You can't fully prepare for your first trip to Tokyo. Yes, you can buy the Monocle guide, re-watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi and pack your full suitcase inside a larger, empty suitcase in anticipation of all of the treasures you're planning to bring home, but none of it can prepare you for the experience of being there. The scale. The tidiness. The bowing. For the sartorially inclined, visiting Tokyo for the first time is like spending your life eating orange sherbet only to discover there are actually hundreds of other flavours of ice cream, all of them fascinating, most of them better than orange sherbet.
I recently spent a week in Tokyo, walking the streets, riding the subways, eating copiously and wanting to buy everything in sight. From the vintage denim shops of Shimokitazawa to the luxury department stores of Ginza to the sci-fi street style of Harajuku, I was overwhelmed by not just the vast selection, but how well executed it all was. Here, eastern and western influences come together to create something unique. It felt both like visiting another planet and coming home. I'm just one of many recent converts to the Japanese way of doing things: Chefs flock to the noodle counters and sushi bars in search of transcendent tastes; tech geeks make pilgrimage to Tokyo's electronics district; and, likewise, fashion is increasingly turning its gaze eastward for materials, inspiration and enlightenment.
"If you're going to do something, you might as well be the best at it," says Brandon Svarc, who had an experience similar to mine when he first visited Japan a decade ago. In search of fabric for his Montreal-based denim brand Naked & Famous, he was quickly won over. "I didn't choose Japanese denim because Japanese fashion is cool," he says. "I did it because Japanese denim is the best in the world."
Not only did the denim become a central element of his brand, the Japanese spirit of innovative perfectionism began to imbue his work as well. Naked & Famous began with the concept of high-quality denim at accessible prices, but has subsequently become known for outlandish creations like glow-in-the-dark jeans, evergreen-scented scratch 'n' sniff trousers and, most recently, pants woven with Kevlar for extra durability. None of these creations, Svarc says, would have been possible without the tenacity and ingenuity of his Japanese suppliers. "If I went to Italy or Turkey or China they'd say, 'No way, we can't do this.' In Japan it's 'No problem, we're going to figure it out for you,'" he says.
In Vancouver, luxury streetwear brand Wings + Horns was born after its founder returned from a seven-year stay in Japan. Since its inception, Wings + Horns has earned a loyal following for its austere, monochromatic palette and clean lines, as well as its dedication to producing all of its product between B.C. and Japan. For designer Tung Vo, there's no question about the importance of the Japanese influence on the brand's identity. "It's a very considered, methodical, almost obsessive approach to details," he says of the Japanese aesthetic. "There's a lot of subtle nuance." For fall, Vo produced a collection of outerwear inspired by In Praise of Shadows, a 1933 essay on aesthetics by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki. The essay discusses at length the beauty found in the delicate play of light and shadow, an observation that faithfully translates to the heavy woollen sweaters and deep black bomber jackets of the collection.
While the term "Japanese fashion" encompasses everything from meticulously faithful reproductions of American workwear to the bold patterns and flowing lines of Issey Miyake's runway collections, attention to detail and high-quality materials are consistent throughout. There is, however, another, more elusive element. A notoriously conformist society, where wearing anything other than a black suit to work is seen as a statement unto itself, fashion in Japan carries an entirely different significance than elsewhere. "When Mr. Miyake started the brand, the daily workwear of men was nothing but standard suiting,"says Yusuke Takahashi, designer of Issey Miyake Men. "He wanted to make clothes that set people free." For his latest collection, Takahashi was in part inspired by the hues and textures of traditional Mongolian clothing, translating it to the runway in a range of colourful, flowing knits and billowing woollen trench coats stamped with a horse hoof print. It's at once foreign and familiar, simple and complex, undoubtedly influenced by European standards but still wholly Japanese. At first it looks confusing, outlandish, ridiculous even, but the longer you stare at it the more fascinating it becomes.
After a week in Tokyo I'd blown my budget, filled my empty suitcase to bursting, and uttered the phrase, "Why did no one think of this at home?" more times than I could count. I was exhausted, overstimulated, hungover, exhilarated. It felt like no bowl of noodles or department store could ever satisfy me again. This, I now understand, is how it happens.