PRPS ‘Le Sabre – Selvedge Kasuga Jeans’. Premium clothing made in the USA using Japanese denim. “Destruction on the thigh, back cuffs and back pocket have been designed to emulate a natural worn out look and an aggressive wash with rust stains and light paint splatter further define these jeans.”
W. David Marx’s survey of post-war Japanese fashion, Ametora, tells a detailed story of how it evolved from street youths copying the clothes of American GIs to Japan’s setting the pace for US clothing giants. The thread running through Ametora is the Ivy cult – the adoption of the dress style of American students by Japanese who knew nothing about them. To a large extent the Ivy cult was the result of relentless promotion by Kensuke Ishizu, who ran the successful VAN company for many years. Ishizu regarded clothing as a form of art and wasn’t interested in return on capital.
Kensuke Ishizu in about 1960.
Jeans weren’t Ivy style but other style tribes became obsessed with them. Early Japanese attempts to manufacture jeans weren’t very successful because in the Japanese tradition of indigo dyeing, the blue dye thoroughly permeates the thread, but the essence of denim is that the core of the thread remains white, which determines the way the jeans wear with age. The Japanese didn’t know how to do that. The strong denim fabric was also alien to their tradition. Japanese sewing machines couldn’t cope with it and machines had to be imported from the USA. Eventually Japan perfected the manufacture of jeans and improved the weaving of denim to the extent that premium US brands like PRPS now promote their garments as quasi-Japanese.
Ivy style was followed in typically Japanese manner, with rules being drawn up about how the clothes had to be made and worn. W. David Marx says that these rules were like the kata of Japanese arts, a precise ritual that had to be repeated without variation and in which the example of a master had to be followed without change. Ishizu had such authority in the field that he was addressed as sensei.
A 1963 VAN poster with Kazuo Hozumi’s famous ‘Ivy Boy’ drawing.
When the the clean-cut, upper-class style of Yale and Harvard was first adopted by Japanese youth in the early 1960s it was seen as a dangerous act of rebellion. Office workers wore navy blue suits, white shirts and plain black shoes. A salaryman who came to the office wearing a pale blue shirt might be sent home to change. In the weeks leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, there was a police crackdown on the youths who congregated in the Ginza neighbourhood wearing Ivy League suits, striped ties and penny loafers. They were thought to be dangerous and to bring disgrace to Japan.
The way that Ivy style was adopted and adapted in post-war Japan thows an interesting light on the idea that fashion is the descent of dress from the upper classes to the lower classes. Japanese youth adopted a style of clothing from the country’s occupiers but it set them at odds with the Japanese upper class. Within a few decades, Japan had gone from a kata of Ivy style to the trumping of American brands. American jeans adopted Japanese improvements to the denim and the cut of the jeans. Jeans came from the street but premium US brands like PRPS charge high prices – the ripped pair at the top of this post retail for $575.