Japanese streetwear is big business.
A cultural phenomenon for three decades, streetwear’s popularity, influence and street cred continues to grow each year. Some of the all-time biggest brands in streetwear were born in the land of the rising sun and continue to thrive in the streetwear scene today.
How did streetwear become so popular in Japan and continue to gain market share over the years? Let’s examine the meteoric rise of Japanese streetwear, its cultural significance, some of the most popular brands and its staying power in the ever-fickle world of apparel wear.
The history of Japanese streetwear
The Japanese culture was not immune to the spread of streetwear fever during the 1990s.
While such emerging brands like Stussy and Supreme were making a name for themselves among skaters, surfers and members of the counterculture communities in New York City, streetwear was simultaneously taking flight across Japan as well as other regions around the world.
In Japan, the birth of streetwear was initially barely a noticeable event for most people. Born on the streets of Tokyo in a small four-square block area called Urahara, which is short for ura-Harajuku, meaning “the hidden Harajuku, this area was located between the districts of Harajuku and Aoyama in the nation’s capital and most populated city.
These humble and inconspicuous beginnings were further exacerbated by the fact that this area was lined with unknown and quite frequently unnamed clothing shops.
Despite them being nearly non-visible to the shopping public, they typically did get one thing right: They patterned their stores after those found in the United States and the United Kingdom. Key influences on Japan streetwear in those early days were the hip hop and punk rock scenes found across America and the UK. (The stores also relied on word of mouth and customer recommendations since the early days of streetwear occurred prior to the advent of the Internet.)
One of the first-named stores in Urahara was called Nowhere and it truly lived up to its reputation. The store’s location was in a place that was difficult for customers to find and many simply walked past it on their first visit to the retailer.
Fortunately for that segment of the retail market, momentum for Japanese streetwear would literally and figuratively come out of “Nowhere” thanks to the popularity of this store. Founders Jun “Jonio” Takahashi, and Tomoaki Nagao, known then and still to this day as NIGO, split the store in two, with one half serving as a graphic T-shirt shop.
This T-shirt shop was the beginning of A Bathing Ape (BAPE), one of the biggest names in streetwear here in the United States, Japan and around the world. The creation of BAPE, some have argued, actually gave birth to the Urahara district.
In nearly no time, the district witnessed the rise of new and very creative streetwear brands such as NEIGHBORHOOD, which was named in tribute to the district in which it was located. Created by Shinsuke, his designs celebrated American heavy metal music and the American people’s fascination with motor vehicles, especially motorcycles.
A fascination with American icons, in general, and subculture groups that were foreign concepts to the Japanese led to an explosion in new and fresh ideas in the nation’s fashion and a boom in all things streetwear.
Creative designer SK8THING was an early influencer credited with providing mind-blowing graphic designs for BAPE, punk toy brand BOUNTY HUNTER and many more. The creativity simply could not be stopped, with brands like WTAPS, visvim and many others launching their own brands, too.
This boom created an everlasting swarm of styles and fashion statements containing their own unique touch and individualistic messaging that the Japanese people loved.
Although the Japanese may have initially tailored their looks after American and UK fashion, it didn’t take long for the culture to develop their own streetwear aesthetic.
By 1996, streetwear found in Urahara was “set in stone as an amalgamation of different lifestyles and pop culture but uniquely Japanese—and above all, consistent”. As a consequence of Urahara’s prominence in trends, it became a forerunner of the Japanese streetwear we see today.
In contrast to the laid back vibes from the back streets of Harajuku, more flamboyant styles were being created on the main streets. Kawaii, Lolita, Gothic Lolita, and Cyberpunk became the flavors of the day.
From insane neons to adorable pastels, these visually wild movements were defying “the cultural norm” by featuring a vivid color palette that spread a powerful message of anti-conformism.
Despite each movement being vastly different from one another in terms of origin and style, these distinct modes of fashion shared common themes such as DIY and sensory overload. Kawaii became known as Japan’s biggest fashion export. But its exposure in the West by the likes of Gwen Stefani led to the interpretation that Japanese style was “one-dimensional”.
This, however, was an inaccurate portrayal of Japanese streetwear. In fact, the exact opposite was true, according to Reggie Casual, a leading voice in the streetwear movement.
Casual noted that Japanese fashion in the 1990s was at peak diversity. Japan was defining “what it meant to be fashion-forward,” he says, and “experimentation was paramount and juxtaposed to American culture”. American fashion seemed stale in comparison, Casual added. A trait that would later become characteristic of Japanese street fashion was that the lifestyle of an individual was just as important as the aesthetic.
By the end of the decade, a defining factor that influenced the direction of streetwear in Japan was the emergence of Supreme, landing in Daikanyama in 1998. In short order, in fact, Japan would soon be the country with the most Supreme stores in the world, boasting a total of six stores around the nation! Every single location sold out during their launches, and the popularity of Supreme and demand for a skater-oriented lifestyle led to the success of other western brands like Stussy and HUF.
By the 2000s, Japanese streetwear had finally found its way to a much wider audience, giving a spark of hope to the many newcomers with skin in the game. The outcome of the burgeoning movement was how much inspiration the Japanese found in, and among, themselves, developing garments for the streets meant taking the best of different backgrounds and shaping them together into a very personal expression.
The Culture of Japanese Streetwear
It is this sense of individuality that is at the heart of streetwear’s popularity in Japan. It’s amazing considering this metamorphosis has occurred just a few generations after the strict mores, or “Kibishī kisoku,” that governed its people for thousands of years and countless generations.
In finding their own identity, the Japanese just don’t settle for shallow trends, they dive deep into the lifestyle which gives them the time to make it so much more personal than other cultures.
Today, the streetwear fashion transformation that hit Japan in the 1990s is not considered to be simply a copy of American culture. Although the movement that defines Japanese streetwear and its infiltration into clothes worn by individuals living in the West is known as Ametora, or American tradition, it is really much more complex than that.
It is a representation of the contemporary nature of the Japenese society, and their ever-modernizing influence throughout the world. It is also a discovery of an entirely new identity, a new persona and one of the greatest instances of cultural assimilation and globalization.
Here, then, is our hot take on the top streetwear brands to come out of Japan. This list, of course, is purely based on personal preferences but the lasting power and contributions they made to the Japanese streetwear scene can not be disputed.
The top Japanese streetwear brands
Founder: Tomoaki Nagao a.k.a Nigo
Current owner: I.T. Group
Perhaps no other brand garners more Google searches and dominates streetwear conversation than this brand. As previously stated, it IS the brand that launched the Japanese streetwear movement, so we’d have to be bananas not to give this top, ah, ape, its due.
The company’s full name is actually a loose reference to the phrase “a bathing ape in lukewarm water,” which is a reference to the Japanese method of bathing which typically involves water at a temperature above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). To bathe in water that has gotten lukewarm after a long period of time is an over-indulgence, a luxury, and thus he is gently mocking the laziness and opulence of the generation of Japanese youths which consume his products.
Founder Nigo says the store’s name is also a tribute to the 1968 film, “Planet of the Apes”, a legendary sci-fi film where Apes, and not man, rule a post-apocalyptic world.
In 2003, befriended Pharrell Williams of the bands Neptunes and N.E.R.D., which launched the hip hop world’s obsession with BAPE. This was the first introduction of BAPE to the United States, and while many people commonly ask if Pharrell Williams founded BAPE or does he own BAPE, the answer is simply no.
Many people have also asked why is BAPE so expensive? One of the reasons why it’s so expensive is because of all the hype surrounding it thanks to a baller marketing strategy that makes people go ape-shit over it. A few BAPE items selling out quickly, which makes it harder to keep in stock, then drives up demand and allows the brand to raise the price. As long as people are willing to pay such high prices, the price is going to stay high.
The bittersweet irony of the brand is that BAPE makes no apologies for being over-indulgent high-end (re: expensive) streetwear, which in turn allows the apparel company to remain true to the meaning of its name.
COMME des GARÇONS, which translates to “like boys” in French, grew in popularity in Japan throughout the 1970s before debuting in Paris in 1981. At first, Kawakubo’s collections had heavy use of black, as well as distressed fabrics and unfinished seams, and were viewed negatively by French critics. Viewed as fashion’s avant-garde, COMME des GARÇONS’s modus operandi has always been to turn things on its head — exemplified by Kawakubo’s recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton, where she cut huge holes into a tote bag, defying the bag’s primary function of holding things.
From designs that bloat and transform the natural human form to Dover Street Market – a department store (first in London, then more recently opening new branches in Ginza and New York) that turns the entire retail experience on its head – the essence of COMME des GARÇONS is non-conformity.
And between high-end lines such as CdG Homme and CdG Shirt and diffusion lines like CdG Wallet or the CdG Play line and its inimitable heart logo, COMME des GARÇONS truly offers something for everyone in a way that no other brand has, or perhaps even could.
One of the most iconic contemporary Japanese clothing brands on the market, visvim was started by Hiroki Nakamura after he left his designer job with Burton Snowboards.
Inspired in equal parts by the technical elements of his previous position and the traditional crafts of different cultures that he learned while traveling the world, Nakamura founded Cubism Inc., whose “Free International Laboratory” or F.I.L. endeavors to blend natural, traditional techniques with pioneering contemporary perspectives to create the pinnacle expression of classic clothing.
Headquartered in Tokyo, visvim has stores in Japan and Hong Kong and is sold internationally in department stores and boutiques, such as Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Dover Street Market in London.
Shinsuke “Shin” Takizawa
Among the most recognized Japanese streetwear’s OGs, NEIGHBORHOOD came roaring into the streetwear scene in the mid-1990s.
The brand draws from Takizawa’s deep passion for historic motorcycle subculture, creating classic American clothing such as leathers, shirting, sweats, flannels and headwear, all with a distinct biker gang twist.
Though recent collections have seen NEIGHBORHOOD expand into military, prep, Native American and even early-20th-century industrial workwear styles, the brand is still best known for its authentic denim, manufactured to strict traditional specifications and customized with intricate, natural distress washes that range from classic indigo fades to their iconic “Savage” series.
Jun Takahashi and Nigo
UNDERCOVER is an interesting brand. It fully embraces the in-your-face, anti-social punk rock counterculture as defined by Takahashi’s favorite band the Sex Pistols while still bringing an elemental design that is often copied by its competitors.
As a leading streetwear brand in Japan, UNDERCOVER designs are coveted and their merch is highly sought-after by collectors and streetwear aficionados alike. Called by some as the quintessential “punk” streetwear brand, the disruption, subversion, and rebellion exuded by UNDERCOVER is the antithesis of a culture steeped in centuries of rich traditions.
Head Porter (Now known as Ramidus)
The genesis of this brand has been quite an interesting journey.
Founded by Fujiwara, the line was created to give Head Porter, a Japanese luggage company, skin in the streetwear game and to help boost revenue for its parent company, Yoshida Kaban, one of Japan’s oldest clothing brands.
Initially, the streetwear side of the company aimed at offering stylish accessories that were still functional and high quality like other Head Porter items. The streetwear brand also included a line of silver accessories and jewelry.
Their first store was opened to appeal to a more youthful audience as the brand worked to boost the struggling Kaban brand. In recent years, however, the Yoshida Kaban label has more than regained its footing with its core Porter and Porter Classic products. This rejuvenation, however, made Head Porter irrelevant.
This led to a decision earlier this year to makeover Head Porter and in September the brand Ramidus was launched to much fanfare.
Head Porter’s legacy is the many collabs with other streetwear labels via the accessories they produced for such streetwear icons as BAPE, COMME des GARCONS, and Supreme.
Watanabe is one of Japan’s streetwear premiere designers who was recently selected as one of the top influencers by Business of Fashion magazine.
In recognizing Watanabe, BoF said this about the designer: “Having begun his career as an apprentice pattern-maker at Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe quickly established himself as a distinguished talent, boasting an avant-garde design aesthetic and becoming an unofficial protégé for the iconic Rei Kawakubo. Following the launch of his namesake label under the Comme des Garçons umbrella, the prolific designer garnered international critical acclaim for his mastery in conceptual designs, pattern manipulation and innovative use of synthetic materials.”
The Japanese brand is perhaps best known for its use of multiple fabrics in patchwork designs, such as in its ongoing collaborations with Levis, but at the heart of Watanabe’s work is a fascination with different styles of clothing and how the wearer uses them.
Watanabe is also credited with influencing numerous brands, including White Mountaineering.
Aizawa studied the craft of streetwear under Watanabe before launching his own brand in the mid-2000s.
An outdoors-inspired streetwear label based in Tokyo, White Mountaineering is known for uniting the performance demands of the outdoors industry with the aesthetic needs of the fashion world, consistently featuring technical fabrics such as GORE-TEX, polar fleece, and corduroy.
Aizawa has said in interviews that his clothing line probably isn’t really suited for extreme weather, but White Mountaineering surely has some cool styles and has an aesthetic that makes you want to lead an active lifestyle.
In 2017, “Art for All” was an Unilqo partnership with New York art dealer and curator, Jeffrey Deitch. The project centered around the sale of 65 limited-edition products made by commissioned artists such as Marie Roberts, Starlee Kine, and Ken Kagami. With a focus on making the collecting of artworks available to a larger audience, the items on sale were available for under $100.
Art aside, Unilqo is recognized as an affordable streetwear brand that has drawn favorable reviews to “being like Supreme” but without the cost. Unilqo is one of the larger manufacturers, retailers and casual streetwear designers in the world with a presence in 30 countries and boasting nearly 44,500 employees.
Founded in 1996, Medicom Toy is a Japanese brand that specializes in creating collectible toys and action figures. Medicom Toy aims to create collectible pieces of art rather than conventional toys, thus their products are sold in limited quantities. Their most popular line of toys is the Be@rbrick series, which is a series of bear-shaped figures imprinted with different designs.
As strange as it may seem to mix toys with clothes, Medicom Toy is deeply interwoven with Japanese fashion and streetwear and has a knack for marketing items that embrace the very cultural icons we love to place on a pedestal.
mastermind JAPAN (aka mastermind aka MMJ)
mastermind JAPAN is a higher-end brand that mixes quality with its signature skulls and bones logo.
Each piece is made in Japan and proudly displays it in the tags, along with a list of names of people that helped create the piece of clothing.
mastermind JAPAN produces collaborations and pieces with the likes of Dover Street Market, Stussy, adidas Originals and Bamford Watch Department.
Lacking a formal education in fashion, Homma, who previously worked at Yohji Yamamoto, spontaneously decided to launch the label in 1997.
Fundamental inspirations come from punk and goth aesthetics, but highly technical production techniques such as form-hugging silhouettes, multiple-layered T-shirts and Swarovski® crystal detailing — combined with the brand’s notoriously close-chested operations from which virtually no information ever leaks — have culminated in a brand that creates the pinnacle of streetwear cool at eye-watering high prices.
Number (N)ine & The Soloist
“Just take those old records off the shelf…”
Although it is no longer with us, Number (N)ine infused Miyashita’s two loves: rock-n-roll music and all things Americana into one of Japan’s most loved streetwear brands. The Japanese fashion label’s name came from the song “Revolution 9,” the 8-minute avant-garde song from The Beatles’ iconic White Album.
After Number (N)ine closed in 2009, it didn’t take long for Miyashita to get back into the streetwear game. His next project was The Soloist and it was, in many ways, a continuation of (N)umber Nine with his love of rock music.
Where Number (N)ine fashions celebrated the musical contributions of such bands as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple to the later years of post-punk and grunge-like Nirvana, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Daniel Johnston, The Soloist was inspired by bands like Oasis, David Bowie and later, country-western music.
Athsuhiko Mori & Keiji Ishizuka
Founded in 2005 by former J.League football (soccer) players Keiji Ishizuka and Atsuhiko Mori, Japanese streetwear brand Wacko Maria believes “music is the trigger of imaginations.”
What began as Rock Steady, a jointly owned bar in Tokyo’s Meguro ward, quickly became a clothing line of the same name. After coveted collaborations with the likes of WTAPS, Porter-Yoshida & Co., nonnative, and UNDERCOVER, Ishizuka and Mori established Wacko Maria to fully explore their interests in music, films, and art through clothing.
Known for its reinterpretations of rockabilly style, intricate embroideries, Japanese production, and anti-establishment mantras (in particular, “Guilty Parties”), Wacko Maria presents youthful, yet sophisticated collections that deliver on both concept and quality, season after season.
Toby Feltwell & Sk8thing
British-born Toby Feltwell started out working in the UK music industry running A&R operations at James Lavelle’s iconic Mo’Wax records, subsequently moving to XL when they acquired Lavelle’s label in the early part of this century.
Sk8thing is a graphic designer who has created graphics for heavyweight Japanese clothing brands like BAPE, NEIGHBORHOOD, UNDERCOVER, Bounty Hunter and many more, as well as designing the logos and graphics for NIGO & Pharrell Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club and ICE CREAM lines.
Together, their brand is known for its ever-evolving silhouettes and taste-defining use of glitchy graphics over T-shirts, hoodies, and jackets.
These companies are but a small fraction of the overall businesses selling Japanese streetwear to shoppers around the world. The choices are so voluminous that we can’t help but be “arigatai” for the many selections available to fans of Japanese streetwear.