by David Isle

This is the second part of my interview with W. David Marx. You can read part 1 here, and buy his book, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Stylehere.

David Isle: Speaking of jeans, can we talk about the myth that Japanese denim makers bought the old Levi’s selvedge looms? This story is so widespread in the blogosphere. How did it get started and how do you know it’s not true?

W. David Marx: At this point that myth is so pervasive that even some people at Levi’s believe this. I heard it first in the late ‘90s. I think it all goes back to Evisu getting big in the West, but I don’t know how intentional Evisu was in trying to propagate that myth.

I think it’s clear from multiple angles why the myth is not true. (Kudos to both Paul Trynka and Kiya Babzani, who have done a lot of mythbusting.) First of all, there is no such thing as “Levi’s looms”: Levi’s bought selvedge denim from Cone Mills. And then second, Cone Mills has said that they never sold any looms to Japan. Apparently they were all scrapped for metal. Third, the old Toyoda looms that are used to make selvedge denim in Japan are much higher quality than the Draper looms used at Cone Mills. I read an interview with a Cone Mills guy who said that when the Japanese pulled out their old selvedge looms, they took their old Draper looms out, and they just had way more mechanical problems than the Japanese ones did. So the idea that Japanese companies would buy these old American looms, which are incredibly heavy and hard to import — and work less reliably — doesn’t really make much sense. And then the fourth is that every single person I know who has worked intimately with these small mills in Japan that do selvedge denim has never seen a single Draper loom in use. I think at some point somebody would have the photo of the Draper loom from Cone Mills that was used in Japan.

The other thing to realize about selvedge denim is that the U.S. had a history of making selvedge denim not because it was selvedge denim but just because denim used to be made on narrow selvedge looms. As production increased, they needed larger, more modern looms, and so the old selvedge looms went away.

Big John RARE

Japan only really started denim production in 1972 or 1973, so they started on very modern looms. Kurabo was proud to be the first in the world to make denim on high-tech Sulzer looms from Switzerland. It wasn’t until Big John made Big John RARE in 1980 that a Japanese brand even considered ordering the production of selvedge denim from their Japanese mills. So there was really no legacy of making selvedge denim until brands wanted to get into reproduction of old styles. And in Okayama, they had really good selvedge looms sitting around using in making sailcloth, which is a really big industry in Kojima.

DI: One of the great things about this book is that it covers history recent enough that you were able to interview a lot of the major protagonists in this story. What do you think you got out of the interviews that you wouldn’t have been able to get out of just historical documents?

WDM: Old Japanese magazines, especially Men’s Club, often featured a roundtable discussions (taidan), where four of their writers would discuss the latest in fashion trends. These articles give you a chance to hear a really good conversation about what was going on at the time and how everyone felt about it.

I interviewed three of the four Take Ivy authors (the photographer died, unfortunately) but they don’t really remember that much detail about the trip. I did, however, find a roundtable discussion that they did in Men’s Club right when they came back from the U.S., talking about what they saw and how they felt about it. So the magazines were really important in reconstructing a lot of the story. I would first read all of that and then when I interviewed people, I would not have to ask them to tell me their life story again but focus on details, like why they felt the way they did when they said certain things in these discussions.

Interviews also helped dig out additional detail of how things were before some major event happened. It’s hard to see what clothing was like in Japan before Ivy. But you could ask people, “What were you wearing before Ivy?” And they would say, “Oh I had one jacket and I would wear that.” That was useful.

DI: Your telling of the Take Ivy project is really fascinating and valuable, even for someone who already knows the basic outline of the story. Especially for someone who is getting into tailored menswear now, and idealizing the scene in Naples or London, it’s kind of painfully relatable to read about them coming to Ivy campuses and being so disappointed that everyone is in shorts and no one is wearing a tie.

WDM: When you look at the Take Ivy photos today, you think, “Oh, this is great — classic Ivy style!” But at the time, their clothes looked very casual to the eyes of the Japanese crew. There are a few people wearing madras jackets and some people in ties, but most of the photos show rough, casual clothing. The actual date of their trip — late May 1965 — is important, because no one was really on campus at the time. Probably only seniors. Some were graduating, so they were able to capture them dressed up going to graduation parties.

The irony of course is that what was casual in ’65 is dress-up today. The Take Ivy authors were expecting to see more people in ties and charcoal suits and wingtips. So it was a letdown, and they had to salvage what they came back with.

DI: The early advocates for Ivy in Japan preached TPO - Time, Place, and Occasion - as determining the correct stylistic choices. Does it seem odd that someone so concerned with appropriateness for a particular environment would import a foreign style with no local historical context?

WDM: This is something I could have brought up more in the book, but the reason that American culture caught on was young people believing that Japan offered no real alternative. It wasn’t, like, “Japan has this, America has this, but America is better.” Japanese culture was totally delegitimized. The wartime culture was all about the military, and after the terrible war, everyone wanted to throw it out the window. And then for many years, you also have a culture of poverty in Japan, so the Japanese would see American films, and realize how rich and prosperous America was. Of course people want to live like that instead.

For youth fashion specifically, kids only really owned their student uniforms. When Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket was in college, he didn’t wear his uniform but instead made tailored suits and jackets. So he wanted to give kids of the post-war something else to wear as well. And he wanted to give them a whole fashion system rather than just one look. Ivy provided that. So he borrowed it from the U.S., gave it rules and a framework. But for him, it wasn’t saying, “Do this American style, don’t do this Japanese style.” There was no true “Japanese style” at the time to start with — just a very rigid culture of uniforms.

DI: That’s interesting to me that the Japanese culturally thought they had nothing and therefore adopted American style holistically, whereas, as far as my limited understanding goes, the American occupiers ended up using a lot of the Japanese political infrastructure that they fought the war to dismantle.

DW: Well, they came in at first with New Deal ideals and the hope to impose a true democracy, and then the socialist and communist left wing started doing really really well. Cold War pressures forced the U.S. to let all the right wing guys out of jail, and the CIA worked with them to make sure the right wing parties took power.

Japanese hippies

But whatever the politics, everybody saw the pre-war culture as delegitimized. So there was nothing really to hold onto — no worthwhile “Japanese” identity. American culture was floating around and seemed much more interesting.

But it’s also important to note that for twenty years after the war — up until the mid-sixties — the average Japanese male was not dressing like an American. Kids were wearing their Prussian black wool square collar uniforms, and older men were wearing British-style tailored suits — well, based on British models, but not very interesting.

On a small scale, there were delinquents in MacArthur sunglasses or Aloha shirts or who drove motorcycles in leather jackets, but they were ignored as delinquents. Ivy didn’t come to Japan because people in Japan saw Americans wearing Ivy: Ivy came because a brand, VAN Jacket, decided to copy Ivy League style in Japan. The Occupation made people in Japan start to aspire towards America, but it did not create a straight line to people dressing like Americans.

DI: Cultural appropriation is a dirty word (err...two words, I guess) these days, but it seems like Japan has a knack for importing and adopting foreign culture — not just American, but others as well.

WDM: I try to be very careful to not essentialize this behavior to all people in Japan. What you describe comes down to the product of a commercial media complex. When VAN and Men’s Club decided to sell Ivy, they first had to first figure out what Ivy meant — what kind of shirt, what kind of materials, what kind of patterns, what kind of designs — and then in order to sell it to people, they had to explain what the rules were and how to wear it, what it meant and the history.

But Ivy style was very much an organic outgrowth on those American campuses. You didn’t read a guide that told you to go buy this blazer: you just looked at your fellow classmates and went to the store, and they were only a handful of shirt styles, and you picked one. In Japan, the process of teaching consumers about this required editors and brands to break down the style into a system of rules. And then its intrinsic meaning came from boiling it down to kind of a code — a list of general ideas.

The Japanese media and brands in Japan are very good at this now. They can say, there’s a new style called hip hop and it has these articles of clothing, and these brands, and this music. That process started with Ivy.

In the 1970s with the Whole Earth Catalog, the guys who originally brought it back to Japan really believed in the values of nature and being outdoors. But when it hit this commercial media complex in Japan, those values got sucked out of it and it because just about the ten things you wear to look like you go to the University of Colorado at Boulder.

DI: Based on your knowledge of the Japanese experience teaching a whole generation how to dress from scratch, what advice would you have for retailers or media who have been involved in a similar project in the US the last few years?

WDM: I think it’s fascinating that the things we attribute to Japan — teaching by rules, having catalogs, and so on — come from the fact that nobody knew how to do these things until they were taught it step by step. And we Americans used to look at that and say, hahaha, we have this rich fashion culture where we know to wear a tweed jacket with a repp tie because my father gave me the jacket and taught me to tie the tie.

And that was true for many years, but for the last twenty years, you can make the case that the institutional knowledge of how to dress well has essentially disappeared in the U.S. For a lot of guys, your father or big brother can’t teach you how to dress well. So a lot of the menswear blogs stepped in to fill that role, just as magazines did in Japan in the 1960s.

I was actually pretty shocked in 2008 when GQ did a “GQ Rules” series on the basics of building a wardrobe. I thought, “This is so Japanese!” For a long time, American men’s magazines would never specifically tell you how to do things. They were very much like, “You’re a gentleman, you know how to dress yourself, here are some ideas, but we won’t teach you the basics.” But the demand for the basics was incredible.

What forums like Styleforum or blogs like Put This On, and even GQ, do to re-introduce the basics — those things were very common in Japanese media for years and now they’re common in the U.S. What I think is great about them is that you worry sometimes that once you know all the rules, it’s boring, but it’s the opposite: I think it’s only really interesting once you know all the rules.

In terms of advice for brands that want to communicate that, you don’t want to be too prescriptive, because that’s not cool either — you want to let people do what they do. But in some ways you don’t really have to do it anymore because the infrastructure has been set. If you want to learn the two appropriate ways to tie your tie, you can just look online.

The other part of this is that for so long, we’ve been relying on the idea of heritage to legitimize dressing up again, saying, “Oh, people used to do this, and so we are following the old style.” But we’ve moved past that. Heritage sits at the base of modern fashion culture without being the only way to dress. The Japanese model also shows this — that yes, you have people who are making perfect copies of 1950s jeans, but you also have people who are making really innovative denim that extends the legacy without repeating it. The same thing is happening to American menswear, and much more quickly because in the last 7 years, Americans have made up so much ground.

You can follow W. David Marx on TwitterInstagram, and Néojaponisme, and find his book at Amazon.