John Lawrence Sullivan was a legendary Irish-American boxer and one of the last champions of bare-knuckle fighting during the late 19th century. How he would feel about his name being used for a men’s fashion label over 120 years later – and half a world away – one can only guess. Japanese pro-boxer-turned-fashion-designer Arashi Yanagawa certainly hopes the so-called ‘Boston Strong Boy’ would approve: he named his distinctive menswear brand John Lawrence Sullivan out of respect for the latter’s infamous power and tenacity. After boxing for 13 years – four at professional level – Yanagawa transferred his attention to the arena of fashion. The self-taught designer started with a collection of just three pieces: one T-shirt, one jacket, and one pair of pants. But within 10 years, he was showing in Paris alongside some of fashion’s biggest names. “There is a sense of pressure and nervousness doing a show there,” he says. “People are free to give their honest opinion in Paris. Good is good and bad is bad.” As a result Yanagawa has learned to welcome straightforward feedback and channel it to reinvigorate his designs. If Paris is the big match, then Tokyo is his training gym. Designers from all over the world visit every year to find inspiration from its obsessive early adopters. Most visitors merely scratch the surface, seeing only what the city chooses to reveal to them. Yanagawa, on the other hand, has lived here since he moved from his hometown of Hiroshima aged 17. Immersed in the city ever since, he absorbs and understands not only its juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, but also the way conservatism and experimentalism harmoniously coexist here. This is Yanagawa’s edge – the spark to the unexpected designs of his label: the lines of classic tailoring, brought to life with confident dashes of colour and eye-catching details. In 2011, he ventured into womenswear, an opportunity, he says, to showcase his boldest ideas. “Some of my extreme silhouettes would be too much for men. But I started thinking they could work for women,” he explains. John Lawrence Sullivan now has three standalone stores in Japan. The Tokyo shop opened in 2008 in the Naka-Meguro neighbourhood and its stark concrete design is a reflection of Yanagawa’s own strength of character. “I don’t think there are many people who have moved from boxing to fashion,” he says, although he’s quick to add that the two vocations are not as dissimilar as they may appear. The long months he once spent training for a big match were good preparation for the dedication required to cope with the lead-up to a fashion show. “You spend half a year getting ready for something that only lasts a few minutes, and then you start all over again from the beginning,” says Yanagawa. “I think in a sense my two worlds have a similar rhythm.”
Honma Saketen is not for everyone. In truth, it’s for rather few people. Proprietor Fujio Honma doesn’t sell any of the delicate, fragrant stuff that most people think is sake – superficial he calls it – and he refuses to stock anything by Japan’s best-known breweries. “Those big guys are motivated by profit,” he says. “But I search for people with this…” he says, and he pounds his fist against his heart. Honma buys from just 20 artisan makers, and his inventory is a poke in the eye of sake orthodoxy. Take the conventional wisdom on polishing rice: it’s said that the more you mill, the better the resulting sake. When a brewer strips away 40 per cent of the grain, he can call the drink ginjo (literally: ‘brewed with care’). If he removes at least 50 per cent, he’s making daiginjo (‘brewed with the utmost care’). So what should be made of Okuharima Yamahai from Hyogo Prefecture? It’s fabulously earthy, with hints of stewed apples and melon – and it’s made with rice whose grain is reduced by just 20 per cent. Honma says good rice doesn’t need to be polished as much, that the minerals in the outer layers add complexity when you’re ageing a bottle. He’s a fan of aged sake, all dark and pungent with caramel notes, although he concedes it’s still a niche interest in Japan. More heretically, he likes to mature unpasteurised sake. Textbooks and retailers will tell you the untreated stuff should be refrigerated and drunk within weeks, but Honma disagrees. “Open a bottle, drink a bit to make space for some air, then leave it at room temperature so the yeasts come alive,” he says. “Don’t put it in the fridge or it’ll never develop. You’ll notice a difference after two or three days, but you can leave it for years if you have the discipline not to drink it.” He says if the sake is well made, with lightly milled rice and lots of acidity, it will develop deeper, wilder flavours. “It goes against all common sense, and I don’t know how it works, but the sake just opens up.” Honma inherited the shop from his father. At the time it was a general liquor store, but discount retailers were crushing him in the beer market, and he’s never had a taste for wine, so he focused instead on sake. It was a purely commercial decision, until he visited the Shinkame Brewery near Tokyo, tried a 12-year-old brew, and realised there was a world beyond the big, clean, commercial stuff. He set out to find people who, like him, care more about flavour than finance, sniffing out bold, full-bodied drinks packed with umami. As a result, Honma has an unusually tight relationship with his brewers. It’s a relationship that he describes as being like a lovers’ bond. They shower him with gifts, like the first option on full tanks of sake, or exclusive rights to very special releases. In return, he … Read More
When first encountered, the collection on display at bleeding edge fashion brand Anrealage appears misnamed. It’s called ‘Colour’, but the room is white: the table, the chair, the flowers, the rug and, most importantly, the clothes. Everything is white. The shop assistant moves. He fades the lights, and switches on a high-intensity, full-spectrum white light in the centre of the room. Slowly, out of the white fabric, swathes and stripes in pink, yellow and turquoise develop on the clothes and furnishings. Minutes later, when normal conditions return, the colours slowly fade away. But this is not just a party trick. “When people look at my work, I want them to think: ‘I didn’t know clothes could do that,’” says designer Kunihiko Morinaga. “I want them to be blown away.” Morinaga is inspired, as were the Impressionist painters, by changing light. And with the Colour collection, he wants to emphasise how colour can be a subjective experience. “Look at the silver case of this laptop in fluorescent light. It looks different from how it does in daylight, and different still from how it does in near darkness.” The Colour collection’s photochromic fabric, which uses the same dye technology as self-adjusting sunglasses, is an extreme representation of this. Anrealage (think ‘a real’ + ‘unreal’ + ‘age’) started in Tokyo in 2003, but burst on to the international fashion scene when Morinaga’s meticulous hand-stitched patchwork won the 2005 grand prize in the avant-garde division of the high-profile Gen Art contest in New York. His standalone shop opened on the outskirts of Harajuku in 2011. Getting there is a journey out of the area’s consumerist madness, to place far less commercial, down a residential backstreet. Just don’t go expecting any particular experience – and certainly not the Colour collection, which will be long gone. Morinaga sees his store as an extension of his clothes, so it gets almost completely redesigned twice a year to match each collection. The design always incorporates a single table and a single chair, but even these change with the season. Re-examining everyday surroundings is one of the main themes running through Morinaga’s work. What invisible structures underpin the things around us? What are we really looking at when we stare into digital screens all day? Morinaga takes these thoughts to extremes to make people take a fresh look at the ordinary. Past collections have focused on rethinking shapes and proportions – with even the mannequins squashed and stretched. The ‘Bone’ collection used laser-cut strips of fabric to expose the clothing’s inner structures. The ‘Low’ collection featured pixelated patterns resembling low-resolution computer images blown up so raw that the floral patterns and scalloped edges looked smooth only from a distance. While some young designers fret over having enough ideas to fill a lifetime of runway shows, Morinaga looks ahead at his future career – 20 years if he’s lucky – and feels quite different. “I think so far I’ve only executed ideas that can be described in words,” he says, … Read More
In Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous spiritual code, there is a concept called ‘nakami’. It means the content, the energy – the life, perhaps – contained even in inanimate objects. Nakami is the spirit that makes something authentic; it cannot be faked. Masaru Sakai and his trove of men’s vintage clothing and accessories have it in spades. A discreet white sign saying simply ‘6’ is all that marks out the stairs that lead to his shop, whose name is pronounced ‘roku’ in Japanese. This is not a place designed to lure the passer-by inside. You need a sharp eye, a stroke of luck, or the recommendation of a friend to even know it exists. Sakai – nicknamed Moose – prefers it that way. He believes fate will guide those who are meant to discover 6. “I like to surprise people in a good way,” Sakai says. “It’s simple: if you and I both find ourselves here, we need to connect, we need to converse.” Just as life lacks lustre when it’s predictable, and fashion lacks fun when everyone dresses the same, discovering a unique store creates a spark of excitement. And in a culture so organised by conformity and routine, there is a special pleasure in the unexpected. Living in New York 15 years ago, passers-by would see Sakai wearing his crazy old kimono, ‘70s Levi’s bellbottoms, and cowboy boots, and they let him know how they felt. Whether a look or a comment, good or bad, there was communication. Sakai vowed to bring that New York character to Tokyo when he opened his shop 10 years ago in the location it exists in today. He chose a digit for the name of his shop, because numbers are “the same in every language.” A Japanese customer can call his shop ‘Roku’, an American can call it ‘Six’, and a Spaniard can call it ‘Seis’. None of them is wrong. Inside 6, each carefully chosen vintage piece has not only a story, but also an energy – the nakami that Sakai felt when he saw and knew it belonged in 6: Just as every tree has substance and life, so each item has been on its own unique journey to 6 – the beautifully aged kimonos, the beaded Korean monk vests, the obscure antique Danish boots, and the well-travelled suitcases. Because of nakami, vintage cannot be replicated. No amount of money spent copying the fabric or the stitch, the shape or the style, can recreate a vintage garment. Each comes from a place and time with different air, soil, and water; and has been imparted over years with the character, the movement and even the scent of the people who have come into contact with it: maker, handler, seller, wearer, user, and Tokyo-vintage-shop owner. Sakai has been on a 20-year global treasure hunt to bring apparel, accessories, and their accumulated tales to 6. Those who seek out this discreet corner of Naka-Meguro have a chance to meet Sakai and hear those stories. And … Read More
Long before their lives became intertwined as partners and co-creators, the international couple behind Tokyo-based fashion brand Volga Volga were already enjoying parallel adventures. Shiori Kurushima, from Japan, was in Paris making haute couture for the Japanese designer Hanae Mori; and Mikhail Panteleev, from Russia, was doing similar work in Tokyo for Yohji Yamamoto. If it were destiny that they would meet, however, the appointment would have to wait. “My French friend knew Mikhail and wanted to set us up,” Kurushima says. “But he couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak his, so it took time for us to come together.” Kurushima and Panteleev were establishing themselves as talented, dedicated fashion designers. In their respective ateliers on opposite sides of the world, they were the ones who would volunteer for extra tasks, often working alone late into the night, cutting patterns or stitching garments. “I wanted to learn everything,” Kurushima recalls of her time working as a ‘premiere main’, a coveted position in charge of hand-sewing entire couture pieces. “The other girls probably thought I was the stereotypical Japanese workaholic.” The brand the couple launched together in 2000 is a union of his designs and her technical skills. In their construction, the garments feel effortless, while in their style they are expressive. From afar, the clean lines and muted colours appear minimalist. But up close, the details and textures evoke a deeper emotion rippling below the surface, like a shout underwater. In Moscow in the 1990s, Panteleev held one of the first-ever fashion shows inside the Kremlin. The spectacle was an impressive way to launch his career, but these days he avoids such productions. “When you’re putting on a show you don’t have time to finish anything properly,” he says. “At this point in our careers, we prefer to give every piece of clothing the attention it deserves.” In Volga Volga’s studio – up a narrow staircase inside an old converted office building in the Bakurocho neighbourhood – sewing tables line one wall, rolls of fabric are stacked at the back, and a show space in the middle is where buyers and walk-in customers can view the collection. In Bakurocho – an area of old Tokyo known colloquially as shitamachi, or the ‘low city’ – they have discovered a sense of kinship with the people, reputed to be unpretentious, hardworking, and loyal. Volga Volga’s shoes often incorporate buttons, ribbons, or buckles made by local artisans with a shared commitment to timeless craftsmanship. “Some of our customers are still using the same garments we made for them 15 years ago,” she says. “When it needs mending, they know they can bring it here, and we’ll give it a another lifespan.” Living together in ‘shitamachi’, Kurushima and Panteleev can follow their own rhythm, commuting to work by bicycle, enjoying a slow lunch at the café next door, and – as has always been their way – working late into the night making beautiful clothes. Only now, the atelier is theirs.
“Connecting people,” says Noriko Konuma, smiling as she sips tea from a white porcelain cup at a naturally-hewn wooden table inside Kumu Tokyo, the intimate design gallery and shop she curates. “It’s all about bringing people together and creating special moments in their daily lives.” In the years since Konuma opened her gallery on a quiet lane in the eastern Bakurocho district in 2015, Kumu (“to connect” in Japanese) has showcased the works of dozens of Japanese creatives, from paper artists and contemporary incense makers to potters and floral designers. She calls them “family”, which makes Kumu their collective home. The small, two-storey structure, renovated by Atelier Etsuko Architects, has a minimal industrial feel, with swathes of original concrete, high ceilings, a warehouse-like window façade and green plants. For Konuma, it’s a very personal space: her family’s businesses previously occupied the building, and she grew up across the street in the same house where her father was born. “The Bakurocho neighbourhood feels different from the rest of Tokyo,” she explains. “There are few big businesses, it’s still very local, and people form friendships naturally.” That openness is attracting a burgeoning creative community, including art galleries and garment makers, ceramics stores and independent cafés. Kumu’s ground floor is home to a shop with a permanent collection of design products – mostly contemporary takes on traditional craftsmanship – and a gallery space hosting up to 15 exhibitions a year. A clean, white upper floor and plant-populated roof terrace host workshops and events. Centre stage in the shop are works by designer Masanori Oji (who also created Kumu’s circular, interwoven logo), from the angular warmth of his metal household fixtures to the clean petal-like lines of his white ceramics. Thick canvas bags by Kurashiki Hanpu and incense handcrafted by Chikako Perez of Tokyo Kodo come encased in ‘washi’ paper by Chiaki Morita – one of several collaborations made possible through Kumu. “It’s not so important that we sell things,” says Konuma, warm, softly spoken and ever-elegant in minimal monochromes. “Of course, sales keep creative techniques alive. But the essential thing is creating new connections, because together these people form the DNA of a Japanese spirit that links the traditional with the future.”