Fashion has a long relationship with behind-the-scenes auteurs. In the ’90s, Martin Margiela mysteriously abdicated his maison. In the ’00s, Errolson Hugh founded Acronym GmbH as a design consultancy, working with brands like Burton before starting his own iconic line. And their stories aren’t alone.
Christopher Bevans. Matteo Gottardi. The late, great Walter Plunkett. These “men behind the curtain” have occasionally taken center stage, yet their legacies were built on the foundations they laid for names other than their own.
In Japan, a knitting factory born from the ashes of World War II spins a similar yarn.
From small-town sock-maker to home of one of streetwear’s most exclusive brands, Goldwin’s 70-year history is both defined and enabled by the credit it often does not take. The North Face Purple Label. Woolrich Outdoor. Until just two years ago, Champion Japan. While their trademarks may vary, all have ties to Goldwin.
However, just like in music, even the most legendary fashion producers eventually feel the pull of the byline. After a half-century producing apparel for the some of the world’s most enduring brands, Goldwin – the “man behind the curtain” of technical sportswear in Japan – is taking its first steps into the Western fashion scene with their own in-house lifestyle collection.
From The Ashes to The Podium
To understand the rise of Goldwin, one must first understand its birth.
The Japan of 1950 was not the skyscraping, productivity-driven powerhouse it’s known as today. Just five years earlier, Allied bombers had pulverized the island nation, leveling factories and houses alike. Now, occupation troops patrolled the streets of once-proud cities, enforcing both curfews and a deep sense of foreboding. Food and work were scarce; poverty was not.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, it’s not hard to grasp how some could only see despair. Others, however, saw opportunity.
In 1950, Tosaku Nishida opened the Tsuzawa Knit Fabric Manufacturer, a tiny knitting factory in rural Tsuzawa Town (now Oyabe City). After losing two brothers in the war, Nishida – who had experience working in a textile mill – opened Tsuzawa Knit with his brother-in-law as a way to provide for his remaining family. In a factory totaling only 130 m2, business started from scratch.
Tsuzawa Knitting Co., Ltd. – the precursor to the Goldwin company — soon made a name for itself by doing simple things well. The company’s wool hiking socks, for example, became popular thanks to their durability, a quality atypical of most clothing produced in postwar Japan.
In 1952, perhaps heeding the company’s growing reputation for activewear, Tosaku Nishida yanked Tsuzawa’s manufacturing focus towards sports. While it may seem strange to imagine a woolen mill today suddenly producing yoga pants, in the ’50s, everything from ski pants to baseball jerseys were made of wool.
Nishida’s bet paid off: as the late-’50s “Economic Miracle” buoyed both spirits and wallets, newly-uplifted Japanese citizens turned to sports for leisure. The company grew, and in 1958, the Tsuzawa Knitting Co. introduced a new line of performance athletic wear it hoped would help its wearers come out in first: Goldwin.
That’s not to suggest that Goldwin was the only sportswear brand in Japan.
Unlike his competitors at Descente and Mizuno, however, Nishida recognized the fundamental differences between Japanese garments like the kimono, which lie flat, and Western apparel, which has more tapering and dimensionality.
“Compared with the trim silhouette created by European ski wear,” he commented, “Japanese skiers looked like they were wearing garbage bags.” Unless, of course, they were wearing Goldwin. It’s not hard to understand why customers would choose performance and flattery over performance alone.
Five years later, perhaps reflecting the line’s success, Tsuzawa Knitting changed its name to Goldwin Corporation in anticipation of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Sixteen Japanese athletes won Gold Medals at the Games. Twelve of them wore Goldwin.
At an event described as a “turning point” for the fortunes of postwar Japan, a domestic sportswear maker had shown that its technical expertise could stand above the world. For the second time, Tosaku Nishida had called his shot. Barely a decade after its gut-instinct pivot to sportswear, Goldwin had won golds.
Translating With a Japanese Accent
After the ’64 Olympics proved Goldwin’s technical chops to the world, the brand hit its stride. In 1970, Goldwin signed its first license agreement with French skiwear brand Fusalp. 1973 brought a technical tie-up between Goldwin and Onitsuka (the precursor of Asics) that would go on to produce the Japanese Olympic team’s 1976 uniforms. Two years later, Goldwin became the exclusive Japanese licensee of Champion (yes, that Champion), then the #1 sportswear brand in America.
“People might not be familiar with the Goldwin name, but they’d more than likely be aware of brands they’re involved with,” said Tom Piercy, owner of U.K. boutique Alpha Shadows. “They have massive reach and influence on the menswear scene in Japan with the brands they back or hold the license for.”
Over just half a decade, Goldwin had assembled a portfolio of international brands, brands that trusted the product obsessives at Goldwin to speak their design language with a Japanese accent.
The biggest prize was still to come.
In the midst of the era-defining “Heavy Duty” trend, Goldwin scored the exclusive Japanese rights to distribute (then eventually produce) The North Face in 1978. The North Face – including its legendary Japan-only “Purple Label,” a collaboration with nanamica – would grow to become one of the largest sportswear brands in Japan, and a case study for Goldwin’s technical manufacturing expertise. According to Euromonitor, Goldwin – valued at $150m in 2017 — currently holds 2.5% of the $13bn Japanese sportswear market. Ninety percent of that share comes from The North Face, including Purple Label.
To clarify: when a The North Face product is produced by Goldwin, it’s not someone in California telling Japan what to make. Every part of the design, planning, and pattern-making is handled by the Goldwin company, who draw inspiration from The North Face’s catalog of original technical garments. The trademark of the licensor (in this case, TNF) is simply extended to the licensee for a one-time fee.
The benefit to a product-focused company like Goldwin, then, becomes obvious. The North Face deal didn’t just grow Goldwin’s fortunes; it also gave the company a reliable cash flow it could use to stay focused on the R&D work that allowed its advanced garments to remain that way. “In today’s fashion world, ‘Made in Japan’ can be translated to mean dedication, premium quality, and smart design,” said Ke Wang, Head Buyer of Canadian boutique ANNMS Shop. “I think Goldwin gets some credit for that.”
Let someone in California worry about the copyrights. In Oyabe City, the focus could remain on craftsmanship.
Its footing secure, the Goldwin company continued its licensing and expansion efforts. In 1983, the company picked up the Japanese rights to Helly Hansen. In 1987, Goldwin’s own brand became the official skiwear of the Swedish National Team. The North Face’s license was expanded to include South Korea. In the year 2000, the Goldwin company celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The new millennium brought more of the same: the establishment of apparel brand nanamica under the guidance of Goldwin alum Eiichiro Homma (2003); the launch of the “Near-Future Living-Space Unit” in conjunction with the Japan Aerospace Exploration agency (2004); the beginning of “GREENCYCLE,” an extensive clothing recycling program (2009). By the end of the 2000’s, Goldwin’s high-tech garments had even served on the International Space Station.
“I was a huge fan of the brand, and had the opportunity to meet Eiichiro Homma and collaborate with the Goldwin team,” explains Andrea Canè, Creative Director of Woolrich, with whom Goldwin will soon launch Woolrich Outdoors. “I think they are one of the best outdoor apparel groups on a global level. For years, my desire was to work on a new and modern take on the Woolrich label. The ideal candidate to achieve it, in my mind, was always Goldwin.”
However, while Goldwin apparel had entered low-Earth orbit, one of the world’s biggest sportswear markets remained seemingly out of reach.
For a company whose business was built on American heritage brands, until just a few years ago, Goldwin had almost no concrete footprint in the United States. And frankly, why would they need it? Asia and Europe were plum markets. Plus, The North Face trademarks – again, the lion’s share of Goldwin’s Japanese business — wouldn’t extend to America. To the casual observer, Goldwin could remain content right at home.
However, through more trained eyes, Goldwin once again faced a major directional decision.
The Japanese sportswear market is dominated by rivals both foreign (Nike, adidas) and domestic (Mizuno, Asics) who produce desirable sneakers alongside apparel. Whether brand awareness or simply just a perk of increased scale, in 2014, seven of the top nine Japanese sportswear makers also sold internationally-famous sports shoes. The two that didn’t – Descente and Goldwin – lost market share for the next three years in a row.
In addition, the Japanese population as a whole is aging – even worse, it’s shrinking. For a garment-maker that sells premium products designed around adventure sports, what was once a plum market starts to appear like a squeeze. Goldwin’s decision was simple: take a risk by expanding to the world’s largest sportswear market, or wither on the vine.
A pure skiwear play wouldn’t do; then again, neither would rebrands of Champion Japan. Gen Arai, then working exclusively on The North Face Japan, was brought in to serve as General Manager of the Goldwin brand. Arai then brought on MARKAWARE designer Shunsuke Ishikawa to design the brand’s new direction.
Two years later, after four decades of sharpening its expertise building up others, Goldwin unveiled “Lifestyle,” the company’s first-ever own-brand fashion collection, and began selling to US retailers like New York’s legendary Steven Alan. The man behind the curtain had finally taken center stage.
All That Glitters
The Goldwin “Lifestyle” collection, now two years old, isn’t the sort of headline-grabbing maximalism one typically associates with bright upstarts.
Perhaps that’s because it isn’t really an upstart.
Goldwin Lifestyle joins a long tradition of product-obsessed Japanese brands, a tradition that Goldwin itself helped to burnish. What’s more, like nanamica and TNF Purple, part of that obsession translates to the seamless integration of fit and function. “Goldwin’s house Lifestyle collection plays an important role in our product mix,” says Alfie Boyle of Blue in Green SoHo, a famous Japan-centric boutique. “It provides a clever mix of technical fabrics, ergonomic design, and utilitarian detailing with a clean aesthetic.”
Take Goldwin’s most recent collection for SS18. Jackets contain all the technical bells and whistles (GORE-TEX, Pertex, coated zippers, etc.), but are cut slim while still allowing for movement. Shirts are tailored and collared, but made of blended performance fabrics that look like cotton without any of its downsides. Ishikawa claims inspiration from Mies van der Rohe and Charlotte Perriand, modernist architects known for their philosophies that thoughtful design could improve quality of life.
Iconic silhouettes like the MA-1 are reimagined as sleek, ski-inspired shells; age-old references like vintage chore coats gain new life as Pertex-backed “hunting parkas.”
Ishikawa again: “When redesigning a product with the original design already existing, the most important thing is not to destroy its existing design and to add what the brand can offer.” It’s here that the translational expertise honed at Goldwin through licensed work really shines.
Most remarkably, accessibility details like magnetic closures and ceramic-infused hybrid down ease the sort of microscopic daily pain points that all but the most careful hand would miss. The results are understated technical excellence, ripped straight from the pages of a William Gibson novel. Fifty years after the first Goldwin-branded sweaters rolled off the line, the sycophantic perfectionism that first built its name is as strong as ever.
While tempting, it’s too convenient to abstract Goldwin’s historical synthesis of product, foresight, and quiet determinism as a prophecy for Lifestyle’s success. After all, this is the modern day: in a fashion space driven by Instagram views and oversized logos, a brand with little marketing expertise banking on understated quality appears to be swimming upstream.
“Products like ours are usually not affected by the changing trends every year, unlike the street fashion brands where marketing also requires a sense of speed,” says Gen Arai, General Manager of Goldwin. “Although it may take time, it is important for us that the concept and philosophy of the brand are well recognized. This is our challenge.”
After all, a screenprinter-turned-DJ was just given the reins of one of Europe’s most distinguished luxury houses. In this context, it’s hard to believe a quiet innovator could compete.
However, from the perspective of a nearly 70-year old company (and one still doing groundbreaking R&D, to boot), perhaps there’s simply just another shift around the corner. History does tend to repeat itself. Case in point: Tokyo will again host the Olympics in 2020.
Will Goldwin’s contemporary direction and knockout collections be enough to secure a podium position in its new home overseas? Whatever the future holds, Goldwin – the “man behind the curtain” of Japanese sportswear – is, through its “Lifestyle” collection, making some of the sleekest, highest-quality apparel in the world today.
For now, at least from a design perspective, its star is shining. From humble roots in postwar Japan, Goldwin is finally stepping into the spotlight.