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Fashion July, 9 2013

A Conversation with mastermind JAPAN’s Honma Masaaki

Last week, while he was in Berlin for the launch of his mastermind JAPAN x adidas Originals collaboration, we had the chance to sit down with mastermind JAPAN founder Honma Masaaki to discuss the first and final 15 years of his prolific label. We spoke with him for nearly an hour and gained great insight into his intriguing story. Read on to find out what we learned about Honma and his unique Japanese brand.

Highsnobiety: Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about the beginnings of mastermind JAPAN. 

Honma Masaaki: The label was founded in 1997, but it was very difficult for the first few years. I really struggled with the brand and thought about closing the company, but before I did that I wanted to try something big, so I decided to exhibit in Paris in 2001. In Paris, I got noticed by a store from Los Angeles called Max Field, who was the first retailer to pick up the brand. After Max Field started selling the brand, I start seeing celebrities like Justin Timberlake wearing the clothes and because of this mastermind got reimported back to Japan and I started to gain interest from Japanese customers. So it wasn’t until after 2001 that we began to sell in Japan.

Most of your products are made in Japan to the highest quality standards. Can you tell us about the importance of Japanese manufacturing for your brand?  

Around the time I presented my label in Paris in 2001, I receive some advice from Max Field about the products. They told me that the price was not appropriate for the actual product. From what I understood, they were saying my products were too expensive for the quality. But I wasn’t intentionally making the products expensive. Since I had to buy the T-shirt bodies for a certain price, I could not make it any cheaper. So instead of trying to lower my prices, I decided to increase the quality to match the price.

I started making 100% cashmere coats and leather T-shirts. I wanted to try to establish the label as a premium luxury brand – something that Japan never really had before. Brands likes Hermes or Chanel didn’t really exist in Japan, so I wanted to establish the label as a very high quality premium brand. As the label was not very well known back then – around 2003 – I came up with idea of establishing the brand with the highest quality Japanese manufacturing.

Around that time every other label was trying to mass produce their products and shift their production to China to try to make everything cheaper. I decided to go the other way around. I started to discover Japanese techniques of garment production, which were almost getting lost due to the shift to mass production in China. As I researched further I found out there were a lot of factories and technicians who were able to make very unique things in Japan, which got a lot of attention from customers overseas who were not yet familiar with this type of production.

The skull and bones logo is a prominent aspect of most mmJ products – what does this symbol mean to you?

The skull was always my favorite symbol, but I also knew a lot of other labels were using this image for their logo. But still, I liked it so much. It was the ultimate icon for me. The symbol was very sacred to me. It was kind of like an ultimate icon for me to use for my label. Not just because it looks cool or that it gives the impression of rock music or death. For me I wanted to make it open for different interpretations. Some people find our particular skull looks quite peaceful. Not evil, but rather peaceful or even smiling. Some people see that and others have different notions from the symbol. Personally, I look at the the symbol and think “I will not give up my dream until I die.”

And now you have decided to close the brand after 15 years. Why?

I think I am the luckiest designer in the world because I had the chance to work with so many different people who were so inspiring, and got support from so many customers. When I had the 10th anniversary of the label, I had nothing by gratitude for my environment, but because I felt so lucky and was so happy about the situation, I wanted to do something to give back to the people who supported me.

I tried to think of something I could do for them. The answer I came up with was to create unchanging value for the supporters of the label and the products. I thought the way to do this was to end the label at the highest peak of its popularity. If we wait until we lose our popularity, the value of the products will go down, but if we stop at the peak it will be remembered as the great brand or the great product.

There is a very famous Japanese singer named Momoe Yamaguchi that everybody (over 30) knows in Japan. She was a pop singer who quit her career at the peak of her popularity and she is forever remembered as the queen, or the ultimate pop star. I wanted to keep my label in that status. So I started to plan..

On the 10th anniversary, I announced I would end the brand in five years. I started planning things for the next five years, trying to condense what other brands would do in 10 years into five years, and did my best create this peak at the end, in the final year. I was lucky enough to collaborate with brands like adidas and I think I succeeded in creating this peak for the final year. I am very happy about that.

How have your fans reacted to this news so far? 

I get different reactions from different people. Obviously there are people that ask me to continue, and people that are hoping it will come back at some point, but there are also people who are happy with my decision.

I don’t know what I am going to do next, but I am happy with the fact that I am getting different reactions. I wanted to end it kind of like a movie where you don’t know what happens in the end. Is the main character alive or dead? It’s open for imagination or interpretation and I am happy to leave it like that.

What would you say is the biggest lesson you learned throughout the first 15 years of mastermind JAPAN?   

Money cannot buy happiness.

Tell us about your final season – Spring/Summer 2013.

When I decided to close the brand five years ago, I planned out what I would work on in the next five years. Five years in fashion is 10 seasons and the word mastermind actually consists of 10 letters, so I decided to make a theme out of each letter. First season was majestic, the second was ace’s high, the third was serenade, the fourth was timeless and so on. Each theme consisted of eight letters.

In Japanese eight is a lucky number. The way the number eight looks when written in Japanese or Chinese.. it’s spread in the bottom, which has the meaning of prosperity or more happiness. More opportunity or more of everything. A bright future. That’s why I wanted to make each theme with eight letters.

The final season of mastermind is “d.” The final theme is “dreaming.” I made all of these theme five years and already knew what it would be. I wanted the final season to be “dreaming” because, as I mentioned earlier, dreaming has always been an important belief in everything that I do.

I sometimes feel that this whole environment or the situation I am in is all a big dream. It’s hard to believe I made real what I dreamed of so long ago. I want my supporters and fans to be part of this dream as well. I think I was able to create an appropriate season for this idea with this collection.

You’re certainly going out with a bang – having collaborated with Medicom, Oakley, COMME des GARCONS and adidas amongst others. What else can we expect to see this year?

I have a few collaborations with Japanese brands like NEIGHBORHOOD, uniform experiment, Hysteric Glamour and roar coming out soon. And there’s one more with an international brand, Moncler, which hasn’t been announced yet. It will be announced around July 7 or 8 and the products will be launched in August.

Do you have a favorite collaboration that you’ve done? 

I have collaborated with young up-and-coming designers in Japan and have also done things for big brands like adidas. To me, the work is the same. I treat each collaboration the same way and try to do the best in each one. To me they are all special.

Can you tell us more about the adidas project – the models you chose and the design of the pieces.

I first collaborated with adidas in the World Cup year, 2010. I designed a pair of shoes and a few apparel items. After that experience I was dreaming of collaborating with adidas again before ending my brand. I was lucky enough to have another opportunity again this year to do that. For this final chance to do something together with adidas I came up with the idea to present the “best of adidas,” which is a big theme that takes a lot of responsibility in terms of designing the best. It was also a way to challenge myself to see what I could do to present “the best.” I also thought it was a good way to provide my fans with something special, giving them the best products from adidas.

What are your plans after the end of the brand?

Everybody asks me the same question, but I really don’t know what I am going to do. I am going to be unemployed and unpaid for awhile.

Is there anything further you wanted to add? 

I want to add on to my thoughts about ending the brand in 15 years. I know a lot of people think it’s kind of a business strategy, but it’s not. While I was running my label, I saw a lot of other brands failing or not succeeding because they tried to make their label too big or tried to be a bit too greedy, oversaturating the market. I wanted to avoid that pitfall and always put our customers first.

I have not been running the label for myself, but more for the customers. I think that ending the label was the only way to maintain or even increase the value of mastermind products, and to keep the faith of my supporters. I want the customers to understand that that’s the thought behind the decision.

There’s also something special going on between me and Germany. I had the chance to work with Mercedes and adidas and have a special kind of attachment to German brands or companies.

 Interview & Photos: Pete Williams/Highsnobiety.com 

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