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Obsessions: Japanese menswear with W. David Marx

By Hiroko Yabuki

W. David Marx is, quite possibly, the leading writers in Japanese menswear. The first book of this American-born, Tokyo-based author, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is, without a doubt, one of the best resources to discover the history of the clothing industry in Japan over the last century or so. From the adoption of the American Ivy style to the rise of streetwear, he has always looked at this topic through a socio-economic lens, unearthing more detail and insight than might initially occur. 

His position as an outsider who has intimately familiarised himself with Japanese culture gives him a unique perspective on the country's past and present, which he looks at through the seemingly simple medium of clothing. In doing so, he aims to offer a window into how fashion, culture and history intersect in the country, topics which fascinate Marx, who now resides in Tokyo. We thought it worthwhile to sit down with him, in order to better understand his passion, work and how he lives on a daily basis. 
 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

 Marx surrounded by his vast collection of vintage Japanese magazines.

 

Marx’s well-organised bookcase, in the sunny living room of his home in the suburbs of Tokyo, is literally chocked full of archival issues of old magazines, many of which are sufficiently intriguing to arouse any visitor’s curiosity. We thought this was as good a place as any to start.

 

That is an amazing collection.

I spend a lot of money on these back issues of the magazines. I also buy a lot of books. I can show you my office later, but it's just overflowing.

 

Do you see yourself as a collector?

Not really, those books are all to be read. They're not in order to have a book collection.

 

Whilst you don’t see yourself as a collector, have you ever been tempted to acquire a number of other objects adjacent to your main focus, fashion, like watches?

Good question. To be honest, I only have a few. My parents gave me a Tag Heuer for my high school graduation and I wore that for like 22 years. I recently worked with Grand Seiko and I got this one. I've always liked magazines, as they are full of information. I'm more or less obsessed with uncovering new information, learning, or seeing things from new perspectives. So, I'm not particularly interested in collecting objects per se. 

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author with his Grand Seiko SBGA373 wristwatch with a spring drive in stainless steel for A Collected Man London

 Marx's Grand Seiko SBGA373, based on the design of the 44GS form 1967.

 

In your book, Ametora, you traced the adoption of American fashion in Japan, and how this was embraced and modified in the country, from deviant youths wearing Ivy League style clothing to the Japanese making their own selvedge denim. Could you tell us about how you ended up focusing on the topic?

In 1998, when I was studying at Harvard, I came to Japan for the second time and did an internship at Hotdog Press magazine, which was put out by Kodansha, one of the biggest publishers in Japan. But, back then, I wasn’t familiar with any fashion trends or any aspects of Japanese culture.

I grew up with MTV in Northwest Florida, and my parents occasionally stayed in Japan for work. So I have some gifts from them, like SD Gundam, though I was always more interested in the adverts attached to the toys than the toys themselves. Then, through working for the magazine, I happened to learn about A Bathing Ape, a Harajuku based fashion brand with the iconic print of Cornelius from the movie, Planet of the Apes. I thought it was amazing.

 

Why were you so fascinated by it?

Because those t-shirts cost like $300 and still, Japanese kids were so obsessed with them. Moreover, many of them were selling the t-shirts at secondhand shops immediately after buying them, as some items commanded a premium and could be sold more expensively. To me, it didn't make sense at all.

 

A phenomenon which seems much more common nowadays...

So, I started checking up on the history of Japanese fashion, and finally, I came across the words, Miyuki Zoku (Miyuki tribe), a group of people who used to hang out in Ginza in the 1960s.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

"I always liked magazines, as they are full of information. I'm more or less, very obsessed with uncovering new information..."

 

What did you find out about the group?

The Miyuki tribe was a general term used for those kids who just copied the so called “Ivy style”, wearing pants just up above their ankles and tight blazers. They walked around Miyuki street in Ginza, which was the only nice, high-end place in Tokyo at that time. They suddenly appeared in the summer of 1964, when the town was all set up for the Tokyo Olympics, so international tourists would see them as they were shopping in town. But they were all there, and people thought they would corrupt the public morality, so many of them eventually got arrested one night, basically for just being too cool.

 

So, the “Ivy style” was regarded as immoral at that time?

Exactly.

 

And by that time, was it popular among young people?

Yes, the Japanese Ivy fashion had been imported and coined by this man, Kensuke Ishizu.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author with his collection of vintage Men's Club magazines for A Collected Man London

A small selection of Marx's collection of vintage Men's Club magazines. 

 

And who was he, what did he make? 

Kensuke Ishizu is the godfather of Japanese menswear. Japan had many tailors from the late 19th century, but Ishizu was the first person to create a desirable ready-to-wear brand, VAN. It became the brand of choice for stylish young men across Japan. Ishizu partnered with Men's Club, one of the first menswear magazines in the country, from the beginning and eventually made it a propaganda organ for VAN.

 

How did the brand achieve this success?

In the early 1960s, Ishizu, his son, Shosuke, and Toshiyuki Kurosu retooled VAN to be an "Ivy League" styled brand, and then used Men's Club to explain to readers what Ivy League style was, why it was big in America, and how to dress in the style properly. This, more or less, was the start of youth fashion in Japan. I interviewed both Shosuke Ishizu and Toshiyuki Kurosu and got to hear first-hand all the difficulties they faced trying to create a fashion movement in Japan from scratch.

 

What sort of difficulties did they face?

For example, in 1965, they went to the U.S. to film the movie Take Ivy - which later became a famous book - to show "real" Ivy League campus style to Japanese audiences. However, when they got there, the students dressed way more casually than they had planned and the film almost fell apart right there.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

The tomes where Marx draws a lot of his knowledge. 

 

What else did the magazine do in order to enlighten those unfamiliar with the Ivy style?

They made this mascot character, Ivy Boya (boy) and tried to show the readers what Ivy styles were clearly and visually. Ivy Boya was created by Kazuo Hozumi, one of the earliest Japanese illustrators. Each character here has a name that is made of a play on a word, such as navy blazer and Bermuda shorts. His illustrations were frequently used for advertisements of VAN.

That sounds rather innovative.

The fact is that trends are not organic, but rather defined by the media. People vaguely see styles and just copy them. It looks like everyone’s scanning what they saw though the media, and it’s very explicit. For instance, in the 1960s, the company, VAN Jacket inc. stated, “We’re going to make the Ivy League fashion big”, and just made copies. The first VAN jacket, which was sold in 1959, was a complete copy of Brooks Brother’s No.1 Sack Suit. So, it was already more or less in editorial control.

 

“Kensuke Ishizu is the godfather of Japanese menswear. Japan had many tailors from the late 19th century, but Ishizu was the first person to create a desirable ready-to-wear brand…”

 

How did you come up with the idea of basing a book around that?

I thought Take Ivy was so interesting but, at the same time, no one had a good explanation of why these Japanese men, the editors, went to the United States in 1965 to make a photobook of Ivy league university students. Take Ivy actually came out in English from a Brooklyn-based publisher, powerHouse, in 2010, and it sold really well. So, I spoke to the editor, and they, in turn, asked me why  Japanese were so famous.

 

Like a vintage finish?

Yeah, those kinds of Japanese jeans were popular in the States at that time, but I didn’t know why. So, my idea got expanded, to cover the history of Japanese men's fashion after WWII, from Ivy to streetwear. 

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London
David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

"It looks like everyone’s scanning what they saw though the media, and it’s very explicit..."

 

Did you find any similarity between the gyaru and Ivy cultures?

Absolutely, I think there is a very strong similarity between those two. Actually, I’ve been working on a new book which deals with pop culture from the perspective of socioeconomic classes. Gyaru culture to me is very interesting in that regard too.

 

How exactly?

Just think about Ganguro gals around 1998, the girls who tanned or made up their skin very dark and dirty. This was a strange subculture where everyone was trying to look as extreme as possible. But the trend actually started in 1993, among rich high school students who started tanning themselves correctly. The shift is very similar to the one of Miyuki tribe; it started as an import of a nice middle class fashion from the U.S., but then it got extreme and finally people were arrested.

 

What’s your perspective of collective identity? In general, the Japanese seem to enjoy identifying with a particular movement which is larger than themselves.

Certainly. I think in the United States it is a little bit more diffuse, and if you tell someone “Hey, you're part of this trend, aren’t you?”, they might tell you “No, not me”. But here in Japan, the point is to be different in the same way.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

 A quiet corner in Marx's Tokyo home.

 

Do you think that’s a matter of independence?

I think that there is a criteria. In the West, whatever you do, it's not worth as much if you're not doing it as an individual. If you're dressed in a certain way because that's the expression of your individual belief, that's great. But if you're doing something because someone else gives it value, then it's bad. And so, it's really important for everyone to pretend as if the thing they do is an individual expression. But the truth is, even in the West everyone's copying everyone else. Everything's imitation. Very little of the time, people do things that are actually different.

 

But of course, nobody does.

For example, let’s think about having a wristwatch. That’s what everybody does, but if you have the one rare model, that makes you a little different. Whether it's Japan or the States, or England or wherever, everybody is operating in the same social rules, pursuing small differences. And I think that there is this obsession to be individual, passionate people, and that’s how culture changes.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

The influence of Ivy League style was clear from just the front covers.

 

Talking about the media, what do you think about the role of magazines in terms of fashion?

Magazines are like textbooks and, in that way, we are guaranteed that everything in them is correct. Whereas, if you saw the same object online, there wouldn’t be any guarantee if it’s okay. The internet is democratic, but magazines are more top down, and especially Japanese magazines, which intend to educate the readers more than any other country.

 

Do you think that “top down-ness” of the magazines is related to the county’s education system?

I agree, to a certain level. But I also think it's very focused on the process in Japan, in the way you see something as being good or not, depending on the details. If someone has done something extremely detail orientated, then the whole thing must be good.

In the US, on the other hand, details don’t matter so much. Certainly, the craftsmanship is starting to be appreciated everywhere, and I think that's what's given Japanese brands and manufacturers a lot of advantage in the world right now, because they're really good at making details.

 

“The fact that trends are not organic, but defined by media. People vaguely see styles and just copy them…”

 

So, you’re saying American magazines don’t educate readers?

Only after around 2008.

 

What made them changed their attitude?

It was because the knowledge had been lost. People's parents were already part of the very casual generation, so they grew up not knowing how to dress up. So even GQ sets up rules about how to wear certain things nowadays. The situation became identical to Japan in the 60s. At that time, people had the same problem. Everyone needs to be dressed, but they didn’t know how to do so.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

A poster from the VAN Jacket Inc fashion company, selling the American dream to their Japanese customers, that hangs in Marx's home.

 

The 1960s was the very beginning of the rapid growth of the Japanese economy. Is that a relevant topic?

The one thing that I've always tried to emphasise in my writing is that differences are actually structural or economic. In both the 1960s and the 1990s, really strange things got popular. But for the last 10 years, the environment has changed and recently, the most expensive things are becoming popular. The 1980s was a bubble, so again, expensive things were regarded as being interesting. There is a very famous Japanese movie, Watashi wo ski ni tsuretette! (Take me skiing). That’s interesting in the sense that the whole movie is all about product placement. The 1990s is kind of a reaction against that, as it was much more about information.

 

How, specifically, do you describe Japan in the 1960s then?

Well, it wasn’t a majority of people who read Men’s Club at that time, only limited numbers did. I don’t think Japanese youth culture was realised until the 1970s, before the era of mass culture.

 

So why exactly does the Japanese fashion culture of the 1960s fascinate you? 

Well, Japan to me is a very interesting laboratory for looking at how culture spread out and changed, because it was very closed off from the world, so you can see how exactly an idea arrived. For example, there were fashion magazines titled SKI LIFE and Made in U.S.A. published in the mid-1970s from Magazine House, the publisher of POPEYE magazine. These were a great success and introduced novel ideas into society, for the first time.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

"The one thing that I've always tried to emphasize in my writing is that differences are actually structural or economic."

 

How was it created?

It wasn’t just randomly born. There is a specific story that a young illustrator, Yasuhiko Kobayashi, went to a book shop in Manhattan in 1969 and found the Whole Earth Catalog. He brought it back to Japan, showed it to editors, and copied the formate to make Made in the U.S.A magazine. It pinpoints exactly why it spread in Japan, whereas, in countries such as America, the UK, and France, it’s hard to tell. For example, the Beatle’s haircut which was copied from German art students who were copying the styles in Paris.

 

That’s I guess due to the geographic difference. Japan is so isolated.

Yes, it was even more isolated at that time.

 

Do you think the history, Japan’s defeat in WWⅡ, is somehow related to this? 

The history makes things interesting. The trend after the war was not organic, and maybe there was a big idea of “America is cool”. They still like American culture, and that’s because people like whatever is shiny and big. Kensuke Ishizu had to make the VAN jacket as a product for someone who would buy that and dress like Americans.

But on the other hand, people in the 1960s hated the American government, as they were against the Vietnam War. Then, America was considered as a world leader up until the 1970s. But, in the 1980s specifically, Japan became more sophisticated than the U.S. The U.S. wasn’t cool anymore, and Europe was a lot cooler. COMME des GARÇONS was the most interesting brand in the world, but that had nothing to do with America.

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

A tatami-mat floored room at his house, which Marx plans to convert a tea-ceremony room in the future.

 

I see the point.

In the imperial period from the late 1800s, the Japanese government adapted the technology from the West to make the country stronger, so that Japan could defend itself. When you import foreign culture, it doesn’t have to be loved in the country. Instead, you can just say, “I’m going to get a personal advantage in Japanese society by wearing an American brand”.

 

So, you think it’s not about politics, but about taste?

Yes. Also, if you were in the countryside of Japan in 1965, you would probably never see any Americans. So, you are not looking at an American brand as cool, because American’s dress like that. You are reading Men’s Club, seeing some Japanese wearing those outfits and when you go to the store, both the staff and the brand are Japanese.

 

I do think the concept still is a part of Japanese society. There are so many American-esque Japanese inventions, and those seem to be evolving uniquely.

And therefore, there are lots of people in America who love those Ivy styled clothes made in Japan, because they can’t find anything like that anymore. Ivy has been disconnected from the country. 

 

David Marx Japanese Men's fashion academic and author speaking about his obsession with the subject to A Collected Man London

"The history makes things interesting..." 

 

Are you working on any other projects now?

I’m working on research about a men’s magazine called Shinseinen (New Youth), which was founded in 1920. In an interview with Kensuke Ishizu, I read that he was a fan of Japan's first fashion column called "Vogue en Vogue" in the magazine.

 

Can you give me a sense of the magazine’s style?

The magazine was a bit like The New Yorker, with lots of short stories, but also society columns. They certainly demonstrated that the fashion understanding in Japan at the time was very low. Most of the columns are literally just explaining what a tuxedo is, or lists of particular products to buy. I have been recently digging into the archives of the column and hope to do something with them in near future.

 

Our thanks to David Marx for taking the time to sit down with us and discuss his passions. Photography by Koomi Kim.


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