JL: Who handles which aspects of design when you’re going through this process?
IS: It sorta depends on the piece. Kotaro is a designer. The one-line difference is that I’ll sort of do ‘creative direction’ and that Kotaro will do brass-tacks design. In actuality, what that always means is a sort of dialogue. Sometimes, I’ll just say that I want to do a denim-style jacket that has these sorts of parameters, and Kotaro will be the one who actually sees the lines and sees some new beauty in that.
Other times, Kotaro doesn’t really have a background in things like raw denim, and so far as it’s a trend in Japan it’s a very niche market, but as far as the air we breathe as Americans…I have a bunch more experience with that, so things like the jeans with the new back pocket – the stitching design, a lot of the technical specs – of all the pieces, that’s probably one of the ones that’s not really in Kotaro’s original wheelhouse
On the flip side, the chesterfield varsity is 100% Kotaro. Well, except for the other colorway, because I pushed for the white leather. Rider’s jacket’s got a little bit of mixed DNA, jeans slowly drift a little further to me, but Kotaro’s the one that’s got the eye for seam and silhouette. What we like is that we have different aesthetics, but we have enough overlap that if we really push through to find that consensus point – even if it means we just stare at the page for eight or ten hours – we’ve at least so far been lucky enough to find that that’s sometimes a special place to arrive at.
JL: Are you still working with another pattern maker?
IS: Primarily it’s the two of us – we even own most of the damn thing, and then some of our dear friends own the rest. One of the guys who’s on the team is a friend, Takayanagi, who has his own brand called ‘Kiryuyrik’, which is not easy to say for an American, and he used to work as a pattern maker for Yohji Yamamoto and did a lot of tailored clothes. His brand’s really cool, and he does some of our patterning with us. Basically, we use him and one other guy.
That’s something that sets us off a little bit from some of the amekaji brands in Japan – most of our production, and some of the pattern makers we use, they’re all coming out of this mod-fashion-street part of Japan.
JL: Like you said, you’re not the heritage-background-vintage-picker kinda people.
IS: Right. Some of our best friends are, which is fun, because it makes life easy sometimes. We have a car coat coming out this – well, basically now, and our original reference piece was an old, vintage, horsehide car coat from the 40’s or 50’s. We borrowed that from Atsu Tagaya of Stevenson Overalls. So, we’re fortunate to friends that bail us out.
JL: That reminds me of something I read somewhere, which was that your idea was that you’d start with classic pieces and get progressively weirder. Am I imagining that?
IS: No, no, you’re right. The first interview we did was with Die! Workwear – which still gets my favorite name for any blog – and that was basically a very distilled version of the plan of attack. Which was, you plant your flag in the familiar, and then you bring people along for the ride and make pirates out of everybody.
JL: Is the car coat part of that?
IS: The car coat’s kind of classic. I actually look at the chesterfield varsity, because Kotaro had been working on that piece for a while, that piece had already begun to exist pretty much at the start of Nine Lives. I remember looking specifically at that coat, and I was like, this thing’s beautiful and I love it. The two ways it could move are if you’re already really famous and somebody was picking it up because you’re a cool Tokyo street brand, like Barney’s decided to get behind it or some shit; the other way is we have to make something else that lets people begin to experiment with elements of this jacket, and then let’s just all go to it together.
It’s easy for me to sit in Tokyo and be really dislocated – and you know, because you’ve walked around Tokyo – on some level, and I say this as someone who loves the country and loves the food and loves the people, it’s still not a country that as a foreigner you can very fundamentally integrate with. And in that context it’s very freeing. My aesthetic for my own clothing certainly loosened when I came to Japan, for that reason. You’re like, I can kinda do anything. So in that context you go back to the States and you feel a little more conservative, so I think the key is that I can look at this piece here in Tokyo and look at it in a void, without any context, and just say “This thing’s really rad.”
But if you want to build a market, I think it’s about making a pirate about of everybody, getting everybody on a boat going in the same direction. So Kotaro actually had a prototype of that jacket before we had the sashiko varsity. We were already deciding to do something with sashiko fabric, and I said what if we did a more classic varsity—keep the shoulder design and the ribbing, and otherwise get rid of some of the articulated stitching and do a normal length— and start from that point. Because you’ll make the connection – people will see the sashiko, they’ll be able to connect with it, they already have a vocabulary to begin to read that. And we’ll just keep adding new words from there. It’s been nice seeing that play out, where in fact that varsity was around for a couple years and people didn’t really see it; now they see [the chesterfield] and they say “Is that the evolution of the varsity,” and really it’s the other way around.
JL: That brings up an interesting question: who’s this for, and what are they wearing it with? On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like the most obvious fit for a store like Self Edge, at least when comparing it to a brand such as The Flat Head.
IS: I love Self Edge, and I love a lot of these stores that are carrying amekaji – that actually really invented that genre in western terms—sort of two mirrors held up to each other. It’s true that the actual Nine Lives pieces push out from an originalist heritage point, but these stores have sophisticated customers who really interact with the pieces and become part of the process and experience of the brand.
When you look at who spends money on clothes, you’ve got hype stuff, you’ve got guys who can pay the big bucks for the tailoring and the old, nice stuff, and you’ve got people that appreciate the craftsmanship, the detail, the fact that everything’s getting made by people who get paid a decent living wage and own houses and cars and can support their families. The made-in-Japan brands, the Self Edge market and that larger market that those stores are connected to, they have a client base that understands what they are paying for and will pay 300$ for jeans, a few hundred dollars for a shirt, a thousand, sometimes two thousand plus for heavy outer. And these shops do a great job finding and building that market, they see high sell-through. If you say you’re going to make a nice product, and it’s not going to be cheap because we’re going to use top-shelf materials and pay a lot of artisans to make it, where’s your beachhead? Certainly as a style, if you look at the whole collection, it might be a little bit of the odd man out; but we find that a lot of the dedicated customers in this space are actually really responding to it and so we’ve been honored to sell with our current stockists.
There’s a lot of brands that I love, that I say don’t play nicely with others. I always hope that Nine Lives as a brand blends with different clothes. Again, that’s sort of the formalism, the constraint, that’s part of the idea of it being an everyday brand. I hope that you can wear that varsity chesterfield jacket – and I think you can – basically over a suit. We have a couple of people that do, and I also think that it looks really good with cuffed, selvage jeans, and a band tee shirt. Same for our rider’s jacket: It’s in offices in New York, Paris, and LA and it’s on bikes on the roads in between.
The idea is that we try to make clothes that – I think I say it somewhere – that have a volume knob.
JL: One of your stockists, I have noticed, likes to style your jeans with Lucchese boots. Which may or may not have partially inspired a very sudden but memorable interest in Lucchese boots on Styleforum, which got me thinking about – you’re from LA, moved to the East Coast, moved to Tokyo; you don’t really make heritage clothing, you’re not working with a heritage designer; do you draw a distinction between Nine Lives as a Western brand or an Eastern brand?
IS: Yeah! Depends on who I’m trying to sell to.
IS: I’ll say one thing – my mom was from Texas, and even my Jews came through Waco when they came to the states. I believe we have a forebear who invented a spring-loaded emergency brake for a covered wagon. You’d pull the thing and it would launch a javelin into the ground. So, I actually wore Lucchese’s every day of college. One of the reasons we decided to sell with Snake Oil, is when we went into the store the first thing I saw on the back wall were Lucchese’s. And I said, “Are those Lucchese’s? You got boots?” And Ben [of Snake Oil Provisions] said “Yessir.” And I said, “Well, we’d like to do business with you.” Because I think those boots are great, and I don’t think we see enough of them. We’re actually trying to do cowboy boots, but we’ll do ‘em with a Western heel, y’know? I was like, “Fuck it, I want a cowboy boot,” so if we can make it, we’ll make a cowboy boot.
To circle back to your question of ‘What are we,’ I think we’re a Western brand. We’re a Western brand with Japanese attention to detail. Because Japan is a very scene-oriented – you can basically tell where a dude shops, pretty much down to the store, depending on where in the country and where you see him. Again, in contrarian business decisions, people say ‘know your market.’ And I’m anti-narrative. I don’t want to tell a story. Really. I actually don’t want to tell a story with the clothes.
This is where the Zen comes in – for the interview, for the fun questions, for all the things that go into it, the transient themes and stuff, all of that being said our focus is so intensely on the actual wearability and beauty of the pieces themselves. My hope is that people just put the clothes on and they don’t want them to come off.
I think it would have to be Western – the idea that we’re not making clothes for a scene, the idea that I want, ideally, that people will come and see the stuff from all styles; that the guys into streetwear will see the hoodies and the dusters, that the bruisers are in rider’s jackets, and that everybody can eventually get up and change dance partners, can get into different pieces that we do.
JL: Wow. That’s an emphatic answer. Were you practicing that?
IS: No! But you made me think about it, and it turns out there’s actually an answer. Thank you; that was very clarifying for me.
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Great interview. Serious, thoughtful, and deep, but playful and not pretentious. Thanks guys.