So there are good ideas and bad ideas. And in my opinion the best ideas in life are very often simultaneously terrible. This was one of my recent favorite disasters and as I write this I am trying to bear in mind the well-known saying ‘you only regret the things in life you don’t do’. I would have liked to have ‘done’ less Sake last night and at least one less Tom Collins because I didn’t even realize I was drinking Tom Collins until I listened back to the recording just now.

This wasn’t a Tom Collins. This wasn’t a Sake. This was ANOTHER drink.

You see the problem is, Atsu Tagaya from Stevenson Overalls and Ian Segal from Nine Lives are drinking buddies. And the whole idea was to go out drinking with them and record all the intelligent and insightful things they say.

We started off at 6pm in a civilised fashion at Tora, an authentic “robata-yaki” restaurant in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, but by 10pm I was sitting on Atsu’s lap in an incredible 100 year old bar around the corner, guzzling his drink because I’d knocked mine on the floor and smashed it.

And here I am on a long-haul back to LA with a very severe hangover, listening to four people talking animatedly in two languages over each other, wondering if I can find a narrative that anyone would want to read. Listen below to see just what I’m dealing with:

 

I’m going to make sense of it though, because there IS a story here; a story of passion and friendship and life and denim. And at the end of the day, you’re reading this because you have all that in common. I hope you’ll find these guys as entertaining and inspirational as I do.

Dude, Dudette, Dude

Amy: How did you two dudes meet?

Ian: Atsu’s office and home is very close to where I live. And the ame-kaji (American Casual) world is very small in Tokyo. But everyone in Japan is generally scattered: you’ve got the Osaka dudes, the Kojima guys but there’s not that much in the middle of Tokyo, so we all gravitate towards each other: it’s our group therapy session.

We bonded at this restaurant and a yakitori joint we like in Shibuya; and we bonded in bath houses—the Japanese sentou. There’s one across the street and there’s one 2 minutes down the road. They call it skin-ship, like kinship but with more skin. We started hanging cos we lived close together and we were working in the same trenches. That was two or three years ago. Hanging out in the middle of Tokyo, it’s become a bit of a scene.

I mean… when I say scene, I don’t mean a scene that anyone else would want to participate in! But as far as we’re concerned we have a little crew of dudes that we like drinking sake with.

Robata-yaki, aka Japanese BBQ

Amy: Who comprises that scene?

Ian: Sometimes Matsushima from Clutch—Kotaro from Nine Lives and Josh and Rachel Good Art when they are in Tokyo. A few of our peripatetic friends. And then some of the buyers when they come into town… Ethan Newton who does Bryceland’s—used to do The Armoury in HK, he does very tailored stuff but he also does denim and his clothes are beautiful…  And Sohara-san also known as Wolfman Barber.

Amy: Who the hell is Wolfman Barber? Is he an actual barber?

Ian: Yes he’s a barber, he has a barbershop in Harajuku, he’s the nicest guy, super mellow. But the guy can fucking drink. He started off with ‘do you want to go out drinking some time?’ I thought he was just being nice to me! Ooh I was really fucking smacked that night. He is very mellow but he can drink.

And the brothers Okamato who run a shop/brand called Solakzade: they have this amazing look; as if Wes Anderson did a Blaxploitation film; these guys are so cool. They rock up in teal Adidas sneakers and 70’s style tracksuits, with vintage alpaca Hermes full length overcoats. And it’s two brothers dressing the same which makes it that much more charming. These guys really stepped up and said, this is what we do and this is how we do it, and because of that they’ve got a pretty great clientele.

And now we have Hiro, here. Hiro is a Japanese photographer who has shot some of the biggest supermodels for some of the glossiest magazines in the world. He’s spent the last 25 years living in New York and Paris and in the few months he’s been back in Tokyo he’s become a member of our motley crew. He was shooting Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford…no retouching, no filters. This guy is just the real deal. And is family to of us all now.

Everyone tends to be part of a scene in Japan. You’ll see someone who has great style but he or she will belong to a certain scene.  So in fits and starts we’re building our little scene that’s not heritage and that’s not all about Tokyo, because we’re global now. And it happens in Los Angeles and Paris as much as it happens in Tokyo or New York. The world has shrunk, everything’s been discovered. We’ve entered this time where you just have to define your own scene and your own world. And there’s no reason why your scene is any fucking better than anybody else’s and it shouldn’t be, but the point is you just own it.

Un-relevant seafood

Amy: Well that leads me to a question about styles and tribes. Because you call yourself amekaji which I would also maybe label as Heritage. So working in denim in say 2008/ 2009 when heritage infiltrated the trend world, what was actually trending was a return to authenticity, built to last. So a style but also an attitude. And I was excited! But now I’m not as excited about that world. Because it’s over saturated and focusses so much on replicas and the past, so everyone looks the same, which is in fact very Japanese, this style-tribe thing, very amekaji, right?

Ian: So I have this theory, let’s see if it’s true, time alone will tell. Heritage fashion was the incidental style output of the first era of automation. The internet was essentially the first era when people could start easily finding machines and factories and it just happened that that level of honesty and that level of connection allowed these brands to emerge. The internet and forums were the first step into automated small batch production.

It wasn’t as if heritage was new. I think a lot of people who grew up in the American West grew up with their parents closets full of heritage, so as a style, it has never disappeared, really. As a style it’s the same but as a trend what was interesting about it to me was the essentialism of it, the idea that it was actually less about reinvigorating the style but more about reinvigorating the mindset behind the style in terms of production and consumption. That’s to me is what remains super interesting.  It was like algebra; you could subtract out the style in a pure sense. That’s why we can talk about heritage in a “post-” sense whereas no one talks about a style that comes after mod as being like “post-mod.”

Amy: And now people want that same ethos but applied to a product they’re more excited by.

Ian: Certainly that’s what we’re trying to do with Nine Lives. Let’s do some things that are a little weird and then let’s get people to enjoy these things anew.

Amy: And that ‘first wave of automation’ you talk about has also helped to communicate your product to the market, right? Finding your customer.

Atsu: That’s what I want to talk about: finding the market. Finding the right market and the right customer. The customer who loves us and we can respect each other.

Ian: I’m fine if they just like my product, I don’t need love.

Amy: But if they love it they spend a lot more money..!

Atsu: So we have social media changing things already; finding the market, connecting the consumers to the product they are looking for. Look at Everlane: they found a market for what they wanted to do. If you can find your fan base, if you can see the target, it’s much easier. We can share a mutual understanding, we can have fun together, there can be a bit of jealousy, it’s an energy. With my company, Stevenson Overalls; we have 40 accounts outside of Japan, which is really, really cool. You always have to find markets. You must have a passion but the wholesale system has changed. Retail, small stores… we don’t have 40 accounts in Japan any more, the internet changed that whole thing.

Ian: Shinichi Haraki is moving Iron heart to 5 stores in Japan, he’s just like ‘fuck it’

Atsu: If I want to find a market outside of Japan, which I kinda have to…I wear Supreme, I wear Nike, I wear polyester, my whole issue right now about fashion is if you cannot find the target market or the customer, you can’t survive, you cannot survive. You cannot have one without the other. And that’s happening right now: too many clothes, too many stores.

Amy: Oversaturation.

Atsu: That’s it, that’s it.

Amy: So it’s not shrinking, its expanding. And if that’s the case, if there are too many brands… and not just too many big brands but also too many small brands, how do you cut through the crap?

Atsu: Well first, you don’t know what’s going to be happening. Everything about the future right now is mysterious, nobody can guess what is going to happen.

Ian: One thing seems to be going on is tech and finance are basically gutting a lot of mid-tier brands, so the giant center is falling out. Mall brands are dying. There’s a practical way in which that’s terrible for all the retail employees who are going to lose their jobs, that’s a tragedy. And so maybe the idea is that in the emerging landscape you have the Uniqlo’s and the Everlanes, you’ll have the guys who are like ‘we’re going to do this in a country that you may be wary about but we’re going to do it transparently, where people can feel ethically sound.”

So interesting

Amy: I think it’s funny you mention those two brands because they have managed to cut through the noise. This whole middle thing you mention is definitely happening and yet there are these big giants coming in and claiming that middle. So it’s not like the middle is over but people are bored of the ‘old’ middle.

Ian: That’s right. And so style-wise right now we also have “hype…street.” Street is what happens in the middle now.

Atsu: And it’s not just a trend, it’s a movement, street.

Amy: And why has street become so big do you think?

Ian: Because the department stores have lost editorial authority and so that influence moves to hype, naturally. So street just happens to be the style that hype is connected with.

Atsu: And the hip hop artists from the US became huge by the way they look. They don’t wear Warehouse or Flat Head. This is kinda cool though: I went into Self Edge San Francisco last year and I saw the guy working in the store out there. This guy was dressed. He was wearing Stevenson Overall pants, he was wearing a Supreme Tee shirt and an Iron Heart denim vest with ACDC patches on the front and a public enemy patch on the back. He was about 20 years old.

Amy: So he was mixing up a lot of different markets and styles there.

Atsu: But the Japanese, they don’t do that. The guy from San Francisco, he has all these different influences, I mean Kiya (Babzani) from Self Edge, he’s educated him about denim and then he’s picked the parts he likes and combined it with his style.

Ian: To me, Japan has great art and great craft but it doesn’t have the western sense of coldness, of detachment, of ironic distance from style that informs the western notion of “cool.”

Amy: So you know Kiya well, Atsu?… how long have you worked with him?

Atsu: I have been doing business with Kiya for 8 years, yes. He’s a different guy, he’s a man of routine and he has his mind set. You know what’s funny? He was in my office just a couple of days ago… and he said: Japanese jeans are the same as sushi. Chefs spend so much time on that shit. So many methods and so many techniques to make one type of expensive sushi. Japanese denim is similar. It’s a nice thing to say.

Amy: When did he start buying Stevenson?

Atsu: I went on my honeymoon in Cabo. And Kiya and Demitra happened to be there, totally random. We recognised each other though so we figured we should have dinner. I showed him my catalogue that night and the next day he placed an order, it was incredible.

So tell me how Stevenson Overalls came about. Zip Stevenson is the partner, right?

Yes, I first met Zip Stevenson in line at Wells Fargo. I was wearing 501s and Margiela sandals. Zip thought I was cool and came up and introduced himself! He asked me who I was/what I was up to—that kind of thing. I actually recognised him too, so we became friends.

Meeting Zip was what made me come up with the concept for Stevenson Overalls;  at that time everybody was into damaged jeans but we thought we could do something new and it worked; the first Stevenson customer was American Rag in Japan. The name actually came from an old pair of overalls that Zip and I found and that brand name had been lost to time. So everything just came together like that—though actually the name didn’t literally come from Zip! In Japanese we say 縁がある (“en ga aru”)

Atsu Tagaya

Tell me about your background:

Atsu: I’m not a denim geek but I’ve always been into fashion since discovering a magazine called BOOM in Japan, the first magazine to feature Nike and the 501 Levi’s. This must have been 25 years ago. My interest grew and so did the amount of fashion magazines. By the time I was in Junior high school in the late 90’s I was reading men’s Non No, Popeye, and Checkmate. It was a small, small movement, but different categories: American preppy, teamer…. people were getting together in Shibuya and dressing in 501’s gangster style, dressing as the rebel.

My career started by selling Charismatic the brand. It was a street brand but also a little RRL, except nobody got it because it was just too early. It was such a cool LA brand… I’m not a denim geek, like I said before, I’m into everything and when I started Stevenson overalls I was still young. 

Amy: And how about you, Ian? how did Nine Lives come about and how did you meet Kotaro?

Ian: Kotaro and I met through Josh and Rachel from Good Art. We just sat down one night at the bar we’re headed to later and struck on the idea of the brand. We thought if we knocked heads together we might be able to get a “sum is greater than the parts”-kinda thing. So Kotaro and I decided to do this brand together and we hadn’t really sat down and figured it all out, but about a week and a half, two weeks after the idea, my dad died. At that point I think I thought “fuck it, let’s do it.”

Amy: So instead of throwing you off-course it drove you?

Ian: Well there’s no third direction, either you live or you die and when you’re cratered by something…. And I still dream about him every night, he was 75… so that’s a salt brick and we’ll grill a bit of pork on top of it.

Amy: So you started Nine Lives at a time when you were grieving and the market was floundering, what did that experience teach you?

Ian: Building something into the headwinds is a challenge, but on the flipside it’s a baptism by fire. When the pie was just expanding madly you couldn’t roll out raw denim fast enough. But when I make a raw denim sale now the reality is they’re buying a Nine Lives pair of jeans, they’re buying that pair instead of another insanely good brand from my friend down the road. One of the most interesting things about Nine Lives in that context is that we do a lot of indigo but we probably wouldn’t have made denim. The fact that we are based in Japan and its very much a part of the Japanese look, that’s why we make it.

Ian Segal, drinking

Amy: And in this super saturated world, people are looking for something that cuts through the noise.  And I think a lot of brands have underestimated human judgement, that humans are drawn to ‘real’ and ‘genuine’

Atsu: Well you guys will figure it out, you guys are smart, you know.

Ian: Well, Atsu, you’re also smart. Stevenson to me is one of the most honest brands, I think it’s the only designer Americana brand coming out of Japan. And the way you approach the design, you’re 100% in it. There’s no bullshit in that story, no noise in that signal. Stevenson is a very honest brand but in an interesting and elevated way in terms of style, and that’s a very interesting tension to me, that mix of quiet minimalism and elevation in terms of the actual pieces, versus the pugilistic. Almost like a boxer; the honestly and physicality that you embody as a person and that you connect to the brand and the people that interact with the brand.

Amy: Do you think that sums you up. Atsu?

Atsu: That’s gonna make me up! (clapping and smiling) I gotta do it, I gotta do it, I gotta keep doing it! Ian, your Tom Collins is coming.

Ian: That’s a whisky sour

…And it was from that moment, I believe, that the interview fell to pieces.

The look of love

 

They’ll be saying something inappropriate here

 

Dudes