BOUND TO PLEASE / Unraveling Japan’s sartorial evolution thread by thread

By Sara Hunnisett / Japan News Staff WriterAmetora: How Japan Saved American Style

By W. David Marx

Basic Books, 269pp

It seems funny in retrospect that the pioneers of Ivy League style in Japan were viewed as a public nuisance as they hung around the upmarket streets of Ginza in their button-down shirts, blazers and chinos. People were concerned that without intervention, the crowds of young men taking an unhealthy interest in fashion would cause the area to degenerate into a “hotbed of evil.”

Fast-forward half a century, and Japan is a significant hub in the realm of menswear. Bape is a household name. Yohji Yamamoto’s and Comme des Garcons’ avant-garde designs have long graced the pages of international glossies. And you can pick up a Uniqlo T-shirt in about 1,700 stores worldwide.

But how did Japan take its place at the fashion vanguard? Have Japanese men always had such a seemingly effortless sense of style? Why is Nigo called Nigo? And just what is the deal with those Harajuku rockabillies?

Cultural commentator W. David Marx answers these questions and more in his thoroughly researched, compelling and thought-provoking book, “Ametora.” The title is a Japanese portmanteau of the words “American traditional.”

Beginning with the country’s detail-oriented yet sometimes off-target obsession with Ivy League clothing, Marx traces Japan’s love affair with Americana all the way to the emergence of today’s world-leading brands, now highly sought after in the very country that inspired their existence.

“Ametora” focuses on the austere postwar period in detail, when most men wore unimaginative suits and even university students wore militaristic uniforms. At the time, interest in fashion among men was taboo, until one man came along to challenge traditional ideas of masculinity. The man was Van Jacket Inc. founder Kensuke Ishizu, who had a fetish for Western clothing. Ishizu’s obsession with Ametora style inspired the country’s youth and launched a sartorial revolution. That, plus the influence of other movers and shakers and some prescriptive menswear publications, left the fashion landscape of Japan forever altered.

The Ivy look didn’t last, although many other America-inspired trends followed. Hot on its heels were the rugged looks of “heavy-duty ivy,” hippies and many more, ebbing and flowing on cultural currents. What stayed consistent, however, was the Japanese ability to import, refine and improve on the styles, which would eventually make their way back to the United States. Japanese denim and street wear labels are now the global gold standard.

And “Take Ivy,” the 1965 Ivy League style bible for which Japanese photographers documented the attire of real Ivy League students, is now seen as “a treasure of fashion insiders.” The book sold 50,000 copies when republished in English in 2010, as American fashion bloggers finally looked to Japan to teach them the lost art of Ivy League style. America in 2008 resembled 1964 Japan, with a small group of fashion zealots on a mission of sartorial dissemination.

Overall, “Ametora” is a fascinating and insightful account of the rise and rise of Japanese style which will appeal not only to fashion lovers, but also Japanophiles and those interested in how cultures globalize. Although “Ametora” could have benefited from the inclusion of more photos, it’s a minor misdemeanor for a book which is otherwise accomplished, well-written and a good excuse to lose a couple of hours to a Google image search.

Where to Read

A chic terrace cafe with a front row seat to the sidewalk catwalk.

Maruzen price: ¥4,480 plus tax (as of June 8, 2016)Speech

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