Anyone who’s ever taken a stroll across downtown Tokyo knows first hand the peculiar energy in Japanese culture: somehow pragmatic yet dreamlike, technical yet endlessly creative, refined yet outlandish. And that madness sits at the heart of the nation’s style scene, too.
Garments from Japanese menswear brands are characterised by immense technical expertise and rock solid product design — but they also have a sense of fun and a winning desire to push boundaries.
Taking their influences from a raft of international sources — a little Ivy League pomp or Italian sprezzatura here; some Savile Row sharpness or streetwear hype there — Japan’s design scene produces some truly unique garments for the modern man about town.
Here are 15 brands that are worth dipping in to, and the pieces and trends for which they’re rightly celebrated.
Best For: Prints With Attitude
The original purveyor of Japanese cool, print-heavy label Undercover was founded in 1993 by then-college student Jun Takahashi. With punk roots and an international outlook, the brand has long fused American and British streetwear with Japanese pop-culture imagery for daring, design-forward garments. Today, it’s best known for its coveted collaborations with big American sportswear icons: Undercover’s Nike crossovers tend to sell out in minutes.
Best For: Reliable Basics
For the essentials you wear every day, there is no one quite like Uniqlo. The genius of the high street behemoth is that the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same — you can go into any Uniqlo store and find the very same neatly cut classics that you first bought ten years ago, right alongside a brand new collaboration or on-trend colourway. The brand’s shirts are a particularly attractive part of its offering, and for well-priced linen in a range of summer shades, there is little competition. Its chinos, meanwhile, which can be altered in store on the same day, are the bedrock of many a smart casual outfit.
Best For: Statement Streetwear
Japanese streetwear collectors are so fond of Neighborhood that they scarcely let it leave their shores: the brand, which trades in luxury fabrics and bold logos, is famously hard to come by outside of Tokyo. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Founded by design icon Shinsuke Takizawa in 1994, Neighborhood has grown into a casualwear marker of confidence and luxurious distinction. Its signature monochrome statement pieces, for example, are often imitated but rarely bettered.
Best For: Retro Sneakers
Onitsuka Tiger is often lauded as the inventor of the first ever running shoes, having been set up to service the needs of the Tokyo athletic community back in 1949. Nike founder Phil Knight was the first to import these ingenious lightweight icons into the USA in the seventies, and it’s fair to say that every single sports shoe since has had a little bit of the Onitsuka DNA in its sole. Still identifiable by the swooping arcs on their flanks, Onitsuka Tiger sneakers are an exercise in retro understatement, and now come in a truly dizzying array of colourways, collaborations and textured iterations.
Best For: Workwear-Inspired Garments
Born out of a tiny shop in the Harajuku district of Tokyo in 1976, Beams has since grown into a cornerstone of Japanese and international fashion. Its first ever menswear line was launched in 1999, and from the word go took its cue from classic workwear and rugged fabrics. Today, the brand is inflected with a distinct 1960s Ivy League edge — menswear aficionados now flock to it as much for its madras shirts and button-down Oxfords as its workman jackets and military-inspired garments.
Comme des Garçons
Best For: Indulgent Leather Goods
As the name suggests, Comme des Garçons takes as much influence from Parisian couture as it does from its hometown of Tokyo — and the result is an intercontinental crossover of truly excellent proportions. The work of Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe, the brand is loved for its playful spirit, interesting cuts and enduring stalwarts. CDG’s leatherware, for example, is sleek and practical at once while its Converse high-tops are a modern classic.
Best For: Nostalgic Craftsmanship
With its love of Japanese Edo-period tailoring, 1950s baseball culture and vintage workwear, there’s something immensely nostalgic about Visvim. Its processes also recall a simpler time: the brand, which started life in 2001, uses natural dyes and traditional manufacturing methods on many of its products. The result is gentle variation in every garment, a trait that lends uniqueness to the Visvim range and fulfils the traditional Japanese concept of wabi-sabi — the imperfections in a work of art that lend extra beauty to the finished product.
Best For: Japanese Preppy
Camoshita’s garments may be handmade in Japan, but they trace their roots through the quads of the Ivy League and the relaxed tailoring of Southern Italy. Born out of much-loved Japanese retailer United Arrows, founder Yasuto Kamoshita’s eponymous brand reflects his unique curator’s eye. The brand’s casualwear brings a Tokyo twist to traditional American preppy — with bold coloured strips, linen basics and Cuban collar shirts — while the suiting is a soft shouldered yet precise collection in navy and natural tones.
Best For: Incredibly Comfortable Socks
Comfort, to the sock masters at Tabio, is everything. But comfort doesn’t have to come at the cost of quality or design — as this supremely popular brand demonstrates. Naomasi Ochi started making stylish shoe liners at the age of 15, and his wares display a lifelong dedication to quality (it’s paid off, too — Tabio is now the most popular sock brand in Japan.) Expect expertly made socks in exquisite natural tones with ingenious technology — and all at a pretty reasonable price.
Best For: Avant-Garde Sportswear
A cult mashup of sportswear and luxury design, Y-3 marks the deeply fruitful relationship between Adidas and iconic designer Yohji Yamamoto. Coveted by collectors worldwide, the brand is both stylish and practical, with a uniquely Japanese character and futuristic silhouettes. Look out for its much-imitated sports sneaker lines, with their characteristic monochrome colourways and synthetic woven uppers.
Best For: Sports-Luxe Styling
Inspired by the diverse climate and terrain of his native Japan, designer Yosuke Aizawa set up outdoor-luxe crossover White Mountaineering in 2006. The mission statement of the brand is simple and complex at once: to combine functional, athletic silhouettes with rich fabrics and elegant detailing (or, in other words — to create works of art you could go for a hike in.) Expect beautifully designed luggage and sumptuous outerwear alongside bold graphic T-shirts and colourful prints.
Junya Watanabe MAN
Best For: Classics With A Twist
Designer Junya Watanabe was raised in the creative hothouse of the Comme des Garçons group under the watchful eye of Rei Kawakubo. His first collection was released in 2001 and has been admired in the decades since for its avant-garde approach and smart positioning. With innovation at its heart, Watanabe collections are characterised by functional garments like windbreakers in innovative and technical materials.
Best For: Must-Have Denim
Ichiro Nakutsu’s obsession with denim began when he was given a set of overalls as a child by his mother. In the years since, the designer and entrepreneur has become one of the world’s most dedicated collectors of selvedge. His first brand outing is a tribute to the many disparate references in his own wardrobe, while its name stems from the careful consideration his team puts into every garment. Influenced by sixties Americana, Japanese military uniform and European workwear, each of orSlow’s hardy pieces is weaved on a traditional shuttle loom before being washed and aged for a uniquely vintage look.
Best For: Good-Value But Serious Timepieces
Seiko’s name derives from Seikosha, which roughly translates to ‘the House of Exquisite Workmanship’. It makes sense, then, that since 1892 the Japanese watch brand has been characterised by a truly Japanese work ethic and attention to detail. The brand rose to mass popularity in the sixties when it was taken up by a generation less interested in heritage and more interested in items that worked reliably in their busy day to day lives. That utilitarian air still lingers to this day, and Seiko watches stand as a modern, functional rebuke to their more traditional Swiss counterparts. (Not that the brand is immune to luxury excellence, of course — its upscale Grand Seiko models can cost as much as £50,000 a go.)
Best For: Playful Camo Prints
The brainchild of charismatic entrepreneur Nigo in 1993, Bape is a mainstay of Japanese streetwear and an early pioneer in the Harajuku fashion district of Tokyo. The brand takes heavy influence from computer games, toy figurines and cartoons, and has become firmly embedded in hip-hop culture. Historic collaborators include Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Pusha T and The Weeknd, while Nigo himself co-owns sister brands Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream with Pharrell Williams. The brand is perhaps best known for its multi-coloured camouflage prints, which adorn everything from sneakers to bow ties.
4 Japanese Style Tribes To Dress Like
“Japan is a magpie nation, really,” says Josh Sims, the journalist and author behind menswear bible Icons of Men’s Style. “It’s able to spot the best in sub-cultural style from elsewhere around the world, the US especially, and take it to the next level. The people behind these live and breath them too.”
This curator’s eye for trends means that the Japanese style scene is a patchwork of highly defined groups — each with their own cultures and mores and obsessions. And it’s this, Josh says, that has helped Japan find a “voice in original design.” Here, the style expert takes us through some of the most significant groups in Japanese culture today.
Japan was home, of course, to minimalism in fashion, and while most of its style sub-cultures focus around either anal specificity, or exaggeration, Kireime Kei is almost hyper-normal. Not quite a Japanese equivalent of Normcore (which, lacking a guiding spirit, came and went in a season) its emphasis is on using new classics to dress with strict simplicity.
Born of Japan’s fascination with all things 1940s-1960s American (perhaps somewhat perversely as a result of US occupation of Japan post-WW2) this is where Japan makes classic American sportswear better than the Americans.
Not to be confused with fairy kei (fairy-inspired dress, with lots of pink and sparkles), street kei is one of the newest and most ill-defined style of Japanese dress. Less a sub-culture as a look, it’s essentially label-driven streetwear-leaning style, akin to the British Casuals movement of the 1980s.
Akin to Psychobilly in the UK and US, Japanese rockabilly is an example of how the nation’s style culture can fixate on a particular look or era and then ramp it up to almost cartoonish excesses (reminiscent of manga and other native comic art traditions).