If you haven’t heard of Tokyo-based brand Nine Lives clothing, you’ve been missing out. Their line of high quality denim, cutsews, and heavy outerwear is produced in Japan, and combines the quality and material know-how of a heritage brand with the razor-sharp edge of Japan’s v-kei and mod scene; all of it seen through 9L’s particular, ‘piratical’ lens. If you’ve been looking for a new rider’s jacket, a sashiko-embellished varsity-jacket-turned-chesterfield, or beautifully realized jacquard-weave flannel shirts, you’ve come to the right place.
I spoke to Ian Segal, who’s approximately one half – the American half – of the operation, and asked him about the brand, about his clothing, and about how he went from being a poetry editor in New York to making rock ‘n roll clothes on the other side of the world.
Jasper Lipton: How did you end up in Japan in the first place, after working as – correct me if I’m wrong – a poetry editor for the New Yorker? Which is also awesome.
Ian Segal: It was fun. Yeah, I always say I was a Lehman Shock baby. I graduated into the maelstrom there, and I took a consulting job in LA to get home – my dad was sick, so I wanted to be close to home. When the market looked like it was turning, I headed back East, as that was still where it seemed I had to be to build a career. I was making electric guitars – shittily, I might add – in my girlfriend’s basement in central New Jersey while I was applying for jobs, and in the same week I ended up interviewing at the distressed debt desk at Merril Lynch and the assistant poetry editor position at the magazine. While I was in the Merril interview – and mind you these buildings were directly adjacent to each other; Condé Nast was in what’s now the H&M building. So the same week, I go in for these diametrically opposed job interviews, and the Volcker rule was announced while I was doing the Merril Lynch interview, which more or less iced the job opening.
I mean, I was happy to have Obama win the Presidency, but he was sort of surreally speaking through the television while I’m in the middle of the interview, and everyone was sitting there a little dumbstruck as to what we were all still doing having the conversation. So I ended up at the new Yorker, and that was really fun – did it for about a year and a half and met basically all the people I wanted to meet, in terms of meeting all my heroes. It was an honor to do it. But I was young – I was 25, maybe, and I’d have these experiences where I’d go to parties and people would be like “Oh, you’re the New Yorker guy,” and I was like “No, I’m Ian.” Have you done any New York living?
JL: I’ve been around a little bit, yeah.
Kotaro and Ian of Nine Lives
IS: The thing about New York, in contrast to LA – and this is an LA partisan thing to say – is that New York is a renter’s city, and LA is a homesteader’s city. There’s this idea in New York that there are all these great jobs, all this great opportunity, but there’s always a line of 100 people to jump into that position behind you. You’re still a cog – you’re maybe a beautiful cog, and it’s an honor and a privilege to be a cog in that industry, but nevertheless you’re a cog. Whereas to me, LA still has a little bit of the – you can go and build your own fuckin’ life.
So anyway, after about a year and a half at the New Yorker I realized that everybody was either only there for a year and a half or two, or they were lifers. And it’s one thing to be a lifer there if you’re coming in as a journalist and you’re 35, and you’re like, “This is it, pinnacle of journalism, I’m gonna do this,” but the idea that you’re gonna be a lifer as a poetry editor is sort of an oxymoron to begin with, and I just was like…I just needed to do my own shit.
So very randomly I was given a job doing real estate, like, asset management and finance stuff in Tokyo – that was 2011 – so then I came over here, and I was doing that for a little while. It wasn’t a very good gig, but I didn’t really have enough money to get home, and I didn’t really want to come home with my tail between my legs just totally flamed out on something. So I was just in a holding pattern.
I went out to dinner with an acquaintance of mine, who I’d met through Josh Warner, of Good Art Hollywood; he was a Japanese designer and we went for drinks, and he was asking what he could do to do a little better in the States, and in the West. We were a little tipsy, and I was like, “Here’s an idea for a brand, here’s what you have to do,” because I thought he was a good designer and that the product he was making was really nice, it was just – very Japanese. Very Tokyo mod. And you know, I’m a half-Irish, half-Jewish kid from LA, so sarcasm’s my first language, and Japan’s a very earnest country that doesn’t really understand sarcasm, so he was just like “Great! Let’s do it!” and I said “Great!” and the next day I had pretty much forgotten about it, and he was like “Oh, I’ve opened an account and we have production meetings next week.”
IS: Yeah, so I just said ‘Fuck it.’
IS: Yeah, and that’s it. That was 2015. And this guy, he was doing his own brand called ‘Cruce,’ and it was very – well, it was connected to the visual kei world, right? So I met this guy originally through Josh, but it was actually through Die, from Dir en Grey, that I actually ended up following him, so Die was a sort of a casual acquaintance of mine, and Die wore a lot of this guy’s brand. I saw him posting about it on some – I don’t know – but I was like ‘Oh, I’ll go take a look.’
JL: That’s kinda wild. Were you, like, a clothing guy beforehand? I feel like landing in Tokyo, and then your first interaction with the clothing business is some guy’s visual kei brand, that might be kind of overwhelming.
IS: Yeah. So, my cousin, when I was younger, owned a clothing company. And so when I was in middle school, without really knowing it, there was a lot of osmotic exposure to clothing, because we’d just go and hang out, and I just ended up spending hours walking the racks. I mean, I didn’t pay heed at the time – I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything that lasted – but what did last was that my cousin became very good friends with Josh Warner of Good Art, and so it was through my cousin that I ended up becoming very close with Josh, and it was through Josh that I met Kotaro. So that’s the whole daisy chain.
JL: So, Good Art seems much more in line with what Nine Lives is, currently.
IS: Yeah, I mean, that’s certainly got to be a part of it; it’s gotta be partially the air we breathe, and partially because I’ve known Josh since I was, what, fourteen or something. He’s family now. One thing I’ll say is that Nine Lives as a name was actually partially inspired by Good Art – I love Good Art as a name because of its vacuity.
IS: And I mean I tell this to Josh, I love it because it’s so empty. It’s almost a meaningless shell that you have to backfill – this is the product and this is what it is – and that informed picking ‘Nine Lives,’ because Nine Lives is kind of a generic name. I’m sure that there are a thousand brands and, y’know, projects in the universe – not to mention, apparently, a terrible movie a couple of years ago –
JL: Yeah, that comes up a lot on Google.
IS: Nine Lives, it’s a cliché. And it was picked slightly for that reason – I liked the idea of picking something that, y’know, it’s not that it sounds bad, it’s fine; it has on a literal level a sense of the varied life and various energies that are being brought to the project, but in a sort of literal sense is trite, and is not that memorable, and people have to focus on product and have to actually see what it is for that name to take on life and take on meaning.
That’s actually a terrible business decision. I don’t know that any marketing MBA would tell you that was the right move. But that’s probably where I share DNA with Josh; a little bit of the punk rock, fuck you, I’m not gonna do it by your rules.
JL: ‘Zen as fuck,’ I think your website says, which also seems like an oxymoron. There’s also something a little bit of Baudelaire, of the flaneur, especially when you link it to clothing – but then it’s, like, a cat thing, and you guys are into coyotes. So where do the coyotes come from?
IS: So that’s one of the funny things. Yeah, I like animals – I mean, cats are fine. But Kotaro and I are very much dog people, and we basically started the whole project and were eventually, like, “Ehhh, I don’t know, we’re not the ‘cat guys,’ we gotta push against that.” So I thought, okay, what’s a really weird, cracked thing? And I said, “Coyotes have nine lives.” And that’s – we had a dog living with us that wandered in off the street when I was eleven, and was with us until he died twelve years later, and the legend was that he was half coyote. He certainly looked it. He was a feral, noble, prince of a mutt.
It sort of dovetails, because I have one line of poetry that’s sort of deliberately a purple prose line, and it says ‘Glinting mongrel in a dying land,’ and we ran with that line, and have adopted the coyote. You’ll see it a little more – this winter, we’re doing a little more Americana, whereas last spring was this pop horror, Lovecraftian Jurassic Park response to the Trump. This collection is a little bit more going into shadow country, and doing some more mod Americana.
I don’t love putting our brand name on stuff, and that sort of speaks to the ‘Zen as fuck’ line; y’know, even when stuff is more pugilistic and strong, I still hope that there’s a certain degree of minimalism, and it’s obviously not that branded – and we’re not really making money by selling a brand. So there’s an essentialism to it, and because of that I always feel funny making a t-shirt that actually says ‘Nine Lives.’ We did it that first time, because we just kind of didn’t know what we were doing, and now we’ve finally managed to be making a full collection where we’re excited about everything – from the crazy outerwear down to the t-shirts – we feel like we’ve hit our stride. In that context, well, okay, we still want to do some printed t-shirts, we want to do a remake of a 70’s nylon Kawasaki long-sleeve jersey. And it can’t say “Kawasaki,” so we won’t put that on there, but I don’t want it to say Nine Lives, so we’re gonna use ‘mongrel.’ So that’s what we’re using in place of the brand name when we want to do text.
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