Tokyo’s Harajuku district is best-known for cosplayers (adolescents dressed as animation characters) and teenagers in gothic Lolita costumes who congregate in its labyrinth of side streets. Yet amid the madness, it is here that classic menswear items such as tailored suits, handmade knitted ties and custom-made shoes are thriving.
Japanese clothing retailer United Arrows has more than 160 stores across the country. Its four-storey flagship in Harajuku has Y98,000 (£745) unlined navy jackets from Italian makers Boglioli and crisp white shirts from Charvet, once clothiers to John F. Kennedy.
It’s a similar scene nearby at the cluster of stores run by Beams, where a recent window display featured vintage George Cleverley bespoke shoes from the personal collection of its directors. With its sharply suited salesmen all wearing pochettes in their breast pockets, it could be mistaken for a smart Italian menswear trade show.
Further out, there’s the eight-storey Isetan Men’s department store, which has a basement repository of quality men’s shoes that dwarfs those belonging to many western counterparts.
Nevertheless, classical menswear attracts a niche audience in Japan. This is, after all, the home of street fashion giant Uniqlo and the avant garde designer Yohji Yamamoto; the land where Louis Vuitton first glimpsed the Asian appetite for designer labels. United Arrows and Beams also stock their share of teenager-friendly garments. And yet nowhere else in Asia, and perhaps the world, does classical menswear occupy such a prominent position in the fashion retail spotlight.
“Tokyo has always been a stylish city that appreciated classic styles more than any other Asian city,” says George Glasgow Jr, chief executive of George Cleverley, a London shoemaker that has been selling its multi-thousand pound footwear in Japan for more than 20 years.
Japan’s postwar occupation by the US and the subsequent spread of western influences is part of the reason. “From the start, we were really influenced by American culture, such as Ivy League style,” says Yasuto Kamoshita, creative director at United Arrows, referring to the button-down shirt and penny loafer look favoured on mid-century Ivy League campuses and popularised by Ralph Lauren.
Since kimonos are no longer worn outside of traditional settings, there was “no base of clothes that we could choose from,” says Kojiro Nagumo, a director at Beams. “Italian people may long for English style but [they still] have their own history, while America has Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren.”
A media attuned to craftsmanship in clothing has helped increase Japanese consumers’ knowledge base. While local versions of GQ and Vogue Hommes exist, they vie for readership with more specialist tomes such as Last, a recently launched magazine which covers nothing but shoes across its 100-odd pages, and Men’s Ex, which devotes pages to intricate details such as the difference between Neapolitan, Florentine and Milanese suit styles.
Thanks to the detailed nature of such publications, “people will grow more sophisticated and intelligent,” says Nagumo. “Seeing famous pictures on the internet may help people dress in a trendy way, but people want to think about originality in dressing too.”
In these magazines, the archetypal models aren’t teenagers in skinny jeans, but dapper, besuited fortysomethings such as the actor Masahiro Motoki and icons of the past like Winston Churchill. This is partly a reflection of Japan’s rapidly greying population – magazines follow their readers as they mature, and those who began flicking through style glossies in the 1990s are now well into middle age.
“Compared to five years ago, the models are getting older,” says Kamoshita, who notes that many popular male models are in their forties and fifties. “Older models look mature and cool.”
Label tags on jacket sleeves provide a good example of how Japanese brands look beyond the surface. Unlike in many other countries, the tags on jackets don’t scream out their designer pedigree. Instead, labels like “Reid & Taylor” and “Vitale Barberis Canonico” reflect the fabric from which the jackets are cut.
The most recent trend, if such a term can be used in classical clothing, is “classico Italia”. At United Arrows, bestsellers include ties from Milan’s Nicky, trousers from Italian cult brand Incotex and garments from Fiono, a small atelier in Como. Ring Jacket, an Osaka-based tailor with a similar aesthetic, also sells well.
“It is in this path that in the past five to six years, a three-button, side-vent, soft construction [model] has gained popularity as the basic business suit,” says Beams’ Nagumo. “Many Japanese enjoy such styles because they are comfortable and easy to wear. It’s very slowly becoming a huge market.”
That may be because they take a common approach to the price point. Says Nagumo: “Compared to a high-end watch, wine or car, it’s quite cheap to get maximum quality in clothing.”