The sign at the northeast corner of 1st and San Pedro streets in downtown Los Angeles is deceiving. The pink and blue neon advertises a real estate agency, but swing open the glass door and you'll encounter a tribute to a bygone era.
"Heirloom" is a fitting title for the year-old shop at the edge of L.A.'s Little Tokyo. The boutique deals in vintage Americana (so rare it's displayed on the walls like museum pieces), as well as retro re-creations. There are 80-year-old Stetson hats, complete with original boxes, and a university sweater from Princeton; vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle boots and modern reproductions of military-issue flak jackets. But there's the twist. Though the styles are decidedly American, the source of the reproductions is Japanese.
"I like the detail of American stuff. Japanese style is too perfect. Everything is too clean," said Masahiko Ono, a 28-year-old native of Kojima, Japan, who moved to L.A. to collect vintage clothing and wound up making his own retro styles that he sells through the shop and elsewhere. His Heirloom brand makes hats, selvage denim jeans, waxed canvas jackets and leather boots, but it's best known for its indigo-dyed T-shirts that are based on decades-old American manufacturing techniques. The shirts are made with fabrics sourced from his hometown and are sewn in Los Angeles.
Some of the highest-quality heritage menswear is now designed and manufactured by Japanese companies that are marrying vintage American casual wear with premium Japanese craftsmanship and garment-specific materials. The movement has been building for at least two decades, starting with Japanese entrepreneurs who traveled to the U.S. to scour flea markets for denim, T-shirts and outerwear made in the U.S. at a time when quality was king — namely the post-World War II era. They sold the goods to Japanese consumers who were looking for vintage styles that were well made and manufactured in the U.S.
Now a new generation of American heritage connoisseurs from Japan is remaking many of those classic styles, using the same manufacturing techniques — even the same sewing machines — that were employed by American clothing companies in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
The Japanese embrace of blue-collar chic is part of the greater heritage-brand trend that shows little sign of abating. Labels such as Pendleton, Carhartt and Woolrich have been "rediscovered" by consumers in recent years, and top-name newswear designers have been incorporating heritage details into their collections. The durability of materials such as worsted wool makes the items especially appealing during tough economic times.
Japanese Americana "is a very purist vision of what America was," said Kiya Babzani, owner of Self Edge on La Brea Avenue. "We're not trying to sell only Japanese [brands]. We just want to carry the best brands, and that's where they're from."
Babzani opened his first Self Edge location in San Francisco in 2006 after visiting Asia several times and discovering the Japanese were making reproductions of vintage American clothing but on a quality level that far surpassed anything he'd ever seen. Babzani opened a second location in Manhattan in 2009 and his L.A. store in 2010.
Self Edge sells premium casual wear with a midcentury sensibility, but it's best known for its vast collection of men's raw selvage jeans. Each location is stocked with 15 Japanese brands (available in 55 different styles), including Iron Heart (a motorcycle-inspired line based in Tokyo) and the Strike Gold (from Okayama), which rivets its five-pocket straight legs with steel (that rusts) and copper (that flakes) "because that's what jeans looked like 100 years ago," Babzani said.
"There's a beauty to having the rivets rust and the threads snap," said Babzani, whose L.A. store features a pair of Real Japan Blues jeans framed in glass to showcase its wear pattern. The jeans, which, according to a sign, were worn for 24 months and washed nine times, have started to fade, revealing the patina of the cloth and the stress on the chain-stitched 100% cotton thread that is likely to break and need repair — just as it did back in the day. That's a good thing, said Babzani, who offers a denim repair service using a 1950s Union Special sewing machine. Clothes that wear well are authentic and, unlike so many mass-produced brands today, have a soul.
In Japanese, that's known as wabi sabi, or an imperfect but natural beauty that's revealed through time.
The styles that have piqued Japanese designers' interest in well-made clothes from America's so-called golden age are largely inspired by work wear, the military and motor sports — rugged activities that were likely to endure abuse and demanded higher-quality garments that would age well over time instead of slowly fall apart.
"That was a time when clothes had functionality," said Jared Zaugg, co-owner with his wife Brooke of Bench & Loom, an online boutique that sells high-end menswear from a number of Japanese brands whose names sound deceptively American, such as Stevenson Overall Co., Buzz Rickson and Rocky Mountain Featherbed. "Form followed functionality quite literally. Clothes were purposeful. There's authenticity to that."
Of course, craftsmanship takes time, and with that comes increased cost. At Bench & Loom, a down parka from Rocky Mountain Featherbed costs $1,490. At Self Edge, jeans average $300 to $500. At Heirloom, Ono's '40s-style waxed canvas U.S. Navy jacket retails for $200.
Despite the steep prices, "we're finding there's a lot more interest in things that are well made," Zaugg said. "Sometimes it takes someone to come from outside the industry to be able to see things differently and have a different perspective. The Japanese have reminded us of what we used to do so well."