Get to Know the Japanese Shirtmakers With a Filipino Following
When it comes to quality menswear, you can most certainly count on the Japanese. Their clothing brands are masters of craftsmanship, making them the top choice for well-dressed men everywhere.
Kamakura Shirts is no exception. Founded by Yoshio Sadasue and his wife Tamiko, the Japanese label opened in the ’90s as a small shirt store taking inspiration from the Ivy League style (think American preps and JFK) and British and Italian tailoring. It quickly earned a following because of its high quality, meticulous detailing, and, most important, low price.
“I believe the best thing about our brand is the quality for the price offered. The price we set for our shirts is probably half the price of what is available on the market,” Sadasue says. “We have staff working on fabric texture, fabric color, item coordination, visual display, external research, and they are all experts in their own fields. That is why I think our shirts have the right balance between elegance and accessibility.”
With a New York store and a growing number of fans in Asia, including the Philippines (Filipinos order through its website), Kamakura Shirts enjoys a global fanbase today.
Esquire spoke with Sadasue to learn more about his brand philosophy, as well as the possibility of a Philippine store.
Kamakura Shirts continues the vision of iconic Japanese clothing label Van Jacket.
Kamakura Shirts began from the words of Kensuke Ishizu, the founder of the Van Jacket, which was hugely famous in Japan during the 1960s. I worked with Mr. Ishizu in the 1960s and ’70s there.
After Van went bankrupt, men’s fashion was quick to deteriorate. Mr. Ishizu was lamenting, saying, “It was my job to establish a clothing company during Japan’s post-war recovery, and to teach Japanese people to dress in a manner that wouldn’t be dismissed in international company… Is there no one to take over my vision and make Japanese men fashionable?”
That is when I stepped forward to start my own business that centered on what the customers wanted, not what the company wanted to sell.
Its customers are everyday men who want to dress better.
He should have a discerning eye for quality and be a true gentleman. Having said that, I started the business so that Japanese businessmen, who wanted to dress better but couldn’t afford the high-brand luxury, would be able to buy a new shirt every month if he wanted. That is how we set our prices: 5,900 yen in Japan (around P2,800), which is what most business persons can afford. Our brand was never aimed for the wealthy upper class.
The Japanese label has Italian, British, and American influences.
We take inspiration from British tailoring, American fashion, Italian craftsmanship, all the leaders in fashion from around the world. Our aim was to create clothing that would give people happiness just by wearing our clothes, and the confidence needed to succeed in the business world. We design our clothes so that all business persons can show his or her presence just by wearing one of our shirts.
Kamakura is inspired by the glossy Ivy League lifestyle of the ’60s, too.
The Ivy League style of the 1960s symbolized the prosperous lifestyle that we all wanted in Japan at that time. Everything that came from America was exciting but the Ivy Style was an embodiment of our aspiration worn by those with prestigious backgrounds.
Van Jacket was able to create the perfect button-down shirt with the ideal roll. The legacy of that design lives on at Kamakura Shirts. I don’t think any other brand has the know-how to create the old-fashioned button-downs that people loved. Oxford cloth button-down shirts (OCBD) have a special place in my heart.
The long experience of its founder makes it different from other Japanese Ivy League brands.
Having someone like me [makes us different]. Ha ha! That is a joke. But I do think Kamakura Shirts is set apart by having someone as old as me, who can talk about the past.
I have actually experienced, first hand, how the Ivy League style spread across Japan. I know, through the years of experience that I have had in the clothing industry, the places that make great clothes. I know the factories that have the right seamsters, who know how to get the stitching just right. Some expert seamsters have been at the same place since I was at Van!
The price, for the quality offered, is something that other brands have no way of competing with.
Kamakura’s highly skilled pattern-maker makes the shirts so great.
We have several pattern-makers in-house that work on the smaller details of our garments. However, since 2016, we have been working closely with Norimitsu Shibayama, chairman of the Japan Modelist Association. He is a pattern-maker who can also sew, which is quite rare. He knows how the seamsters at the factories think. He is like an interpreter who deciphers the complex patterns and breaks it down so it is understandable at a practical level.
We launched this new Manhattan Model two years ago which used all the techniques that Mr. Shibayama had acquired over the year. For example, the inside and outside of the collar use different patterns to create a beautifully engineered, compact design. The front panel and back panels have been adjusted to ensure the best feel, and the curves of the sleeves have been calculated to match that of a jacket, which in turn means the cuff of the shirt sleeve and the jacket are parallel. All these calculations are made on paper then transferred into the carefully sewn shirts.
Kamakura feels distinctly Japanese because of how its shirts are made
We do take inspiration from American Ivy League fashion but we have also learned a lot from British tailoring. A shirt is definitely a Western design so it is difficult to take inspiration from what is authentically Japanese.
I can say though that the craftsmanship offered by the Japanese factories are fantastic. I think that is why brands [that are] able to do the research, able reflect their inspiration in their products, and keep the standard of the quality high are so popular.
Kamakura also appeals to American men.
I was surprised that the customers in New York would be so fair in judging a Japanese brand. A Japanese brand that makes Western shirts! I thought that it would take years for customers to give us a try but we were quick to acquire fans. Once the customers realized the value for quality, many were happy to come back.
Its Oxford cloth button-downs are popular in the American market.
Many customers choose our slim fit. OCBDs are always popular so we have customers requesting our Sport range. Our Vintage Ivy Collection, which is a collaboration with British artist Graham Marsh is also popular for the same reasons. The Knit Shirts using stretchy knitted fabric is also extremely popular.
Kamakura may be expanding in the region
I was surprised when we started receiving orders from Southeast Asia because I didn’t think many people wore a shirt, tie, and suit to work. But when we were approached by fans in Thailand and Malaysia to open a franchise store, I began to think about the possibilities in the Southeast Asian market.
We have a growing market in China so that may be next, but it would be wonderful to open a store in the Philippines at some point.