Even a decade ago, Japanese fashion was one of the best-kept secrets in menswear. Clearly that's no longer the case.
Of course, brands like COMME des GARÇONS, A Bathing Ape and UNDERCOVER have been fashion heavyweights for a long time, but it’s only in the past few years that the global fashion audience has begun to learn about the wealth of Japanese clothing brands that have been pushing the envelope of style and creating amazing, high-quality product just out of sight of the masses.
With that in mind, here’s a guide to some of the best Japanese clothing brands that all Highsnobiety readers should know about. For the already familiar, it’s a chance to reflect on the best of the best. For those less informed, the door’s about to open to a whole other level of style.
Started in 1994 by Shinsuke Takizawa (often referred to as Shin), NEIGHBORHOOD or NBHD is one of the OGs of Japanese streetwear. NEIGHBORHOOD was part of the original Harajuku streetwear scene of the early ’90s, a Tokyo-based movement of friends and peers who effectively founded the Japanese streetwear scene, birthing labels including BAPE, UNDERCOVER, WTAPS, Hysteric Glamour, and GOODENOUGH.
NEIGHBORHOOD draws from Takizawa’s deep passion for historic motorcycle subculture, creating classic American clothing such as leathers, shirting, sweats, flannels, and headwear, all with a distinct biker gang twist.
Though recent collections have seen NEIGHBORHOOD expand into military, prep, Native American and even early-20th century industrial workwear styles, the brand is still best known for its authentic selvedge denim, manufactured to strict traditional specifications and customized with intricate, natural distress washes that range from classic indigo fades to their iconic “Savage” series.
Tetsu Nishiyama, aka TET, was a protégé of Shin in the early '90s when he started FPAR, a T-shirt brand inspired by the DIY aesthetic of punk and anarchic movements. In 1996 he started WTAPS, pronounced double-taps, taken from the military term for two shots at the same target in quick succession.
As the name suggests, WTAPS is a Japanese fashion brand inspired by authentic military designs, infusing this with streetwear sensibilities and contemporary perspectives to create some of the most sought-after pieces in Japanese streetwear. In Japan, WTAPS is as notorious as Supreme for long lines on release days and rapid sell-out product.
Their Jungle Stock cargo pants and M-65 jackets sit alongside Supreme’s box logo hoodies and BAPE camouflage in streetwear royalty and are essential to any wardrobe — if you somehow manage to get hold of them.
Jun Takahashi’s UNDERCOVER is probably the epitome of Japanese streetwear. For nearly 30 years, the designer’s distinct visual perspective has been influencing design to where contemporary fashion stands today, and early UNDERCOVER designs are now some of the most coveted and sought-after pieces for collectors.
The aesthetic of this Japanese clothing brand is best explained by its own motto: "We make noise, not clothes." UNDERCOVER is about disruption, subversion, and rebellion, blending pop culture iconography with punk, bondage, goth and post-modern aesthetics to create the quintessential “punk” streetwear brand.
With perhaps the most fascinating backstory of all, Wacko Maria was founded by Nobuhiro Mori and Keiji Ishizuka, two J-league professional footballers. Starting out as the Rock Steady bar in Tokyo, the venture eventually evolved into Wacko Maria, a Japanese menswear brand inspired by Latin American style and rockabilly subcultures.
Known for their ornate shirting and outerwear with elaborate, embroidered details, and combining traditional artwork such as religious iconography and classic Americana with oversized slogans, the brand has carved out a niche for larger-than-life clothing with an addictively absurd twist, making it a favored brand of style pioneers like Aaron Bondaroff of Know Wave.
This season the brand created a capsule collection with notorious graffiti artist Neck Face, finding a perfect partner to their unique approach to the no-holds-barred psychobilly aesthetic.
Launched in 2010, TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist (often abbreviated to The Soloist) is a pure continuation of Miyashita’s previous work, though some argue the name suggests an even stronger focus on the designer’s own personal perspectives. The designer’s distinct style is present as ever, though arguably with a slightly more refined, matured touch than NUMBER (N)INE.
Collections have taken inspiration from cultural phenomenons such as Oasis, David Bowie, and Country & Western, bringing Miyashita’s impeccable eye for evolution and elevation to each subject.
Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary Japanese clothing brands of all, visvim was started in 2000 by Hiroki Nakamura after leaving his position as a designer at Burton Snowboards. Inspired in equal parts by the technical elements of his previous position and the traditional crafts of different cultures that he learned about traveling the world, Nakamura founded Cubism Inc., whose "Free International Laboratory" or F.I.L. endeavors to blend natural, traditional techniques with pioneering contemporary perspectives to create the pinnacle expression of classic clothing.
Dyes made from indigo, mud, and cochineal beetles are applied to textiles as intricate as linen/hemp/silk/angora blends, then treated with modern technologies such as Gore-Tex to find the perfect balance between the functionality of modern manufacturing and the timeless appeal of traditional techniques.
The most famous expression of this technique is Nakamura’s reconfiguration of Native American moccasin, the FBT, a shoe that blends natural leather construction and ornate tassel details with a durable Vibram® outsole and has grown to be one of the most coveted footwear designs of the 21st century.
First founded by designer Masaaki Honma in 1997, mastermind JAPAN (often shortened to mastermind or just MMJ) is a case study in timeless cool from a Japanese perspective. At its core, mastermind is characterized by two raw ingredients: the color black, and its iconic Skull & Crossbones logo. While so few elements might sound limited on paper, mastermind demonstrates how far you can push the envelope, and in doing so has created one of the most iconic Japanese clothing brands ever.
Fundamental inspirations come from punk and goth aesthetics, but highly technical production techniques such as form-hugging silhouettes, multiple-layered T-shirts and Swarovski® crystal detailing — combined with the brand’s notoriously close-chested operations from which virtually no information ever leaks — have culminated in a brand that creates the pinnacle of streetwear cool at eye-wateringly high prices.
Karl Lagerfeld, notorious Creative Director of Chanel, once cited mastermind JAPAN as one of his favorite labels, and MMJ is one of very few brands to have collaborated with historic French luggage manufacturer, Maison Goyard. Honma closed the brand’s doors unceremoniously in 2013 after 15 successful years, though the brand has recently resurfaced with modest collections and collaborations with the likes of adidas Originals.
Born from true passion, like so many of the most revered Japanese brands, Needles is one of many brands that were created as an offshoot of Nepenthes. Nepenthes was founded by friends Daiki Suzuki and Keizo Shimizu, starting out as a menswear store that imported classic American brands with a heavy influence from Ivy League and prep style.
Over time, the business birthed a number of labels including Nepenthes New York, Engineered Garments, and Needles. Though each brand is worthy of note in its own right, Needles’ bold reworking of classic American military and casual clothing has cemented the label as a wardrobe essential amongst discerning retailers like Haven, Goodhood, and END.
The people behind Cav Empt (often shortened to C.E) are a bit like those elusive musicians who write hit songs but never chase fame themselves: though you might not know them, you definitely know their work.
Founders Sk8thing and Toby Feltwell have deep respective histories in the Tokyo fashion and music scenes: Sk8thing is a graphic designer who has created graphics for heavyweight Japanese clothing brands like BAPE, NEIGHBORHOOD, UNDERCOVER, Bounty Hunter and many more, as well as designing the logos and graphics for NIGO® & Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club and ICE CREAM lines; British-born Feltwell started out working in the UK music industry running A&R operations at James Lavelle’s iconic Mo’Wax records, subsequently moving to XL when they acquired Lavelle’s label in the early ’00s.
An invitation to Tokyo to provide legal advice to NIGO® led to positions as Operations Director and Creative Consultant for BAPE, BBC, and Ice Cream. Following the sale of BAPE to IT, Feltwell reconvened with Sk8thing and productions expert Hishi on a new project helmed by three creatives with no financial direction — "Debt through chaos."
C.E’s collections are a visual exploration of post-modernism, blending far-flung references like 20th-century Italian horror films, French post-structuralist philosophy, Internet 1.0 iconography, and digital archaeology to question the very nature of physicality, permanence, value, and truth. Even the brand’s name is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase, "caveat emptor" — or "buyer beware."
One of the world’s most respected contemporary menswear designers, Japanese or otherwise, Junya Watanabe worked under Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons before launching his own label within the CdG family in the early ’90s. Much like the output of COMME des GARÇONS itself, arguably the originator of Japanese avant-garde, Watanabe plays heavily with cuts, textiles and form to create bold reconfigurations of classic menswear designs.
In recent years the Japanese brand is perhaps best known for its use of multiple fabrics in patchwork designs, such as in its ongoing collaborations with Levis, but at the heart of Watanabe’s work is a fascination with different styles of clothing and how the wearer uses them.
As a result, workwear designs are reimagined with modern cuts and futuristic touches, elaborately-decorated jackets are designed to be just as easily worn inside-out, and classic pieces like suits and overcoats are disrupted with unexpected touches and textures. If Kawakubo’s avant-garde is a disruption of the visual elements of fashion, then Watanabe’s might be argued to disrupt the functional: it’s a denim jacket like any other, but unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Yosuke Aizawa’s White Mountaineering is one of a number of Japanese clothing brands that transformed the power of functional, utilitarian clothing into stunning fashion design. Aizawa worked under Junya Watanabe before launching his own label in 2006, producing arctic and climbing-inspired clothing with beautiful details such as embroidery, jacquard weaves elaborate patterns, and unique fabric blends.
Geometric patterns are particularly prominent in Aizawa’s work, spanning knitwear and shirting to the beautiful parquet floor of the brand’s Tokyo flagship store.
In recent seasons the brand has branched out to collaborate with a number of major labels, including British outerwear specialist Barbour, Saucony sneakers, and adidas Originals — the latter of whom have received widespread acclaim for their elaborate Pitti Uomo presentations.
Ironically, Aizawa has admitted in interviews that his designs are probably unsuitable for genuine mountaineering, but his fascination with the aesthetic and visual elements of cold-weather climates has nonetheless created some of the most interesting creations in Japanese fashion in recent years.
The brainchild of the godfather of Japanese streetwear, Hiroshi Fujiwara, fragment design is but one of a huge roster of labels that leads, one way or another, back to Fujiwara. From launching iconic labels like Goodenough, Head Porter, and Uniform Experiment, to playing the H in Nike’s HTM line alongside Tinker Hatfield and Mark Parker, to continuing to reinvent the fashion retail landscape with recent projects The Pool Aoyama and The Parking Ginza.
It’s difficult to choose just one brand that represents Fujiwara’s work, but fragment design is a window into one of Japanese fashion’s most fascinating designers. Distinguished by its unmissable lightning bolt logo, over the years fragment has collaborated with a list of brands as long as your arm, producing subtle elevations of iconic pieces from the likes of Converse, Levis, Oakley, Disney, Starbucks, Stüssy, Casio, visvim…you get the idea.
Often Fujiwara’s adjustments will consist of little more than a material upgrade and a tasteful lightning bolt logo placement, but it is precisely this approach (one that many perceive as lazy or cynical) that makes Fujiwara such a revered designer and tastemaker — a sort of aesthetic Occam’s Razor that understands that often the simplest and most straightforward version of a product is the most effective.
And, though you might not like every piece fragment releases, when they touch on something that’s significant to you, be it a pair of Air Jordans or a Carhartt jacket, the appearance of that lightning bolt logo becomes a mark of that piece’s timeless, untouchable cool.
Now in its 20th year of operations, the Medicom Toy company is deeply interwoven with Japanese fashion and streetwear, as strange as the crossover of toys and clothes might sound on paper.
Though digital culture has revolutionized the world, Japan remains in many regards a physical culture: purchases are made in cash, as the idea of spending money you don’t have is frowned upon; vinyl, CD and even cassette sales are still strong; and much of the stories of subcultures and tribes that you read about are because fashion in Japan is about going out and being seen.
With this considered, Medicom Toy’s popularity is no mystery. From replica dolls of cultural icons like Andy Warhol and the Sex Pistols to reproductions of street culture characters such as Futura2000’s Pointman, KAWS’ companion, and A Bathing Ape’s Baby Milo, Medicom Toy has built a name for producing physical representations of the culture we all obsess over.
Most notable of this is the brand’s Bearbrick series, adorning a distinctive bear figurine with all manner of graphics and visual artifacts celebrating everything from the Grateful Dead to Star Wars to Daft Punk and beyond. Perfect for any maturing streetwear fan thinking of a move into the homewares department...just check with your partner first.
COMME des GARÇONS
Truly, no list about Japanese fashion would be complete without a special mention to COMME des GARÇONS. Founded in 1969 by Rei Kawakubo, COMME des GARÇONS grew in popularity in Japan throughout the ’70s before debuting in Paris in 1981. At first, Kawakubo’s collections were dismissed by critics as “ragged chic,” and her avant-garde approach to fashion design continues to attract praise and scorn in equal measures from across the fashion spectrum.
And so it should, because COMME des GARÇONS is inarguably fashion’s avant-garde. The Japanese brand’s modus operandi has always been to turn things on its head — exemplified by Kawakubo’s recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton, where she cut huge holes into a tote bag, defying the bag’s primary function of holding things.
From designs that bloat and transform the natural human form, to perfumes that some have described as smelling of burnt rubber, to Dover Street Market – a department store (first in London, then more recently opening new branches in Ginza and New York) that turns the entire retail experience on its head – the essence of COMME des GARÇONS is disruption of the norm.
And between high-end lines such as CdG Homme and CdG Shirt and diffusion lines like CdG Wallet or the CdG Play line and its inimitable heart logo, COMME des GARÇONS truly offers something for everyone in a way that no other brand has, or perhaps even could.
Besides Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto is arguably the most famous Japanese fashion designer of the 20th century. At its foundation, Yohji Yamamoto’s designs are a cross-pollination of traditional Japanese design with contemporary perspectives, and the Japanese brand has produced consistently stunning pieces throughout its 35-year history.
What makes the label more interesting, however, is the impact Yamamoto’s work has had on broader fashion, when one considers how many of his signature elements have become commonplace, from extended silhouettes and drop-crotch to asymmetric design and draped, layered style. And yet, with all this considered, the only constant of Yamamoto’s work is the color black, a color the designer himself has described as saying, "I don’t bother you — don’t bother me."
Beyond his own label, Yamamoto has worked with adidas Originals on the hugely successful Y-3 line, birthplace of the Qasa, one of fashion’s most coveted sneaker designs — no mean feat when you consider revered labels like Chanel, Louboutin and Balenciaga still struggle to make a shoe with half the appeal of a simple Air Jordan. Such is the magic of Yohji Yamamoto: decades of craft and timeless appeal like no other.