In the days before the internet, Japan existed as somewhat of a cool kid Shangri La. This mythical place in a far off land that held an abundant bounty of electronics, sneakers, and clothes that were either impossible, or extremely difficult to find, in the U.S. Friends who would visit, would return with rare camouflage Audio Technica headphones, Nike sneakers released only in Japan clinically sealed in shrinkwrap, and T-shirts by brands you’d never even heard of but wanted nonetheless.
In a lot of ways, the web changed all that. The need to visit a place IRL was replaced by the need to have a quick mouse finger and a quicker ability to convert Yen to dollars. The treasure hunt side of things was gone. You no longer needed to know a guy who knew a guy to lead you to the unmarked stall in an unmarked alley that held the really good stuff.
But the flip side to that wah-wah-back-in-my-day story is that now anyone with good taste and a web browser (props to Google Chrome’s translation feature) can find these rare Japanese brands. (It still helps to be quick with the Yen-to-USD conversion.)
What is it about these brands that makes them so special? Well, niche subcultures have always been able to thrive in Japan. Whether it’s denim aficionados or jazz heads or even 50’s greasers, people have been formed strong communities around the things they’re into. And they obsess over them. These are not casual fans. These are people that at a glance can find a myriad of differences between jeans of varying vintages that the normal observer would have no clue about.
There is also something to having an outsider’s perspective. Japanese designers have an ability to look at aspects of American culture from 30,000-foot and also from an in-the-weeds point of view. (Enough metaphors for ya?) As such nothing gets taken for granted and the tiniest, arcane details are held in high esteem.
And it’s when all of that is interwoven with the incredible craftsmanship and design from Japan’s own culture that truly great things happen.
So if you can’t get to Japan anytime in the near future, here are five Japanese brands that you can know about and shop for from the comfort of your own couch.
Founded by Hiroki Nakamura, chill vibes abound with Visvim’s designs. Combining Native American and hippie inspirations (is it any wonder John Mayer is a fan?), the clothes are exquisitely crafted but perfectly relaxed. And Visvim shoes, like its famed FBT that blend a moccasin with a sneaker, are prized by collectors for their incredibly soft leathers and comfortable fit. Visvim isn’t cheap (a pair of FBTs go for around $700) but once you get an item, you’ll agree it’s worth the credit card debt.
What to buy: Visvim Grizzly Boots
Inspired by vintage motorcycle culture, Neighborhood is a brand with plenty of strength and attitude. Founded by Shinsuke Takizawa, Neighborhood takes the best of biker, military, and workwear designs and fuses them into styles that are completely badass without having to talk about how badass they are. Collaborations with the likes of Supreme and Adidas further attest to Neighborhood’s cool factor.
What to buy: Neighborhood St. Utility/C-Shirt
If it had been around in their time, J.F.K. Jr. and Don Draper (yes, I realize he’s not a real person) probably would have worn Beams. The clothes have a classic American preppy aesthetic but don’t feel the least bit stuffy. These are the classic pieces—whether it’s a button down, T-shirt, or blazer—that you find yourself grabbing out of your closet week after week. They aren’t radically different from the offerings of other designers, but they always have that little something extra that sets them apart from the pack.
What to buy: Beams Plus Shawl Collar Ripstop Jacket
A BATHING APE
A Bathing Ape, or Bape as it’s often called, is one of the O.G. Japanese streetwear brands. It first rose to prominence in the 2000’s under the creative direction of Nigo. Bape’s loud, all-over print hoodies and patent leather, Air Force 1-inspired sneakers were sported by the likes of Pharrell and Kanye. While those bold designs fell out of favor for a little bit, today Bape remained strong and its signature styles are gaining a new following with a new audience.
What to buy: A Bathing Ape Ape Head Oxford Shirt
White Mountaineering makes outdoor apparel, but it’s not all bright colors and visible technology. Instead, the designs are inspired more by outdoor brands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. They still incorporate all the modern performance benefits, it’s just done in a more subtle and refined way that doesn’t announce itself. Show up in the backcountry wearing White Mountaineering and you’ll still be as dry and comfortable as everyone else, you’ll just look better doing it.
What to buy: White Mountaineering Buffalo Bomber Jacket