TOKYO: The story about vintage clothes in Tokyo goes like this: A Hollywood actress, after a successful crash diet, sold her size 6 wardrobe to a thrift shop in Santa Monica. Three months later she came to Tokyo to promote her latest movie and one afternoon wandered into one of the city's landmark vintage clothing shops, called Santa Monica. What should she find there but her own shorts and several party dresses, unobtrusively displayed under a sign that read: "Santa Monica Style."
The story is credible for the simple reason that Tokyo has now reached a point where it's safe to call it Planet Vintage. Among the 400-plus shops scattered over the city, myths like this abound.
The good news is that it's not all rumor and folklore - according to a fashion stylist, Keiko Okura, "the quality of Tokyo vintage products are unmatched."
Okura, who habitually combs the racks of thrift shops to collect extra items for fashion shoots, said, "Nowadays, even in Paris and London it's no rare thing to walk into a vintage clothing store and come out disappointed. But in Tokyo, where the vintage market is fiercely competitive and the customers knowledgeable, it's always a challenge to go in there and see what's going on, check out what other people are wearing."
Vintage clothing first took hold in Tokyo during the postwar years - young men, eager to emulate the ways of American GIs striding through the city wearing their confidence like medals, began buying U.S. military clothing on the black market.
After the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the demand for American casual soared - and in 1966 a store called Chicago opened its doors to a Levis-hungry public, the first bona fide vintage shop Tokyo had ever seen and now the most trusted name in the business. According to a co-director, Tsutomu Iizuka, "customers coming in were all asking for jeans and flannel shirts. Back then, no one had the means or distribution network to bring these in, so we shifted our focus from imported merchandise to used and vintage."
Chicago now has five outlets in Japan and operates a warehouse in St. Louis, Missouri. At its main store in Harajuku, Tokyo, old clothes are displayed like gallery pieces: an embroidered circular skirt from Guatemala, 1960s surfer shirts from Maui, natty suspender belts from Japan, circa 1957.
Some vintage enthusiasts say it's not enough anymore merely to hunt and purchase. Professional buyers like Shinichi Kotani, who travels Europe and South America for five vintage shops, said, "The problem has always been with size. The fact is, clothes made overseas are just too large for the Japanese body."
This is where the "remake" comes in.
The successful pioneer company in this field is called Taos, which collaborates with a vintage wholesale retailer. Taos remakes and refashions old clothes in a way that makes them undistinguishable from new. Shirts are taken apart and sewn together again, re-emerging with a tighter, more fashionable silhouette. A pair of woolen pants may turn into a vest, a chef's shirt into a sleeveless summer blouse. A linen bed sheet becomes a button-down shirt. Almost all the work is done by hand. The end-product bears the Taos tag and is sold for a higher price than what people expect to pay for vintage clothing, but as Kotani points out, it would be "unfair and inaccurate to call Taos products vintage or recycled products. What they're creating is something completely new."
The vintage remake trend is also changing the designer brand world. The designer Michiko Suzuki, head of "Y's Red Label" brand for Yohji Yamamoto, has come out with a collection based on remaking deadstock, or never worn, bomber jackets. By taking the jacket seams apart, dissecting its parts and then reassembling them into elegant dresses and skirts, Suzuki is pushing the envelope on design and recycling. He's also caused a sensation on the runway.
"I think we'll be seeing a lot more of this trend," said Takako Yokomizo, a fashion industry analyst. "Remaking things and breathing new life into what had been unusable or uninspiring is alternative consumerism," which "matches the times."