On Brook Street in Mayfair, around the corner from the luxury flagship stores of New Bond Street, is a curious little shop with a solid iroko wood exterior. In the window a table displays just two stacks of precisely folded indigo jeans; a navy blue canopy overhead is printed with a simple typeface that reads “45R”.
Inside, the space is lined with marquetry walls and bare cedar fixtures, with a few colour-coordinated garments hanging from brass rails. The earthy smell of incense hangs in the air. “People come in all the time asking what the brand is about,” says Fumiko Takahashi, the London managing director of 45R, gesturing to a vast coffee-style table — cut from a Japanese cedar tree — in the middle of the shop; on it sit unisex cotton T-shirts, canvas bucket hats and indigo-dyed handkerchiefs. “There isn’t anything similar to us around here, so you feel like you’re stumbling across something special,” she says. “You could say we’re hidden in plain sight.”
The store, which opened last October, is the first UK outpost of the Japanese brand that was founded in Tokyo in 1977. And it’s not alone in its British expansion. Across the capital, Japanese labels — cult in their home territory but relatively unknown in mainstream foreign markets — are setting up shop. Nepenthes, which was founded in 1988 by Keizo Shimizu and owns brands such as Engineered Garments and Needles, opened in February on a street near Euston. Japan House — a hub of art, design and culture — launched in Kensington last June, and has since hosted bonsai workshops and saké tastings; its gallery shop sells everything from wooden shaving brushes to jewellery and ceramics. Meanwhile, purveyor of sophisticated hikewear Snow Peak is set to open in central London later this year.
Small, with little presence outside Japan and almost no marketing spend, these niche brands are focused on utilitarian Japanese design rather than the avant-garde. 45R, for example, uses natural indigo dyes and makes all its fabrics in-house. “Visually our product is quite simple,” says Takahashi of the brand’s button-up shirts and camel canvas vests for men and women. “It’s only by feeling the texture of our fabrics, seeing how our clothes fit and understanding how they are made that customers appreciate the beauty of 45R.”
“There is a phrase ‘yo no bi’, which translates as ‘the beauty of use’,” agrees Saeko Kato, shop curator of Japan House London. “In Japan, items for everyday use — whether a clip, a cup or a cardigan — are made to be beautiful, and to become more beautiful with age.”
While Japanese clothing is predominantly understated, the silhouettes are distinct — trousers are baggy and cropped at the hem, jackets and shirts are elongated and slightly A-line, seams are often curved and sculptural. “These clothes are seen and not heard,” says Tom Piercy, founder of the Peckham-based store Alpha Shadows, which exclusively stocks hard-to-find Japanese brands. Piercy opened the store in 2016 after becoming frustrated that lots of brands he loved weren’t available outside Japan. “The Japanese are masters of reinventing garments through either shape, fabric or construction techniques,” he says, fondling a pair of pleated-front chinos by Naissance. Many of his brands, such as Boncoura and Norbit by Hiroshi Nozawa, riff on classic US military garments. In the 1970s, US fashions were all the rage in Japan and the influence is still apparent — big pockets are aplenty. Just like Japanese denim, these pieces are continually refined in pursuit of perfection.
For decades, these brands, made entirely in Japan, have focused on the domestic market. Even now, many coveted labels aren’t available at major retailers, nor do they have localised websites or ship abroad.
“To be able to stock Ichizawa Hanpu tote bags from Kyoto, I had to visit them several times and drink a lot of tea over a two-year period just to convince them that being sold in the UK was a good idea,” says Mats Klingberg, founder of menswear retailer Trunk, which opened in 2010 and was among the first shops to bring niche Japanese brands to the UK.
So what’s changed? “Now is a good time for Japanese brands to expand, as there has never been this much global attention with the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games,” says Tatsuo Hino, director of Beams & Co, a London-based offshoot of Tokyo-based Beams. Founded in 1976, the UK subsidiary was established 18 months ago to help bridge the culture gap and ensure Beams’ UK activity was relevant to British audiences — Hino’s primary role is to work collaboratively with retailers such as End, Goodhood and Mr Porter on special-edition products.
The Japanese government seemingly agrees: it footed the £37m bill for the opening of Japan House, and 45R received cash from its Cool Japan Fund for overseas expansion.
That London was the city of choice for these brands, even with Brexit looming, is noteworthy. The UK has had a longstanding trade with Japan — British labels such as Studio Nicholson, Mackintosh and Margaret Howell that manufacture in the UK enjoy huge exports to Japan. And the UK is held in particular affection by Japanese consumers. “Japanese people love everything British,” says Hino. “It makes sense for brands to open here. The UK is a unique country in Europe, with its aesthetics, attitude and history in creating relevant subcultural movements and scenes,” he says. Kei Saito, head of international sales at Snow Peak, agrees. “British people tend to try new styles and new silhouettes without fear, while shoppers from other countries tend to wait and see,” he says.
“London was the first priority for us due to its multicultural nature, international popularity and influence,” says Saito. And, for a hiking brand, the UK’s “national parks and dedicated camping community” was a further draw. Saito is not worried about Brexit. “There are lots of developments in London that no other European country is doing — Coal Drops Yard and Battersea Power Station, to name a few,” he says. “Plus the biggest ecommerce names, such as Mr Porter and MatchesFashion.com, are British. We strongly believe the UK is going to stay as one of the most influential and powerful countries in the next few years.”
Being stocked on an English-speaking website with global reach also helps draw new audiences — and will drive demand. “Naturally there is the concern that a brand you stock will open its own store and pull away customers that would have come to you,” says Piercy. “But I’d like to think it will just be increasing its fan base, and that those customers will in turn look to where they can discover other brands.”
Piercy is hoping especially that the influx will help his case to bring one of his favourite labels — the name of which is shrouded in secrecy — into his shop. “It has a webpage that hasn’t been updated for three years and no social media to speak of. That elusiveness adds to the appeal for sure,” he says. Cool Japannia. Long may it reign.
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