If you think the phenomenon of streetwear is something new — or worse, rooted in the West — think again.
Japan is home to many of the influential fashion brands and figures that shaped the streetwear scene — and still do. Of course, when anyone says “Japanese fashion”, the first thing that comes to mind is Comme des Garçons, the avant-garde label created by Rei Kawakubo. But who still needs an introduction to CDG in 2022?
Instead, we look to the beginnings of all the other fashion designers that are now collaborating with your favourite luxury fashion houses (think Kenzo’s Nigo, Sacai’s Chitose Abe, or streetwear god Hiroshi Fujiwara) and highlight what makes them such heavyweights even as the streetwear world becomes saturated.
Header photo credit: WTAPS
8 best Japanese streetwear fashion brands:
After a stint designing for Hiroshi Fujiwara’s hip-hop record label Major Force, Shinsuke Takizawa founded NEIGHBORHOOD in 1994. Drawing inspiration from American motorcycle culture, London’s punk subculture as well as military uniforms, Takizawa created workwear-inspired shirts, leather motorcycle jackets, authentic selvedge denim pieces and other clothing pieces with an edge. NEIGHBORHOOD grew to be one of the most influential brands in the world of Japanese streetwear, alongside A Bathing Ape, Undercover and WTAPS. Today, the brand is also the centre of buzzy collaborations with Vans, Suicoke and Adidas.
A Bathing Ape was born in 1993. It was the brainchild of Tomaki “Nigo” Nagao (who previously ran the cult Japanese boutique Nowhere, alongside Jun Takahashi) and graphic designer Shinichiro “Sk8thing” Nakaramura. The brand’s name, now simply shortened to “BAPE”, was inspired by a five-hour “The Planet of the Apes” marathon. Sk8thing created the iconic Ape Head logo to match, and incorporated it onto camouflage clothing that were utilitarian with a sense of humour. BAPE would also be known for its BAPESTA shoes, which nodded to famous sneaker silhouettes by Nike and Adidas. In the 2000s, the brand gained international exposure through deals with Pepsi, as well as Nigo’s connections with Pharrell, which ultimately led to BAPE being worn by Soulja Boy, Kid Cudi and Kanye West. In 2011, BAPE was sold to the Hong Kong fashion conglomerate, I.T Group, leading Nigo to start his Human Made fashion label.
Nigo once again teamed up with Sk8thing to launch Human Made in 2011. There, the duo created casual clothing, accessories and objects that were much more playful and quirky than what they offered at BAPE. Common cartoon motifs included hearts ducks, tigers, hearts, and dishes from Nigo’s Tokyo diner, Curry Up. Human Made was also guided by 50s Americana, resulting in utilitarian workwear and old-school varsity pieces. Aside from Nigo’s influence in the world of fashion, Human Made has steadily grown thanks to stamps of approval by Pharrell and Kanye West, as well as Human Made’s bestselling sneaker collaboration with Adidas.
Jun Takahashi first established himself at Nowhere, the legendary Japanese fashion store that he ran alongside his friend Nigo. There, his punk-influenced designs caught on with customers, leading him to start his label Undercover in 1990. With Rei Kawakubo as a supporter, Takahashi would create clothing that defied binaries. He mixed traditional design with streetwear, or the avant-garde with the utilitarian — all while following the motto, “We Make Noise Not Clothes.”
WTAPS (pronounced “double taps) took form in 1996, but founder Tetsu Nishiyama had already spent plenty of time in Harajuku’s street scene. He had previously sold silkscreen printed shirts through his own brand, 40% Against Rights, and served as creative director at Shinsuke Takizawa’s NEIGHBORHOOD. At WTAPS, TET came into his own with an array of military-inspired, high quality clothing that reflected his functional approach to design. Some coveted signatures include WTAPS’ Jungle Stock shirts, Design T-shirts, M-65s military jackets, as well as its Kanye West-approved collaborations with Vans.
After cutting her teeth in fashion design by working for Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, Chitose Abe struck out on her own and established Sacai in 1999. Abe creates fresh designs with her “hybridization” approach — that is, fusing together different textures, techniques, or even garments. The resulting designs are experimental in form and yet functional in nature. While Sacai offers menswear and womenswear collections (both of which are shown at Paris Fashion Week), it’s best known for its footwear collaborations with Birkenstock, Ugg and Nike (see its cult LDWaffle sneakers).
After departing from his avant-garde menswear label Number (N)ine, Takahiro Miyashita decided to do things his way with a new fashion label: TAKAHIROMIYASHITA TheSoloist. Since 2010, the label has produced conceptual clothing that married Miyashita’s interests in music and Western Americana with his technical prowess and attention to detail.
No list of Japanese streetwear brands would be complete without mentioning Hiroshi Fujiwara. The multi-hyphenate is revered as the godfather of streetwear, having taken the likes of Nigo and Jun Takahashi under his wing, as well as creating influential fashion labels like GOODENOUGH and Uniform Experiment. Through Fragment Design, which was established in 2003, Fujiwara has continued to prove himself as an arbiter of cool through coveted collaborations with Nike, Moncler, Louis Vuitton and Off-White. He has even branched out into designing luxury timepieces (see his collab with Bulgari) and cars.