Japanese Spirit

Although the development of the suit as the global modern outfit is grounded in the courtier, military then urban apparel of Western Europe, it has experienced many local adaptations, probably none as subtly distinctive as the Japanese take on contemporary menswear.

You may have read the excellent Ametora, How Japan Saved American Style by W. David Marx. The book showed with detailed historical accuracy how Japan’s youth adopted the Ivy League style in the late 1950s as a rebellious stance and transformed it in their own way, ultimately developing an original approach to classic style and even changing the way we look at denim as not just a rough cloth but as a possibly refined one. One could say that Japan’s acute sense of aesthetics made them keen selectors of the best the West had to offer — incidentally, Japan is a leading market for jazz and has developed a thriving industry in special editions and reissues, showing their true understanding of cultural otherness.

Embracing the renewal of sartorial menswear with a dashing spirit, Japan can boast many sartorial stars who shine for their sober taste and the paradox of undemonstrative elegance (some of those sartorial favourites are reviewed here).

So how could one define the Japanese take on sartorial practice? 

The toned-down obviousness of Japanese style may find its source in a sort of hankering for sobriety that Junichiro Tanizaki relentlessly advocated for in his essay In Praise of Shadows. The plural in the English title is essential: it’s not obscurity that is important, but the myriad unobtrusive shades: 

« As a general matter, we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. (…) We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity »

Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (1933, translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

The aesthetic concepts of iki (or tsu), could be thought of as the Japanese equivalent of sprezzatura — despite the vastly different cultural contexts — because it is a blend of sophistication and instinctive force, of nobility and honesty. It’s a form of composed and clear-headed stylishness, the opposite of bling and show-off. The idea of iki emphasizes elegance and sophistication but without the peacock pose.

Strangely enough (or logically enough) one of the most striking features of that contemporary Japanese trend is the distinctly Italian accent it displays. I can think of two brands exemplifying that Japanese flair with an Italian accent in a most striking way, Seven Fold / Tie Your Tie, as represented by its proud owner Mr. Kenji Kaga, and the French newcomer Gyappu founded by Thibault Ranjanoro.

Kenji Kaga (pictured here in an excellent article) was born in 1964 in Osaka. He worked in menswear and contributed to the Tie Your Tie franchise in Tokyo in the 1990s. His ambition was to produce garments that helped create a “renovated classic style”. In line with contemporary trends in menswear, he has thus been part of the great mutation, which, it could be argued, has affected menswear for the past couple of decades: its ‘sartorialisation’, or in other words, the shift from the suit-and-tie as a default outfit to an attitude where classic style is embraced as a personal choice.

In Kenji Kaga’s own words, the idea behind Tie Your Tie was to combine ‘Italian fantasy and Japanese precision”, a good way to describe the exacting Japanese standards and the inspired stylistic propositions of the Italian tradition. ‘Italians are known for their invention and talent for colours while not always striving for perfection,’ he adds, ‘while the Japanese tend to be the opposite, less inventive but intent on creating the best product.’ This cultural encounter is resoundingly obvious in the crystal-clear quality of the collection.

Kenji Kaga’s shop offers various items in line with his own style, which is both refined and relaxed, sharp, and nonchalant. The purpose of the brand, as he described it, is to “favour an appreciation for the culture and the originality of the tailors, to pass on the knowledge of crafts that could otherwise disappear.” Kenji Kaga adds, “I am searching for a type of elegance that is allied to a sense of surprise, something that creates emotion. That’s why we’re trying to source materials that are not commonly found on the market. I work with the maker’s archives—we’re very fortunate to have craftsmen who make themselves available and want to produce the best possible quality. Our ties are made in Florence, there are 8 different quality controls by experts. We want to make sure that hand-made tie connoisseurs are satisfied.”

One can only concur: their most remarkable feature is the feel. All the ties I have tested (silk models, a three-fold fresco wool, three- and seven-fold silk, etc. ) all share a very special feature—they have the perfect hand enabling the perfect knot. The craft is excellent in itself but the resulting capacity to drape and tie well, to form a good dimple is really what make these ties distinctive. 

Another aspect is the aesthetic satisfaction the ties give as they stem from Kenji Kaga’s own Italian-Japanese style, never dramatic or dull in effect, with a vague and charming hint of a vintage look, in line with his overall sober and stylish philosophy.

Kenji Kaga

Kenji Kaga

Interestingly, Japanese flair has been increasingly appealing even outside its national borders, attracting individuals with acute cultural awareness such as Thibaut Ranjanoro, the founder of Gyappu.

In the true fashion of a votary, Gyappu is a dedicated brand, maybe even actually more of a philosophical manifesto. Ranjanoro’s sense of Japanese aesthetics is exemplified by his search for purity and details. His statements about the concept of iki show how he aims at translating his principles into a sartorial reality.

As you already guessed, his ties are made in Italy. They have a special feature with a distinctly Japanese signature detail— a very sober gold travetta that closes the back of each of Gyappu’s ties. This is a clear reference to kintsugi, the art of repairing broken china with gold powder, thus creating a gold streak that actually makes the object more beautiful than it initially was, repairing not only the broken bowl but the sadness of having broken it.

A gold travetta secures the back of the tie.

The shirts combine the evidence of raw materials such as denim or chambray with the refinement of a well-designed cutaway or soft collar. Their construction shows sartorial relevance (asymmetrical armscyes attachment, French seams, zampa di gallina button attachment, no placket, rough hand-made hem-gussets, etc.). Gyappu is also launching pocket squares from vintage kimono cloth and, for next autumn, knitwear made in Italy with Japan-woven wool. It’s a promising brand, with a limited number of products so far, but surely expanding into more interesting cross-pollination between Italy and Japan.


There’s a lot more to explore in that field and sartorial mavens may want to dissect the stylings of Yukio Akamine, Noboru Kakuta or Yasuto Kamoshita, what they wear and how they create an ensemble. Ultimately, we know it’s not about the clothes and more about how someone will make them their own — simply how the garment can be the natural extension of a personality. Still, it’s impossible to no be inspired by what brands offer so we can compare and adapt their proposals, dismiss or adopt them.

Disclaimer: Please note that the products mentioned were offered free of charge to the author for review purposes.
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John Slamson

JS is a writer and translator based in Paris. He loves a generous lapel. He’s also a jazz producer and critic who believes we should let the good times roll.

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