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October, 2008

STREET LEVEL

Out with the New, In with the Old

Shoji Kaori goes with the "flow" and checks out the vintage clothing craze.

The flavor-of-the-month phrase being bandied about since the end of summer sounds like something out of a medical chart: "jyunkan," or "circulation." It's not just about blood flow (although everyone agrees how important that is), rather it applies to everything from corporate policy to putting out the trash. The main thing is to keep the flow going, to prevent stagnancy and clogging; the adage of here today and gone tomorrow is not only commendable, it may not be fast enough.

The trend has affected the case-hardened Tokyo fashionista. Shifting lanes from outright consumerism to a smarter, cheaper and faster alternative, they've taken to buying vintage. And the good news is, the feeling is mutual. Never have there been so many second hand and/or thrift shops scattered over every corner of the city—500 plus outlets and counting, where the fashion addict can rely on quality, excellent taste, and even folkloric clothing myths (there's the one about sharing a dressing room with the young Kate Winslet, and being bowled over by her great charm and waistline). According to fashion stylist Okura Keiko, "The quality of Tokyo vintage products is unmatched." Okura, who habitually combs the racks of thrift shops to collect extra items for fashion shoots, says, "Nowadays, even in Paris and London, it's no rare thing to walk into a vintage clothing store and come out disappointed. But in Tokyo, where the vintage market is fiercely competitive and the customers knowledgeable, it's always a challenge to go in there and see what's going on, check out what other people are wearing. The shops here understand that 'old' is not the same thing as 'beautiful' or 'romantic.'"

Vintage wear first took hold in Tokyo during the postwar years—young men, eager to emulate the cool and confident ways of American GIs striding through the city, took to buying black market U.S. military wear. After the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the demand for American casual soared—and in 1966 Chicago opened its doors to a Levis-hungry public—the first bona fide vintage shop the city had ever seen and now the most trusted name in the business. Chicago had originally started as an imported men's apparel store but, according to shop manager Iizuka Kenji, "The customers were all asking for jeans and flannel shirts. Back then, no one had the means or distribution network to bring these in, so we shifted our focus from imported merchandise to used and vintage."

Chicago now has five outlets nationwide and operates a warehouse in St. Louis, Missouri. At their main store in Harajuku, Tokyo, old clothes are displayed like gallery pieces: a beautifully embroidered circular skirt from Guatemala, 1960s surfer shirts from Maui, natty suspender belts from Japan, circa 1957. "I always bump into something in Chicago," says Okura. "It's like going to the movies and falling in love with one of the characters, barely onscreen but very memorable."

Other vintage enthusiasts say that it's not enough anymore to hunt and purchase. Professional buyers like Kotani Shinichi, who travels through Europe and South America for five different vintage shops, says: "The problem has always been with size. Fact is, clothes made overseas are just too large for the Japanese body. There's a lot of excess merchandise out there, left in warehouses with no place to go."

This is where the concept of "remake" comes in. Increasingly, it's becoming a cure-all solution, not just for vintage shops but brand designers and buyers. The successful pioneer company in this field is called Taos. Collaborating with a vintage wholesale retailer, Taos remakes and refashions old clothes in a way that makes them indistinguishable from new. Shirts are taken apart and sewn together again, re-emerging with a tighter, more fashionable silhouette. A pair of woolen pants turns into a natty vest. A cook's shirt morphs into a sleeveless summer blouse. A linen bed sheet into a button-down shirt. Almost all the work is done by hand and the end-product, bearing the Taos tag, is sold for a significantly higher price than what people usually expect to pay for vintage wear, but as Kotani points out, "It'd be unfair to call Taos products vintage or recycled products. What they're creating is something completely new."

SHOJI Kaori is a freelance journalist.