Shine & Criss — The Deliberate Style Of Tokyo

Shine & Criss — The Deliberate Style Of Tokyo

For many years my wife worked as a journalist in Tokyo.  She primarily covered fashion along with some restaurant and tourism coverage.  The main magazine she worked for was called S Kawaii which translates to “Super Cute.”  As with many Japanese magazines, this one was highly specialized and primarily geared to 16 to 20-year-old girls.  Her editor was a classically over-worked Tokyo type.  He dressed in the uniform of the urban creative: designer T-shirt, name-brand hoodie, selvage denim, and spic and span Nikes. He smoked 50 cigarettes a day, could drink like a fish all night and be neat and presentable at the office at 8 am sharp.  He was a fiend for Japanese BBQ and would often meet us at some great place, rush through dinner with his phone pinging the entire time, and return to the office at 9, 10 o’clock. He had a tiny apartment in Tokyo but mainly slept in the office. A few times a year, he threw caution to the winds and took 2 days off in Kamakura where he had a house.

Kamakura is a seaside town about an hour from Tokyo. During medieval times, it was the de facto political capital of Japan.  It is now known for its physical beauty — beaches, hiking trails, an abundance of ancient shrines and Buddhist temples. It is also the center of the Japanese surfing scene.  One weekend, we went to visit the editor there.  When he met us at the train, he was a different person. Gone were the hoodie and jeans, the slightly manic energy, the mind racing a million miles per minute. He appeared in faded, baggy shorts, a loose fitting, vintage Hawaiian shirt, a necklace with some shells, hard-lived flip-flops, and his sunglasses hung from a worn lanyard.  He wasn’t wearing a costume — it wasn’t that awkward thing when your dad tried to look “casual” with weird jeans and a “party” shirt — he had simply transformed into an iconic laid-back, relaxed surfer guy who could have been found on any beach from LA to Baja. This key was the clothes — they had been picked, been chosen with a relentless eye for detail — each stitch of fabric, the way his lanyard hung was an absolutely deliberate choice allowing him to fall in step with this new identity.  We had a great time in Kamakura, eating sashimi beachside, seeing some incredible shrines.  Four years later the editor died at a crazy young age, a victim of cancer.

New York City, my home-town, is one of the most stylish places in the world. Fashion trends are born there every day.  Jump on the subway and you’ll see some guy wearing an impeccable, bespoke suit next to some young kid rocking gear that will become the dominant vibe of streetwear three years into the future.  Wander into MOMA and you will see old, Jewish ladies in the coolest outfits that Vogue could never approximate in terms of coordination.  Every neighborhood teems with nascent style from the iconic dress of Crown Height’s Hasids to the flippant genius of old, Chinatown guys so beloved by the great street-style photographer Mister Mort.  There is nowhere else in America like it.

France, Italy, England all have their iconic styles that are envied and emulated all over the world. But, to my eyes, there is no place with such a deliberate sense of fashion as Japan. First of all, it is rare, very very rare, to see slobby people in Japan — the only exception may be a convenience store in the mornings or evening when you might spy some folks basically in their pajamas. For the vast majority of Japanese people, to leave the house means making sure your hair is freshly cut and styled (it is crazy how many hair cutting establishments dot the Tokyo streets), your clothing is clean and pressed and if you are female, your makeup is intact.  Salary Men wear their suits and ties every day and female office workers have their uniforms.  Every woman over a certain age seems to have a Louis Vuitton purse or some stylish wallet at the very least.  Beyond this general overlay of “put-togetherness” and strict business attire, there lays the realm of very deep and deliberate style obsession.  You will notice someone dressed like a New England hiker.  And you will wonder to yourself what makes them look so precisely like a New England hiker.  Then you start noticing the details.  The vintage Patagonia fleece; the perfect LL Bean boots, the weathered rucksack.  Nothing is left to chance.  A group of twenty-something kids who love 1990s hip hop will not just dress up in that era’s clothes, they will engage in a kind of transmutation by nailing the details so precisely — Phillies Blunt T-Shirts, Jamal-Ski clay pendants, vintage Tims.  The same thing goes for so many tiny, micro-defined subgenres of style from Rasta reggae to 70s punk.  It is not just nostalgia, for many Japanese, a personal style is mined from a deep well of observed and researched detail.  When you look around a crowded subway car, you might spot some people whose style you don’t like, but you will rarely spot someone who looks like they just threw something on. There are very little accidents in how Japanese people dress. Clothes have become an extension of carefully calculated lifestyles.

This deliberation in fashion choices, in illustrating a lifestyle is reflected in the fact that people really shop in Tokyo.  The grave retail woes that have decimated America have not touched Japan.  Shops, malls, shopping centers, department stores are packed always.  Vintage clothing stores are everywhere, so carefully curated that I have spotted old Gotcha Surf shirts that I wore in 7th grade.  Coffee shops, ramen shops, record stores sell T-shirts that are super well designed and extremely well-made.  I walked into a fishing tackle store in Ikebukuro, and it looked like Soho boutique — you weren’t just buying a Rapala lure, you were buying a dream of what being a fisherman on the weekends could be.

I myself have gone through phases of caring a great deal about my appearance.  Years working in a record store dulled that particular element of vanity.  I got a lot of free reggae-related t-shirts, and the ones I liked, I wore.  Jeans, sneakers and I always spent some cash on a nice hat. But, I am messy and a bit absent-minded, so a jacket with a stain, a missing button is not rare for me. I have had to become a bit more self-aware in this department living in Japan, because it matters —  details are important here.  While I doubt I will ever care what kind of wallet I have or if the sleeves of my favorite corduroy jacket are a bit too long, I do appreciate the level of thoughtfulness that Japanese people take with their attire. Because, in some sense, that same level of deliberate mindfulness of appearance is applied to so many aspects of life from food to the simple act of putting away a grocery cart.  And this, I love.


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