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How American Style Fueled Postwar Youth Fashion in Japan

A new book called "Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style" analyzes America's influence on Japanese menswear — and vice versa.
W. David Marx, right, and his book, left. Photos: Basic Books

W. David Marx, right, and his book, left. Photos: Basic Books

In post World War II Japan, Kensuke Ishizu started a men's ready-to-wear company called Van Jacket to provide a functional uniform for the emerging middle class — men who were not yet accustomed to thinking about fashion. But facing the fact that his generation would always favor tailor-made clothing over off the rack styles, he turned his attention towards the next generation. During a world tour in 1959, Ishizu visited Princeton at the suggestion of an American friend, where he realized that the preppy style of the dapper young students was perfect for Japanese youth.  

"In 1959, Van took the first step by producing an 'Ivy model' suit — a detailed copy of Brooks Brothers' classic Number One Sack Suit with a loose, dartless jacket," writes Tokyo-based American writer W. David Marx in his new book, "Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style." In 1965, Ishizu sent a team of men — including his son Shōsuke Ishizu — to the States to photograph the Ivy League man in his element. The resulting style manual, "Take Ivy," symbolized the dominant aesthetic of young Japanese menswear in the 1960s and "set the pattern on how the country would import, consume and modify American fashion for the next fifty years." In the following decades, "Take Ivy" took on a canonical status as people desperately searched for copies until it was reprinted in 2010, bringing renewed attention to the history of Japanese menswear. Marx argues that in the intervening decades, the Japanese evolved past simply copying Ivy League and American style and developed "a nuanced, culturally rich tradition" that the writer calls Ametora, Japanese slang for "American tradition" — something that's been reimported to the U.S. through the success of several denim and streetwear brands, including Uniqlo. 

I recently spoke with Marx about why he wrote his new book and how his thesis applies to current Japanese fashion and trends. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

Why is a history of Japanese menswear relevant to American audiences right now?

When I lived in Japan seven or eight years ago, you would read a men's magazine and it would have all of this information about men's fashion that you would never see in the U.S. — and that I felt like [we] never would. And then with the rise of menswear blogs I thought, "Whoa, they are doing the same thing that the Japanese fashion magazines do." To see those blogs start getting their hands on Japanese source material... to see that loop happen also gave the book its ending. It's not only that this interesting thing is happening in Japan, but it's also massively impacting American fashion now.

It was always shocking to me that a Japanese brand could capture the American imagination, but I think Evisu in the '90s, with the jeans with the white seagull, and then the A Bathing Ape in the 2000s proved the point that Japanese brands could really become a driving force in Western pop culture. Since that point, everyone knows it's true and looks to Japan. They broke huge barriers by inserting themselves in the American consciousness, which never was their goal.

You write in the book that there is a huge market for men's fashion magazines in Japan. In the wake of the closure of Details, why do you think the U.S. doesn't have the same demand?

In Japan, if you pick up Popeye or Men's Non-no or whatever, it's literally 95% fashion, and if [something is] not in the fashion pages, it's in the back. There's almost no magazine in the U.S. that parallels that. There are, like, 50 or more titles [in Japan] so there is this incredible print culture. It lets you shop before you go to the stores because it plays this function in Japanese society, there's much more use for them. In Japan, obviously everybody has smart phones. The Internet is very big, but mainstream media has not moved over to the Internet. So if you go to a website for one of these publications, it just pales in comparison to picking up the real thing. 

How is Uniqlo a product of the fashion history you've written about?

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I think Uniqlo is a product of the history of Japanese fashion but also very different, and one of the surprising things I learned in the book was that the father of Uniqlo's founder Tadashi Yanai ran a Van Jacket franchise. Van Jacket was the first brand to bring American style to Japan, so he is very much part of that cultural tradition. When they interview the creative directors [of Uniqlo], they'll say, "Oh, I grew up on L.L.Bean." That being said, I think they did take it somewhere really different. They make button-down oxfords that are very much in the tradition, but when you walk in the store you [don't think] "American traditional" clothing. 

One of the anecdotes I have in the book is [about] Kensuke Ishizu [founder of Van Jacket], who wanted to bring Ivy League fashion to Japan — not because he liked Ivy League fashion, but because he thought Japanese youth deserved its own basic style that could last forever and... that was almost devoid of a specific cultural meaning. The story goes that he walked into a Uniqlo [with his son] and he said, "This is what I wanted to make," which is basics for the Japanese nation and now for people around the world. I think Heattech is a great example of that kind of material innovation. There is a long tradition in Japan of the textile industry — after the war, it was put together very quickly to create an export market for Japan, so they invested a lot in textile industry. They aren't just appealing to, "Let's just make things look like 40 years ago," which I think is also a big trend in Japan.

Does the replica trend continue today? 

There are brands that do that and people love it. But young designers aren't just trying to do that. Visvim [designed by Hiroki Nakamura] and Engineered Garments [designed by Daiki Suzuki] are the ones that know everything about the history of American clothing, but they do not want to make replicas. What they want to do is push it and make something new that reflects that history, but is not a replica of it. 

When you talk to [Evisu designer Hidehiko Yamane], he says he never wanted to create a replica. [He said,] "I wanted to create a product that felt like wearing American jeans as a Japanese kid... I wanted to replicate [the feeling] but I don't want to just make Levi's. I want to make something that's different, that has a different cut, a different feel." Replica was one kind of answer to that authenticity crisis, but now I think that brands are over that in some ways.

Why is this specifically a menswear story?

I would say in general that women's fashion in Japan was not as kind to the importation of American styles. The department stores were very much tied to Parisian fashion so they were bringing in Dior and European stuff. The ready-to-wear market for young Japanese women didn't start until the '70s. When you go to Japan and you look at the breadth of womenswear — all the way from the really avant-garde stuff to the crazy Harajuku colorful things to what an office lady wears — those are all not tied to America very much. I think the impact of French casual clothing is massive.

The guys were into all of this Ivy League stuff but the girls were not like that. In "Take Ivy" — there were no women on those campuses at that time and [the photographers] didn't go to the Seven Sisters colleges. In the late '70s and early '80s, women were wearing very preppy clothing, like yellow oxford button-down shirts, bow ties, madras and all that, with their boyfriends in matching ensembles. Womenswear moved past that very quickly and went to crazy avant-garde design in the early '80s with Comme Des Garçons and those brands.

What do you think Americans misunderstand about Japanese fashion? 

I think, first of all, that there's a lot of misunderstanding about Japan being obsessed with America in a really simplistic way. It's worth understanding that when someone around the world loves America... often it's disconnected completely with America as the culture of the country itself. When somebody is young and wearing a button-down shirt it's not, “I love Ivy league”; it's "I love this tradition that is my country's tradition." And I think it is worth it for us as Americans to understand [that] our idea of America is also very much informed by foreign [countries] reimporting it back. 

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.