If you spend even a cursory amount of time looking at the more discerning end of menswear, you’ll have noticed one country dominating. Whether you’re obsessing over cult workwear brands, following Instagram accounts like @clutchmagazinejapan, or noticing how much money you can self-justify spending on a single pair of jeans, then you’re under the influence of one place: Japan.
And we’re not talking about Uniqlo. The cult of Japanese menswear centres more on a nerdy, expensive strain of men’s fashion. It’s stuff for the purists: painstakingly made clothes that have been in style since at least the 1950s, more often than not classic American designs reimagined and often bettered. They call it Ametora.
“Ametora is a Japanese abbreviation for ‘American traditional,’ and the term in Japan is used to mean essentially Ivy League/East Coast preppy styles,” explains W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, a brilliant overview of how the country adopted, reinvented and ultimately revolutionised American menswear.
It began with the gradual adoption and promotion of the Ivy League look in the late 1950s. Japan adopted and cycled through their own version of pretty much every American subculture, studying and replicating the clothes in unstinting detail, often around the same time as American brands themselves were starting to outsource production or lower their own standards.
“Selvedge denim is the clearest example,” says Marx. “It was on the verge of extinction before Japanese brands brought it back in the 1980s.”
Marx thinks that today, the word “Ametora” (in English at least) should refer to more than just varsity jackets, chinos and other preppy staples. America now has many rich traditions of denim, sportswear, streetwear, and hip-hop style.
“Ametora are the Japanese versions of these styles, and what ties them together is the fact that they’re all made today with great reverence and understanding of the past, and a dedication to replicate or even surpass the quality of the original American versions.”
What’s The Ametora Look?
Traditionally, the Ametora style was very Ivy League. In 1965, Japanese photographer Teruyoshi Hayashida published a now-cult photobook called Take Ivy, which documented the way students dressed at Ivy League universities in the US. It influenced Japanese baby boomers, who adopted the style for themselves.
But as that style have evolved, so too has the meaning of Ametora. Today, it’s more about a certain sartorial attitude: high quality basics and the best fabric, small discrete details, a combination of old-fashioned expertise and high-tech innovation, a playful twist put on conservative pieces and the repurposing of vintage American iconography.
“The care about culture involved in the Japanese process resonates with thinking men,” says Russell Cameron of Kafka Mercantile. “Less is more, proper fabrics, proper manufacturing, striving to produce the authentic. I genuinely feel that the quest is to make the best or make the best better.”
“Where Ivy League kids liked their clothes a bit ill-fitting and wore them until they were absolutely destroyed, the Japanese kids wore the same garments with much better fits, neater, and cleaner,” says Marx. “The Japanese version of American style, however, is the one today that is globally influential.”
Probably the two dominant strands in Ametora at the moment are this Ivy-derived look – Beams Plus, for example – and the more casual retro-inspired gear of the likes of Real McCoy’s which draws on America’s history of college sweatshirts, military graphics, vintage workwear and selvedge denim.
“As an overall approach it’s introduced a different language for menswear,’ says Jason Jules an image consultant, online brand developer and stylist. “It’s influenced contemporary menswear in general.”
The Best Ametora Brands
“It’s actually quite a challenge to keep up with Japanese brands as every day there seem to be more and more entering the market,” admits Chris Howell Jones of vintage store The Indigo House (he also co-runs the Turn-Ups and Turnouts menswear group on Facebook). Despite that, here’s a non-scientific snapshot of the labels our experts are rating right now.
“For me, the most successful and diverse in terms of range would be Toyo Enterprises which pretty much covers every sector with their various sub-brands,” says Jones. Check out Buzz Rickson for military style, Sun Surf and Duke Kahanamoku for ’50s and ’60s Aloha style, Star of Hollywood for ’50s rockabilly for Style Eyes for varsity, and Sugar Cane for denim and the more classic western look.
“I love the basics of Beams Plus, which combines traditional styles with contemporary tastes,” says Marx. The label originated out of the American Life Shop Beams store, which opened in February 1976 in Tokyo. Originally fitted out like a UCLA student dorm the store sold imported American goods (including the country’s first Nike trainers) before eventually developing their own lines.
“Japanese Americana has always been interesting in part because we have these two distinct cultures lashed together around product, and out of that tension amazing things are produced,” says Danny Hodgson of Rivet and Hide in London who sell ‘rare denim and classic casual menswear of unsurpassed quality.’ “Nine Lives embraces this mongrel culture and always adds a new way of challenging and evolving the aesthetics, adding a modern edge to these hybrid historical garments.”
He highlights their western shirt, which uses indigo-dyed Belgian linen, and stresses how far ahead these labels are in terms of quality. “You will always compare every pair of jeans and every leather jacket you ever try to what you put on here.”
Atlast Co / Timeworn Clothing / Butcher Clothing
“This umbrella of brands is a deep dive into forties American workwear, military and sportswear,” says Jason Jules. “Wide legged chinos, tight fit knits with thick ribbing, canvas basketball-style sneakers, denim, leather biker jackets, aloha shirts, sunglasses. There’s a whole look and feel that goes with it that creates an atmosphere around the brand that’s really unique.
“In some ways Timeworn and its sister labels are a perfect example of Ametora in that they capture an America that never existed – it’s clothing that references a very vivid but long-distance concept of the American Dream.”
Warehouse & Co
“Warehouse & Co have been producing high quality Americana style garments in Japan now for almost 25 years,” says Scott Cook, buyer at Clutch Café, the flagship store of cult workwear publication, Clutch. “In the past few years, they have started a second-hand series. This primarily involves pre-washed selvedge denim, so already faded. Slightly cropped and sitting a little short above shoes they look great and very ‘Ivy Style’.”
“Another great example of a Japanese brand doing Americana their way,” says Cook. “They theme each collection every season and have a number of different in-house sub-brands as well as producing a collection for vintage dealer, John Gluckow.
“Most pieces from the collections have a story behind them, based on who they think might have worn a jacket like that. They also make staple pieces such as the Vincent shirt and the Westcoast shirt. These are re-imagined every season with varying fabrics and styles.”
“We started stocking them (at Clutch) this past season and their take on traditional Americana is slightly different,” says Cook.
“One of the main things we look at when buying for the store is the quality of construction and attention to detail. Soundman have been producing garments in Japan for almost twenty years now with a general focus on vintage British Military pieces. Their key pieces for the SS19 season were the Whitby jackets – a take on British Military Bush jackets built to an incredibly high Japanese standard.”
“I love the denim and indigo T-shirts at 45R,” says Navaz Batliwalla, founder of Disneyrollergirl.net and author of The New Garconne: How to be a Modern Gentlewoman. Their worn-in indigo denim is really roomy and soft, like ten year old pyjamas with almost couture-like patchworking. Their classic plain indigo tee is a staple – the epitome of that cliche item that improves with age. They also do these cotton bandanas printed with naive pastoral scenes, very beautifully made, like a weird Ralph Lauren-Hermes hybrid.”