One of my favorite sentiments to pull out when talking about our friends over on the other side of the world, is that “the Japanese do Americana far better than we ever could.” Of course, it’s a blanket statement holds about as much weight as a bag full of feathers, but nonetheless it sure is fun to say. I first came up with the line during a spur of the moment discussion with a few colleagues about the state of the Japanese vintage market, which by now is probably stocked with more U.S. made deadstock pieces then any of us could even begin to fathom. It’s a cheeky line and makes me seem much more well-versed on the topic than I am, so I’ve kept on saying it, but each time I repeat it, it becomes that much more evident to me just how much of a double-edged sword those ten words are.
I say this because the Japanese relationship with trad (and ivy and prep and all that follows) which began in the postwar era as a mirror image mimicry of brands like Brooks Brothers, and J. Press has now turned toward an extremity that is one part admirably accurate, one part costumey, but mostly out of touch. Instead of evolving on this style, I get the sense that the Japanese have delved deeper into it, veering closer to the early twenty-first century preppy look of deadstock Ivy crewnecks, schoolboy blazers, and repp bow ties, leaving no wide legged trouser uncuffed. While it’s a style that I can respect, quite frankly I don’t have a lot of interest in looking like I’m straight out of an Ivy League campus in the ’30’s, or for that matter a modern-day Rugby lookbook.
Which is why I was relieved earlier this week though when I unearthed this photo series of Japanese youths from the heart of the country’s trad period. There’s less than ten photos but I was instantly reminded as to just how incredible those early decades were. The images were unfortunately not sourced where I found them, but based on the Life tag in the corner, I would suspect that they were taken by photographer Michael Rougier in 1964 as part of a magazine assignment titled “Teenage Wasteland: Japanese Youth in Revolt.” Wearing ribbon belts, tie bars, navy blazers, OCBD’s, white denim, and sweaters tied carelessly across their shoulders, these kids would stay up all night, drinking, taking pills, and reveling in each others company, all backed by a soundtrack of imported jazz records.
What these photos really exposed for me though is that trad also found them. In the above photo, the guy on the left side is wearing a pair of jeans that show off a very clear “VAN” label on them, and this is where the story gets interesting. VAN JACKET was founded in 1951 by Kensuke Ishizu, who like most Japanese men had fought in the war, but unlike most of his peers Ishizu was armed with a rare passion for quality clothing. He had come out of World War Two with a keen interest in American men’s fashion, and so Ishizu slowly began working his way through Japan’s clothing industry, amassing an encyclopedic knowledge along the way until in ’51 it was finally time for him to start his own brand. Taking on a Western approach to clothing design, VAN was one of the first Japanese men’s stores that offered ready-to-wear clothing, but there was just one problem, no one wanted it.
Japanese businessmen were still very much used to buying all their suits made-to-measure, and so Ishizu had a hard time convincing them to shop in his store. But, then one day he found his market in the kids captured in these photos. Japan’s burgeoning youth class was wild, independent, and full of ideas, they were practically an entire movement out to challenge the country’s traditions, yet the one crucial thing they were missing was a distinct style. So, Ishizu decided to package the look for them. Taking from the East Coast Ivy look that he had discovered in the military and been obsessed with ever since, he quite literally tailored trad towards the youth of Tokyo.
The kids ate it up, and as you can see from these Life images, by the mid-sixties trad had caught on in full force. Personally, these photos represent my favorite period of Japanese style because of their simplicity. Everything feels so fresh, Ishizu and VAN had just started out, and there’s an uncluttered beauty to it all. Ishizu and his brand acted as the guiding light, taking the essentials from Brooks, J. Press, and Gant, and faithfully recreating each collar roll, shetland sweaters, repp tie, plimsoll and the 3/2 roll blue blazer. They weren’t trying to cram everything into one look, they just wanted to focus on the details and get each little thing right.
What I also love about these photos is that they come one year before what would become Ishizu’s most well-known work: Take Ivy. In 1963, the magazine Men’s Club (which is one of the greatest style magazines ever, and a predecessor to Free & Easy, Brutus, 2nd, and countless other menswear publications across the world) brought Ishizu on staff as part of a relaunch to cater towards the country’s freshly minted legion of trads. Men’s Club was already trying to capture the style from the Eastern United Statate with extensive spreads and brand profiles, but Ishizu thought they could do one better. In 1965 he brought together a team of photographers and writers to travel to each Ivy League school so they could document the respective styles of each campus. Of course that book would become the proverbial bible of American style, furthering interest in trad across the world and throughout many subsequent revivals. Unfortunately, Ishizu passed away in 2005, while VAN was sold over a decade ago and is now a shell of what it once was (nothing too shocking there), but these photos show that during the sixties Ishizu, VAN, and it’s scores of devoted customers didn’t just do justice to the American trad look, they were quite possibly doing it better than we ever could.