba, his hometown. Unlike many startups that opt to headquarter their companies in central Tokyo, Start Today’s main office has remained in the prefecture since 2001. The company provides a ¥50,000 monthly housing allowance to employees who live in the Makuhari area, where the company is based. It bought the naming rights to the home of the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball team in 2016, renaming the ball park Zozo Marine Stadium.

Maezawa himself has been meticulously planning for a new home in the prefecture for eight years now — a slow-moving project he wants to wrap up in the next year or two. He also plans to open a museum in Chiba where he can showcase his vast collection of art, furniture and antiques. He said he’s currently interested in Buddhist statues, especially those from the Heian Period (794-1185).

“I feel comfortable in Chiba. There’s more fresh air and you can see the ocean,” he said.

His success has given him the resources to indulge in his other interests, including wine, watches and cars, and he spends around a third of the year overseas, traveling on his private jet. But out of his various pursuits, Maezawa’s high-profile auction purchases appear to have cemented his image as the art world’s new rock star.

Prior to breaking the auction record for a U.S. artist with the Basquiat he bought last year at Sotheby’s, in 2016 he purchased another untitled piece by the Brooklyn artist — who died in 1988 at age 27 — for a whopping $57.3 million at Christie’s.

“There’s a lot I identify with Basquiat,” he said, including his rise to fame from his roots as an unknown street artist. Maezawa, who is also founder of the Contemporary Art Foundation, said he wants more young people around the world to have the chance to see the artist’s work and be inspired like he has.

The $110.5 million Basquiat masterpiece recently arrived at the Seattle Art Museum after a stint at the Brooklyn Museum in what Maezawa described as its “world tour.”

Warhol once said being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.

Be it splurging on contemporary art, taking e-commerce personalization to the next level or exploring a new pastime — he says he wants to try his hand at pottery someday — Maezawa’s many ventures are driven by a common principle.

“Playing in a band, selling records through mail order and selling clothes — these are all things I love doing,” he said. “If that can please others, then I couldn’t be happier.”

Key events in Yusaku Maezawa’s career

May 1998: Establishes Start Today, selling imported CDs and records.

January 2000: Start Today moves operations online.

December 2004: Start Today launches apparel website Zozotown.

December 2007: Start Today’s shares are listed on Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Mothers section.

February 2012: Start Today moves to first section of TSE.

June 2016: Start Today invests in StretchSense, a New Zealand startup that makes wearable “smart stretch” sensors.

May 2017: Wins auction for a painting by Basquiat for $110.5 million.

November 2017: Launches Zozo brand, begins taking orders for Zozosuit.

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