INTERVIEW: W. DAVID MARX ON IVY LEAGUE STYLE, CULTURE, JAPAN, AND HOW TRENDS HAPPEN

TOKYO — W. David Marx is the Tokyo-based author of one of the most exciting books I’ve read this year, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. It is, on its surface, a dissection of how Ivy League style took Tokyo by storm, and the ongoing, post-war fashion dialogue that has existed between the US and Japan in the decades since.

It shows how certain obsessive tastemakers, with an eye for both style and detail, shaped modern Japanese culture, and it also serves, in a deeper sense, as a thoughtful study in on the origin — and life-cycle — of trends. It’s proof that, despite the proliferation of social channels and the lightning-fast dissemination of culture occurring today, there are some timeless truths that still carry through.

In the last 15 years, labels like Visvim have emerged that have blended this in-depth knowledge of Americana and nuanced manufacturing to develop an entirely new formula. For anyone interested in how brands are born, how they develop and grow, and how culture can propel them, Marx’s book is an essential study.

I sat down with David at the Trunk Hotel in Tokyo to further discuss.

What motivated you to write Ametora? How did it begin?

There’s a shoe shine “bar” called Brift H in Tokyo, and I was in there in 2010, when a guy walks in and tells the guy shining our shoes, “Hey look at this copy of Take Ivy signed by all four authors!” And I turned to him and said, “Oh, I just wrote the first English-language article about Kensuke Ishizu,” who was the guy responsible for bringing Ivy League style to Japan in the 1960s. It turned out that the guy with Take Ivy used to work at VAN Jacket, Ishizu’s clothing brand, and offered to introduce me to the Take Ivy authors. After meeting Ishizu’s son, I realized there could be a very interesting book in why and how Ivy League style came to Japan, and why in the world a film crew went in 1965 to make the Take Ivy book.

After talking to a publisher, I realized that there were a lot of mysteries around Japanese fashion: Why did the Japanese make the best denim? How did A Bathing Ape get so big? Why were they buying up all the best vintage American garments in the 1990s? I did my college thesis on A Bathing Ape, and so I knew that part of the story, and realized that I could tie it all together in one single narrative: from the intentional importation of Ivy League style in the 1960s to contemporary Japanese brands like Visvim and Engineered Garments are considered to be making some of the best menswear in the world.

The book is not about Ivy League style; it is a book about how trends happen.

I appreciate you saying that because most people would say — and do say! — Yeah, I don’t want to read a book about oxford-cloth button-down shirts and madras. Ametora is actually, to an embarrassing degree, not about clothing design or the artistry of fashion. The book uses the rise of menswear in Japan as an example of how culture starts from scratch, how brands and media work to push trends, how subcultures reappropriate looks, how globalization works, and how the process of importation/explanation changes the nature of the culture. On that last point, the fact that the Japanese brand VAN Jacket had to bring in Ivy League clothing to a country that had never seen anything like it, meant that they had to explain everything with a bunch of strict rules. Even today, Japanese fashion magazines are very pedantic and specific in their guidance.

I’m more into the sociology of fashion than fashion.

Given the pace of culture today, do the same types of culture undercurrents still exist in the same form?

Yes, in a general sense. The Japanese fashion industry is still very “top-down.” The brands, media, and retailers all work together to push trends in a very orderly way, and consumers follow that order. So trends are much easier to observe in Japan because they are named as trends faster than anywhere else, and so many people adopt the trends precisely as they are suggested.

The main difference between the past and today is that magazines used to have a monopoly on bringing style information from overseas and retailers had a monopoly on importing clothing from overseas. The Internet has made both product and information available to everyone, so it’s slightly more chaotic than before. But there’s a huge difference between “information from Instagram” and “legitimate information about sanctified products from fashion magazines.” The latter has a lot more influence because it’s much safer for imitation. If you follow a magazine, you can’t be criticized for “doing it wrong.”

The big change is that there are barely any Japanese young people left. Youth have never made up a smaller portion of the Japanese population. If you go to Harajuku, it’s mostly tourists, and hard to tell what is “in” among actual Japanese people. Japan is a kind of hub for global fashion production and consumption, but it’s no longer just Japanese consumers that are part of it.

The Japanese interest in American style was a dialogue brought about by trips abroad, dutiful studying, and near obsession. In an Instagram, instant world where everything is available, how are these types of dialogues developing?

It’s changing things, but Instagram is just one fragment of overall globalization. I suspect that Japanese brands will be highly influential in the next decade, but they’ll be selling to a global audience. Japanese youth are a lot less internet-savvy than youth in other countries, and I feel like if it weren’t for non-Japanese photographers like Tokyo Fashion, I don’t know if anyone would even see much of Japanese street style these days. Japan is not really “globalizing” — it’s “being globalized.”

How do you feel Japan developed their interpretations of style, in many ways deeper and more interesting than the American iterations?

For most of the post-war, almost no one was trying to create “new interpretations” of Western-style: They were just trying to make the most authentic garments as possible. But this obsession became so intense — and American brands became so lazy/cheap in the manufacturing process — that Japanese brands ended up surpassing the original in the 1990s. Japanese jeans were higher-quality than anything an American brand ever made. They made the first luxury, artisanal jeans.

In the last 15 years, we have seen the emergence of designers taking this intimate knowledge of American clothing and high-quality manufacturing to do completely new things. You can see the influences of vintage Americana on Visvim or Engineered Garments, but they’re doing a lot of new things that are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Japan is known for craft culture, for attention to detail and obsessive levels of care. What can modern entrepreneurs learn from this? Where would you send a founder for inspiration if they had a few days in Japan?

The average store in Tokyo — even chains like Beams, United Arrows, Ships, or Tomorrowland — is so well put together and detail-oriented, that they still shame most stores overseas. I always assume that stores in New York etc. have caught up, but not really. The sheer amount of product available in Tokyo is also insane. If you want a hand-knit sweater from Scottish brand Inverallan, it’s much easier to get in Tokyo than in Scotland.

I was in Beams Plus a few weeks ago and saw a team of designer/planners from some American brand raiding the store for all design ideas. “Oh, we should totally make this!” If you’re going to do this, I implore you to be more discreet. This was pretty shameful.

Streetwear culture has surged. What do you find interesting about the Bathing Ape story. And will it ever be fully back?

I first stumbled onto A Bathing Ape in 1998, and the experience of waiting in line three hours to buy a limited-edition $70 T-shirt was so insane to me at the time that it very literally changed the direction of my life. I spent the next decade just obsessed with all the factors that would make this possible: that kids would line up like that and fork over so much money, the reseller economy, the degree the media was directing trends, etc. But in 2001, I would have told you that this was never going to be anything but a Japan-only thing. What is interesting to me is how Supreme took the Bape model (which was an escalation of the Stussy model) and took it all to the next level on a global stage.

As far as I can tell at this point, A Bathing Ape is a Lacoste-like standard brand that people wear without thinking too much about it. I think the brand has been popular in mainland Asia for about 19 years now, much longer than it was ever popular in Japan. And I’d love someone to make a detailed history on Bape in Asia because I suspect that Asia was the bridge between Japan and the West when it came to hyping Japanese fashion.

How do you think someone like Supreme has held such resonance for so long?

Authenticity-powered status and mastery of the psychological slight-of-hand possible with limited-edition consumerism. When individuals buy something for distinction, and it turns out everyone else has it, they typically abandon it and find something more distinct. But if 10 million people all own a unique product from a brand, they are unlikely to be disappointed with the fact that 10 million people also own the same brand because they other 9.9 million people don’t own the exact same thing. So you can have masses all own the same thing but not think they own the same thing.

What brands are you most excited about today in any category?

I like really small brands doing something that you can’t get anywhere else. My friend Kosuke Harada and his wife run a brand called TUKI that makes really high-quality unisex pants and jeans out of an innovation incubator in Okayama. It’s kind of a cliche that the more you’re into fashion, you stop caring about flashy designs and get really obsessed with material integrity…but TUKI just has amazing textiles and silhouettes.

Otherwise I spend my time in run-down old-timey places in Tokyo that have history and no brand. I have to enjoy them while they still exist before everything serves pancakes.

You have an obsessive eye for how culture develops. Tell me about your new project and what you’re working on.

I’m trying to write a book that explains how and why culture changes — explaining trends, fashion, fads, invented traditions, subcultures, retro, artistic innovation, and the media. I’m making a lot of progress, but it’s about as easy as it sounds… The main thing I’m hoping to do is get everyone on the same page about what “taste” and “culture” even mean.

Finally, where can people find or follow you?

@wdavidmarx on Twitter, @neomarxisme on Instagram and I sometimes update my ’90s-feeling site, wdavidmarx.com.

This was originally published in Lean Luxe.