1950s America survives… in Japan

A fascinating phenomenon that William Gibson first noted in his “cool hunter” novels some years ago turns out to not only be real, but a viable business in Japan:

Takashi Tateno keeps an office in a simple studio above his wife’s hairdressing salon on the outskirts of Okayama, a medium-sized city in central Japan. In fashion circles, Okayama is famous for one thing: making the world’s best denim, using looms that date back to the 1950s. But Tateno isn’t a denim head. His brand, called Workers, adapts all sorts of American work wear from the 1900s to the ’60s—railroad jackets, canvas dusters, flannel shirts, double-kneed pants. Moreover, he’s obsessed by the American workers who manufactured these garments in their heyday, and the skills, techniques and tools used to produce such high-quality clothing on an industrial scale.

Before he hatched the idea of his own collection, Tateno spent years making clothes himself and working in a factory. At the same time, he launched a Japanese-language website that was absolutely alone in its single-minded pursuit of knowledge about the plans, patterns and procedures that old American work-wear manufacturers used to make their garments under such labels as Crown, W.M. Finck & Co. and Can’t Bust ’Em. Tateno journeyed to the United States multiple times to sift through archives and contact heirs to now-defunct clothing manufacturers to see if they had information about their ancestors’ businesses, and to buy up examples of the old clothes he loved so he could dissect their construction.

Tateno ushers me into his upstairs space. One room is filled with all kinds of clothing, everything from the work wear he collects to contemporary Italian jackets by Boglioli. There is also machinery, including an ancient riveting machine, plus old sewing-machine accessories that Tateno purchases so the factories he hires to produce his collection can make things to the exact specifications of, say, 1924 or 1942, with the same tools in use back then.

“When I learned to sew and tried to make these garments myself, I began to realize just how intricate the work was, what kind of tremendous skill level was required to turn out such huge quantities of high-quality garments,” Tateno says. “These were produced at a time when American workers were the most knowledgeable and skilled in the world.”

Though the kind of skilled manufacturing he admired in these garments had largely disappeared in the United States—a consequence of apparel production moving abroad and garment workers no longer finding work—he saw older Japanese people around him in Okayama with high-level sewing skills. And so he realized that if he could unearth the manufacturing secrets behind these old garments, he could make them in Okayama—and perhaps make them even better than the originals.

The cult of the artisan is ensconced in contemporary urban American culture. This is the ideal of a person who can handcraft a pair of jeans or a necktie, conscious of the most minute details of fabric, workmanship and authenticity. The era Tateno’s clothing harks back to is not the age of the lone artisan laboring over a single creation, though; it’s the era of packed factories in Pennsylvania, Virginia and California churning out thousands and thousands of high-quality garments at a reasonable price, all because of the workers’ skill. The irony is that this ideal of the American worker, which sounds like something lifted from old-school union advertising copy, can be hard to find in America today.

If I had nine lives, I like to think that one of them would have been involved staying in Japan and getting fluent in the language. As Spacebunny says, 95 percent of the weirdness in the world comes out of Japan. It’s the one place in the world where the present is as fascinating as the past.