Yoshio Sadasue at the VAN Jacket Inc. offices in 1973 (courtesy of Kamakura Shirts)

Ametora Interviews: Yoshio Sadasue of Kamakura Shirts

Yoshio Sadasue is the Founder and Chairman of Japanese apparel company Kamakura Shirts. Long before starting the company with wife Tamiko, Sadasue worked at legendary Ivy style brand VAN Jacket from 1966 until its 1978 bankruptcy. I sat down with Mr. Sadasue back in January 2013 to learn more about working at VAN Jacket and its legacy on the Japanese menswear market.

How did you end up at VAN Jacket?
I joined VAN Jacket in 1966 at age 25. My father’s clothing shop in Hiroshima was an official VAN Jacket retailer, the best selling shop throughout the Chūgoku Region and Western Japan.

After college, I got a job as an electrical engineer. But I eventually decided that I wanted to be a merchant like my father, and he told me to join VAN. During college, I was so focused on studying that I never made time to think about style, but he was able to use his influence to get me a job at VAN.

When I joined in April 1966, VAN was not a very big company yet. But the products were flying off the shelves. Things that came in in the morning would be all be gone by the afternoon.

I stayed at VAN for 12 years, from 1966 to the bankruptcy on April 6, 1978.

What did you work on when you first entered VAN?

I was in charge of distribution. I was not very stylish so they threw me in the warehouse. I worked there for six years. That allowed me to know all the clothing that came in and what was selling well.

When did you first hear about VAN Jacket?

When I was studying at college, my father told me that his store was going to become a franchise of VAN Jacket, and that the guy who ran the brand, Kensuke Ishizu, was redesigning his store. The new store was supposedly very beautiful, but since I was in Tokyo studying, I didn’t really know what was going on. So when I got home, I was shocked. The store was gorgeous, and the goods on sale were very fashionable.

What kind of clothes did you personally wear before entering VAN?

During college, my father would send whatever was leftover from the store each season to me at my dorm. Sometimes the top and bottoms didn’t match.

I mostly wore a simple cotton blouson jacket, and I had these bulky jeans that were so stiff you almost couldn’t put them on. I hated them, so often I just wore the pants from my suit. I also wore a British-style dress shirt. There were a lot of shirts like that in the market, made for businessmen.

But at the time there was no such thing as “style.” No one sold style, and no one was conscious of how to coordinate clothing. It was just: a top, pants, a white shirt, a necktie with a print or not. No one at the time knew anything about dressing stylishly or dressing cool.

What was the apparel industry like in the early 1960s?

The war had just ended, and there was no real apparel industry. Wholesalers out in the countryside just made copies of whatever they could find. There were no clothing stores, just meriyasu-ya that sold T-shirts, underwear, and pajamas.

Businessmen went to tailors. From the Meiji Period onward, there were 60,000–70,000 tailors in Japan who made British-style suits. So you’d break up the suit, just wearing the jacket or just wearing the pants with a shirt. Or the pants with a knit vest or cardigan.

Fabric was expensive. All the textiles made by Japanese spinning companies would be exported, so there was very little good wool for clothing. Most of it had to be imported from Europe.

VAN Jacket company retreat in the late 1960s (courtesy of Kamakura Shirts)

Why did VAN’s American style, rather than European style, catch on in Japan?

Most of the films we watched were American. When we watched American movies, we were amazed by the lavish American lifestyle. This was a time when the average Japanese home didn’t have an electric refrigerator. No one had butter or cheese in their icebox. And so in American films, the characters would open the door to the fridge, and it was like, wow.

Young people had great aspirations towards America. And right at the time when everyone decided they wanted to catch up to the American lifestyle, VAN introduced Ivy clothing to young people. That lit the flame, and sales exploded.

What were VAN’s first hit items?

Shirts, chino pants. Shetland and lambswool V-neck and crewneck sweaters. Cardigans. The most basic items sold well.

We sold suits at the time, but they didn’t sell well because they were expensive and kids did not really go out in suits. People only wore VAN suits at New Years or for big events like o-miai (matchmaking dates). Most preferred a navy blazer with cotton or flannel trousers.

Japan is very humid. I would expect cotton to sell best.

Yes, we sold a lot of cotton sweaters with the same design as the wool sweaters. Or madras and seersucker jackets. Shorts also sold very well.

Was it a radical thing to sell clothing to teenagers at that time?
Yes. No one ever thought to sell to youth. Kids didn’t really work part time jobs like they do now, so they had no money. But Ishizu felt like he had to target youth for his brand to expand.

The problem was that the clothes were very expensive. So he first targeted the children of wealthy families.

Did you start to wear VAN clothing when you became an employee?

When I joined VAN, I had no money, and since I had only worked as an engineer, I didn’t know anything about clothes. Honestly, everyone made fun of me at work. But when I would go out in a VAN outfit — madras blazer and bermuda shorts — people would turn their heads as I walked by. I could suddenly get into clubs for rich people and exclusive hotel pools even though I didn’t even have ¥100 to my name. They’d see my clothes and let me in. I’d only be able to afford a single Coca-Cola all day but when I wore VAN I looked rich. I would wear the VAN badge on my blazer, and everyone would look back and say, ‘Do you work at VAN?’ I was suddenly very popular.

When I wore VAN, I looked rich. I think that’s why Ishizu’s strategy worked. VAN’s strategy brought together the desire to be rich and the desire to catch up to America.

So how did the Miyuki Tribe afford to wear VAN?

The Miyuki Tribe kids were all spoiled brats. They had money, ate good food, and could buy nice things. Only rich people could go to Ginza cafes and drink tea. When the Miyuki Tribe appeared, they looked like a group of rich kids.

Normal kids who had no money, saw all of that and aspired to join the Miyuki Tribe. So they’d save up, buy something from VAN, and then be accepted into the group. A lot of people wearing VAN bought a lot of it as a way to get in the group.

They all showed off their clothes in Ginza, like a fashion show. It was a very peculiar scene. Ivy style — madras shorts and long socks and coin loafers — was very unique clothing at the time. You couldn’t wear it to work or school. No matter how many times people saw the Miyuki Tribe’s clothes, they would say, Are you all crazy? Finally the PTA and school boards started pressuring VAN to not sell clothing to teens.

And schools started banning button-down shirts.

Yes. The rich cult who wore VAN was ballooning into a really big business, and all the parents and mothers saw these kids in clothing they had never seen before and said, what is this button attached to the collar, it’s wrong!

So they banned button-down shirts. Some kids took off the buttons so they could wear the shirts to school. Schools also banned the VAN shopping bags. All the grown-ups thought bringing the shopping bags to school would get in the way of studying.

Even with that, though, it’s hard to imagine now that the Miyuki Tribe would be a law enforcement issue.

Yes, it sounds unbelievable now, but at the time there was no such thing as “clothing” (fuku). At work, you had to wear a navy blue suit with white dress shirt and black plain toe shoes. No wingtips, no penny loafers. You couldn’t wear button-down collars. Wearing a pink shirt was inconceivable, and even blue was questionable.

Yoshio Sadasue dancing (in middle front) at a VAN Jacket party. (courtesy of Kamakura Shirts)

In Japan, Ivy became very much about the rules, compared to America, where it was a nearly unconscious style.

The Japanese didn’t know about Western clothes, so we’d have to tell them, save up money, buy a button-down shirt, then buy this kind of tie, then this kind of vest, then a jacket. For a navy jacket, you need gray pants. If you didn’t teach them piece by piece, they’d go off into some crazy direction.

So Ishizu wrote and introduced to Japan a rule book of when, where, what to wear. And he brought together the VAN franchisees and taught them how to coordinate VAN Jacket clothing. That way, the owner of the store would be able to say to a customer who didn’t know much about clothing, that jacket doesn’t match that vest nor those pants. And you have to wear shoes like this, and you can’t wear white socks with a suit. VAN stores passed on all that knowledge — based on rules.

What was the office culture like at VAN?

VAN was called the “Ishizu School.” Ishizu thought that people learned more quickly and could bring out their true talents when they were having fun. So he said that VAN should be everyone’s playground: they should do what they want, even start up new companies.

How did VAN change the Japanese clothing business?

VAN was the first time that fashion became a business, so it became the first business model for apparel. Wholesalers used to just take the shirts, sweaters, jackets, and pants made at some other factory and sell them to a retailer, but from VAN they learned that if they infused them with the consciousness of Western fashion, they could charge much higher prices. This caused a rush of businesses into the apparel industry. A lot of companies appeared that copied VAN Jacket — “three letter companies.” [ed.: JUN, JOI, JAX, YAN etc.] They made the same things cheaper than VAN and that led to a market boom.

By the way, the word “apparel” (アパレル) wasn’t even used in Japanese until about 1966, I believe. Before that you just talked about tonya (問屋, wholesale merchants).

Tell me about the VAN franchise stores.

VAN Jacket started in Ōsaka, and then opened some stores around the Ōsaka area — one store per year. Ishizu always made sure to do it in a way where there would be no competition between stores, and each store could prosper. He always took extreme care in choosing which stores could sell VAN, looking for ones that would order a lot of product, pay on time, and were run by people with an extremely strong sense of management. So there would be one store in Takamatsu, one in Tokushima, two in Hiroshima, one in Okayama.

I guess my father happened to pass the interview, and Ishizu allowed him to sell VAN. And once the goods sold well, VAN helped him build a new store.

But as VAN’s revenues needed to increase, they went from just one store per city to three. Then four. Slowly the sales for each store started to go down — and then it all took a turn for the worse.

Didn’t Tadashi Yanai from UNIQLO’s father also have a VAN shop near your father’s?

Yanai’s father’s company Ogōri Shōji had a shop called Men’s Shop OS in Ube, Yamaguchi. He saw my father’s store and went to VAN and asked to become a franchisee.

Tadashi Yanai helped out at OS as a college student, so he knows VAN and Ivy really well. That’s why UNIQLO’s merchandising uses Ivy as the starting point. And when VAN went belly up, Yanai realized that he couldn’t keep Men’s Shop OS like it was. So he started Fast Retailing.

Did VAN face competition from American imports?

Real American brands didn’t start showing up until VAN went bankrupt. Brooks Brothers came in 1979. Gant came in 1991.

In the 1970s, Onward Kashiyama went to NY to make a partnership with J. Press in order to compete against VAN. They continued to work together even after VAN went under.

The trading company Nichimen [currently Sojitz] went out and quickly got the license to McGregor, but they only really sold golf gear like jackets and chinos. McGregor didn’t get into the business of doing total fashion coordination like VAN.

Didn’t VAN have a Gant license at some point?

Toyobo had the license to make GANT and sublicensed GANT’s shirts to VAN.

Yoshio Sadasue in Hawaii, 1974 (courtesy of Kamakura Shirts)

How was Kensuke Ishizu as a business manager?

Ishizu did not like the idea of organizations or management. So none of the early VAN employees understood accounting very well. The plan was always, just make the clothes you want to make by the deadline, have them all sell out, and then everyone would go drinking. That worked well for a while, but then the company got bigger and bigger, and when that strategy stopped working, VAN needed better management and auditing. That made tur company stricter and stricter.

By that point though, Ishizu was interested in his new businesses, like Orange House (interior goods shop), Green House (gardening store), the VAN 99 Hall (a theater). He bought a farm. He would only get involved in the businesses founded by employees pursuing their personal dreams. For example, he helped someone import the Italian furniture brand Arflex. That made all the employees start to dream about doing the next thing. And even those new ventures did well, so everyone thought, whatever we do will make money.

Meanwhile, the management team decided to make VAN a ¥100 billion company. But you can’t get to that scale just through marketing. You have to know how to stock goods, and no one in the company knew how to do that.

Maybe Ishizu thought, since I’m just selling American style, I don’t need to think deeply about the core business ethics — sales will solve all of our problems. If you start from there, though, you’ve never thought about what to do when sales go down. Everyone just assumes that you’ll have strong sales forever. So when VAN’s revenues started going down, everyone was confused. That’s not supposed to happen. Ishizu was a superstar as a creator, a designer, and someone who could read future trends. But he was a total washout at “management.”

Did VAN go beyond Ivy League clothing in the 1970s?

We knew that Ivy was a temporary trend, and people would tire of it. In the late 1960s, when London’s Carnaby Street was popular, we worked with a department store in Florence, Italy to introduce the Mod look and European fashion under the brand Mr. VAN. When the “jeans revolution” happened and hippie style came in, VAN helped bring jeans to Japan by starting Wrangler Japan with Toyobo and Mitsubishi. That was 1973. And when the department stores would not sell jeans, VAN started a lot of specialist retailers like Shop & Shops.

Whatever the case, we knew we needed to move beyond just being VAN, which was 70% of our sales. But as much as we tried to create a brand bigger than VAN, we couldn’t get anything going.

In the mid-1970s, the hippies ushered in an austerity boom and a jeans boom, and fashion was going a little crazy. Renown started to rule the menswear world by selling D’urban suits with [French actor] Alain Delon. That hit perfectly since all the housewives loved him and wanted to turn their husbands into him. Renown suits sold like crazy.

From there, Ivy lost its electricity and charm. VAN’s only saving grace was that it was famous. All the people who had worn VAN in their youth became adults and felt like VAN was their “hometown.”

What was Ivy fashion like in the 1970s?

Ivy ultimately came to be called “PTA fashion” because it was the clothes that your father and mother would be most relieved to see you wearing. The clothing was interesting but not really that strange anymore. In the early years, the Miyuki Tribe and Roppongi Tribe were called delinquents, but a decade later, their eccentric style became the most basic look that your parents liked. And that meant Ivy no longer functioned as “fashion.” And that also meant that VAN did not need to be the one making it. Anyone could make it — it was just a button-down shirt with cotton pants with a jumper and sweater and navy jacket. Any company could imitate that. That is when VAN’s brand power started to decline.

I think Kent (VAN’s adult-oriented labe run by Toshiyuki Kurosu) went to about ¥5–6 billion, but all the other brands went under completely. Mass merchandisers said that they wanted to sell VAN, so we made a sub-brand called VANred with a red label. We sold that at [big box retailer] Yokado. From there the name VAN became really obsolescent. And everyone at VAN knew it.

When did things start to go bad financially?

From when I joined in 1966 to about 1976, sales were really good. The peak was ¥13.5 billion, but we were supposed to hit ¥30 billion. And we started selling so much stuff that everything got crazy.

Our goods always sold well at department stores, so there were almost never any returns. Then we told them, you don’t have to buy anything anymore, we’ll just do consignment. And everything was still selling well there, so we’d never see any returns.

But outside of the big cities, we would bring them 100 things and they could only pay for 70. So the Tokyo sales team started taking everything to department stores. But then every department store had VAN, which increased the competition, and goods started coming back. And then the returns went way beyond expectations.

But with the need to get sales up, they started to make even more stuff and then even more came back. That vicious cycle started from 1976.

Yoshio Sadasue (courtesy of Kamakura Shirts)

What have you learned from VAN Jacket for your own business, Kamakura Shirts?

When I decided to do things myself, it was 1991, and I started the store in 1993. At first, I only sold shirts, but I slowly added jackets and pants until I sold the full wardrobe. Menswear goods sell extremely slowly, so if you expand too quickly, you’ll go bust. The same thing happened to VAN Jacket.

Right now order-made shirts makers like Kamakura Shirts sell shirts in many colors, but is that a recent thing?

Button-downs finally received true citizenship in the early 1980s when Ivy fans all said, we want to wear them to work! But no one really made them in Japan. If you went to a shirts store, they could make a button-down, but they didn’t sell them at department stores. They were only about 5% of all shirts. All the shirt makers who made button-downs failed. For a long time, everyone thought that you couldn’t sell button-downs.

After VAN went under, I think people started to better appreciate VAN’s clothing. When I started my shirt store in 1993, I thought I would succeed if I made button-down shirts. I knew that VAN Jacket once sold 600,000 button-down shirts in a year, so people must still want button-down shirts. That’s why I made my little shop.

Right now, what percent of the shirts sold at Kamakura Shirts are button-down collar?

Around 40%.

What is the legacy of Kensuke Ishizu and VAN Jacket in Japan today?
Ishizu created the entire business of fashion brands and brought forward the very idea of selling “lifestyle.” He was the one who realized that you can’t just sell clothes, you have to sell the whole atmosphere around them.

After the bankruptcy in 1978, 1,000–1,500 really well-trained people at VAN went into other apparel companies. Those companies didn’t really understand fashion very well, and suddenly, they had someone from VAN Jacket, who was treated like a god. Ishizu was responsible for nurturing and training all these people. After the bankruptcy, he felt responsible to the people who graduated from VAN and invited anyone to come by his office to see him.

I think Mr. Ishizu was a one-in-a-century person for the apparel industry. He did something revolutionary. He invented the thing called the “fashion business.”