The Japanese Bespoke Symposium, Tokyo

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Wednesday, May 29th 2019
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I was more nervous than usual at this, our first Symposium in Japan.

Partly I think it was because of the speakers: sitting alongside Kamoshita-san (above) is intimidating for anyone. But mostly it was cultural.

I was very conscious of being the only person on stage that didn’t speak Japanese, and so we organised the talk with parallel translation. The speakers were translated for me as they answered, which meant the audience didn’t have to wait while everything was repeated.

Fortunately that seemed to work well, and no one minded my short questions being translated.

Interestingly, a lot of the discussion also centred around cultural issues.

The aim of the talk was to discuss the state of Japanese bespoke menswear. We had three craftsmen there to give their first-hand opinions: Noriyuki Ueki of Sartoria Ciccio, shirtmaker Masanori Yamagami and shoemaker Yohei Fukuda.

And then four others with different perspectives:

  • Journalist Kanae Hirasawa from Japanese magazine Men’s Ex, who has written on bespoke for years;
  • Yosuke Kagami, who is the head of bespoke at department store Mitsukoshi and so organises the visits of Cifonelli, Henry Poole and others;
  • Author Yoshimi Hasegawa (above);
  • and Yasuto Kamoshita, creative director of United Arrows but also a customer of many bespoke makers in Japan and abroad.

The talk was about culture because we quickly started with things that made the Japanese suited to being craftsmen.

All the speakers agreed that there is a tendency for Japanese to be detail-orientated, perhaps slightly insular and focused. Ueki (above) laughed and said “Yes, I was that kid playing intensely with my train set. It doesn’t feel that different to being a cutter, head down and focused.”

Yamagami (below) described how he taught himself to make shirts, buying bespoke ones online and rigorously taking them apart and putting them together again.

In fact reassuringly for an anxious westerner, all the clichés about the Japanese seemed to be true. Including mimicry: importing foreign things, copying them, and then rigorously improving them.

Over the past 50 years that’s happened in areas as diverse as electronics, denim and car making, and the speakers agreed that this had been true in shoemaking in particular too.

How about being overly modest? That was a trait I commented on last time I visited Japan: that every artisan, no matter how good they were, would say at some point that they couldn’t be as good as the Europeans they trained under.

Again, yes, this was broadly true. Yamagami said he had to fight against that all the time, because shirtmaking is not as well known, and he needed to do more self-promotion. But it didn’t come naturally.

The biggest point that I think speakers disagreed with was the size of the Japanese domestic demand for bespoke.

From the outside, it’s easy to assume that lots of Japanese buy bespoke: after all, there are 40+ bespoke shoemaking brands in Tokyo alone, and the vast majority don’t travel outside the country. Someone must be buying the shoes.

Fukuda (above) pointed out that nearly all of these are single artisans, so the number is a little deceptive. And also that many of them do things like run shoemaking schools, to supplement their work.

Indeed, Kanae (above) made a point which I hadn’t realised, which was that most Japanese still see suits and shoes as inherently western clothing, and therefore something westerners must be better at.

There is still a premium set on western products from this point of view, in everything including bespoke.

Kanae also said that the education level of Japanese consumers around bespoke is very low: as in the US, there is little tradition around the phrase ‘bespoke’, and as a result most see it as meaning anything that is made to order.

Kamoshita was characteristically thoughtful with his answers. He had been like that when we did our film for The Style Guide book two years ago, and again everything was carefully considered and slowly spoken.

This was most powerful when he talked about the future of Japanese bespoke.

In his opinion and that of Kagami (below), Japanese makers will only survive if they can go abroad. The demand at home isn’t enough, and it will go in and out of fashion.

Artisans need a clearer house style, which they can promote and customers will identify with. And they need to communicate better – including speaking better English – in order to deal with foreign consumers. It was a constructive outlook, but sobering.

On the point of house style, I asked the makers whether they thought there was, or could be, a Japanese style of tailoring, shoemaking or shirtmaking. Not just quality and details, but a cut and an aesthetic.

The general agreement was that it was emerging, but it needed the next generation to really make it happen.

This is because most of the masters such as Fukuda and Ueki learnt their skills abroad, under the auspices and styles of English or Italian makers.

It was only now these masters were training apprentices of their own, in Japan, that a domestic style could start to emerge.

Flatteringly, towards the end a couple of the speakers asked my opinion about how Japanese bespoke is viewed in the West.

I said it’s generally seen as both very high quality and rather exotic – which surprised the speakers. Rather like my ideas of domestic demand in Japan, it seems the external view often exaggerates the positive. Something amplified by social media.

Mark Cho of The Armoury (below), who was in the audience, also made the point that Japan’s sheer distance meant that few people had travelled there, and even fewer had been enough to use Japanese artisans. As a result, it still seemed rather glamorous and attractive.

Mark and David Marx were two of the attendees to ask great questions, and it was lovely to have them plus friends like Ethan Newton, Seiji McCarthy and Benedikt Fries in the audience.

There were also a lot of Japanese makers and buyers, such as Tomoyoshi Takada, whom I interviewed at Beams the following day.

It all went well. The audience liked it, the sponsors Thomas Mason were happy, and my complete lack of Japanese didn’t stand in the way.

Unfortunately the video coverage we planned didn’t work out, but hopefully this post gives some sense of the discussion and the atmosphere.

Thank you to all the readers in Japan that came along – including some very long-term ones, which was both surprising and gratifying.

Next stop on the Symposium tour, probably New York in the Autumn. See you there.

Photography: Ko Tsuchiya @kotsuchiya

Illustration: Adrian Hogan @adehogan

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Joshua SImmons

That sounds as though it was a truly wonderful experience! I am currently stationed in Northern Japan and would have loved to have attended this event. I can appreciate and even sympathize with the idea that due to the “remote” nature of Japan that their bespoke work carries a mystic appeal to the Western sartorialist. I hope that the work of the artisans of this nation has its craft exported to the corners of the world and the wardrobes of fellow gentlemen.

Robin

There’s just something about sartorially minded Japanese and Swedish men and how they dress .

One thinks of soft tailoring , clean, simple and looking very comfortable .

I would love to experience Japanese tailoring .
I always envision the Japanese look as being one more for the spring/ summer weather .

P.S. I wonder how Japanese tailoring (RTW , MTM) transposes onto western men given that the Japanese do tend to be shorter in stature ? Or would it even be an issue ?

annonymous

My experience with japanese RTW denim indicates they don’t translate western dimensions well. For jeans, they just lengthen the leg without realizing tall men will also likely have longer lower torse/hips. So the result is even their “high rise” jeans are still low to mid rise on tall Westerner.

Anon

I wonder how effectively Japanese tailoring can travel compared to other areas such as denim or workwear – the things Japanese artisans bring to the table can be more clearly identified in areas where fashion allows for more drastic design choices, or (in the case of denim), where the material and craftsmanship is ingrained in the making. Why would a European customer go to a travelling Japanese tailor above a British/French/Italian tailor? All three countries produce demonstrably different cuts and styles, with significant variances between the various house styles. Would a strong focus on detail be enough for a Japanese tailor to make headway in Europe? Are they even looking at the European market – or Kamoshita talking about the US and North/South Asia markets?

Gonzague

Style is key to me too but is it really to most bespoke aficionados? Comments I read every day on this blog suggest that many focus on construction, finishings and look for the most classic style possible.
And as the Japanese seem to be gifted for learning from others, maybe they can do without a style and fill a gap in the market by being that tailor that can execute whatever the customer asks for (English, Italian,…), with unrivaled making.

Lee

for me the appeal for buying Japanese bespoke would be the reputation for attention to detail.

John

Hi Simon,
This was a very interesting initiative! Thanks for sharing.
How things would look like if we factored in what we currently witness as an internationalization of tastes?
John

John

Yes! It seems to me that there is less and less wiggle room for drastic innovations in menswear, even in the area of bespoke.

Tung

The reverence for their seniors and teachers, even if their work is objectively superior (not that it’s always the case), is something that always fascinates me about Japanese craftsmen.

I am in the process of having a jacket made by Tomohiro Suganuma (Sartoria Silvano, trained with Ciccio and Jun under Pascariello), and in our initial meeting he unreservedly praised Ciccio’s work when I mentioned it. This stands in stark contrast with tailors or shop owners who are too eager to tell you that what everyone else’s doing is wrong and what they’re doing is the right way.

Matt

The Japanese are a conscientious and intelligent people and I admire them greatly, but I don’t think, realistically, they can make any headway into the Western bespoke market. Distance would be too great of a barrier and the product wouldn’t offer anything that doesn’t already exist.

John Plummer

Insightful post Simon, and great to have a post regarding global bespoke trends beyond London. As someone that has lived in Asia (China) for 5 years, the Japanese are truly master crafts people and dedicate themselves wholly to whatever they are doing (also why Japanese food is so good!); even to the extent – in some instances – of prioritising pride in their work over profit. A great point that is made here though is their inward-looking nature, and tendency towards modesty; even when they know they are good, they rarely self-promote. I sincerely hope though that in the future there is a mechanism to introduce foreign clients to the masters in Japan.

Quick question: did you observe any specific design/style points that are unique to Japanese tailors, especially regarding suits? I can imagine they go for a very clean/simple cut, in which case the selling point of a Japanese tailor is probably their craftsmanship and attention to detail?

Again, great post.

CDBPP

What a lovely, life affirming column. I have bought watches in Japan and also Ring Jacket off the rack, but nothing bespoke.
I commend you for this effort. Are there any tailors you would recommend in Tokyo ? Either fully bespoke or the made to measure departments of other brands.

Nick

Hi Simon, do you by any chance know who made Kamoshita’s suit? And also what is the suit you are wearing?

Peter

I always found that my Japanese colleagues and apprentice to be dedicated to their work – sure they love to party but their dedication to craft seemed to be an inherent part of their being.
I still use a pair of scissors that were given to me by a tailor who was returning to Tokyo – the British equivalent product just doesn’t compare.