CIRCLE OF DAYZ vol.4 Setsumasa Kobayashi Part 1

In the fourth installment of the "Circle of DAYZ" series, we take an in-depth look at some fascinating people who have strong ties to DAYZ. For the fourth installment, we spoke with Setsumasa Kobayashi, brand director of <..... RESEARCH> about the origin of his brand.

You want to do as soon as you can has really influenced me to start out immediately however I can.

——How did you start your brand?

I used to be a shoemaker, and my family in Asakusa used to own a women's shoe factory. There's no doubt that shoes are a part of fashion, but at the time I often felt that shoes weren't an area where people had enough freedom to build a fashion line from scratch. Factories in Asakusa back then were all dark and dirty (laughs), but if you were good at your job, you could make more money than other people. And because it was an era of rapid economic growth, you could get a much better salary than university graduates. Shoes felt like a small part of fashion in Japan at that time.

However, after graduating from high school and going to Italy to train as a shoemaker, the situation completely changed. The shoes that I had seen in my parents' house in Asakusa for many years were now just as fashionable as clothes. The factory environment in Italy was different from the one I grew up in, in that it was modern and clean, and the people there, even the craftsmen, knew a lot about fashion. I came back to Japan after seeing a completely different world, so when it came to shoes, I wanted to work in a place different from the shoe scene in Asakusa.

There was a company with only three employees that took care of the shoe selections for the runway shows of the late 70's Tokyo Collection. Thanks to this, I was able to get into a place where I could talk about fashion and shoes in the same breath, which I had been longing for. But it was the beginning of the 80's when I was able to finally make my mark on fashion. As is well-known, went to Paris in 1981. It was the same time that Japanese DC brands started to expand overseas, and the shoe scene was getting very interesting. I've worked with a lot of designers and designing shoes for someone can be a bit like asking for help, depending on how you look at it. I began to think that I wanted to design my own shoes from scratch, and since I am not a dressmaker, but a shoemaker, I wanted to make something that was for everyday use, not a work of art.

With this in mind, I made some shoes and took them to BARNEYS NEW YORK in the US. I made a portfolio and asked BARNEYS if they would consider stocking them. The person in charge at the time said "OK", so I waited for the order form; I waited and waited, and kept waiting, but I never got a reply. I wondered what was going on, but then I learned that the person in charge had quit a week after I got there (laughs). Before the next season, I went to the new person in charge to try again, and he suddenly became very rude, saying that he didn't know about it because it was decided by the previous person! (Laughs). Well, even though he didn't like me, I kept going back to him, and he finally agreed to buy my shoes.

This was in the early 90's when I started my own shoe brand called SEtt. I really wanted to make my debut in New York, but I decided to not go to Barneys New York, instead I went to Bergdorf GOODMAN and all the department stores on the main street. As a result, after the overcoming the crazy exchange I mentioned earlier (laughs), Barney's bought it first. I think it was the next time I brought in a new piece, they showed me to the sales floor and showed me a pair of Paul Harden shoes, and told me that this is the other designer that we’re selling at the same time. When I saw his work, I thought to myself "this isn’t good", because the work from his first collection in the 80's was beyond what I hoped I could achieve on my own.

I was able to get my products sold in the U.S., but after seeing Paul Harden, I didn't care so much about doing business in the U.S. or overseas anymore. I thought, if it's all the same, why don't I just make shoes and clothes that my friends can wear in Japan? After all this is when I started working with Jonio and his team around 1994, when they held the UNDER COVER show, and it was very interesting to interact with the younger generation as a shoemaker. While Jonio was doing the 3D cutting, my assistant was drawing patterns on the floor. If I had something I wanted to do, I'd just go buy more stuff and make it on the spot. This was all done in a single room of an apartment. Patterns were made on the floor, fabric was cut on the floor, and accounting was done on at the kitchen table (laughs).

Also, one of the things that I really enjoyed about Jonio's work was the t-shirts. If I recall correctly, for the biannual collection, the main graphics are created first, and then four or five T-shirts are produced before the clothes for the collection are even started! In any case, I learned that if a t-shirt had a weak graphic, it was not good or cool at all. They put a lot of emphasis on graphic tees; actually, it was more like t-shirts were the center of everything!

I took this to heart when I started GENERAL RESEARCH in 1994 with T-shirts. At that time, when it came to T-shirts, I seem to remember that everyone in the area, including myself, used the Oneida shirt body style. But then the same thing happened with Oneida and Anvil, and the head offices in the U.S. went under and we couldn't get any more of that fit, so we were all forced to start making our own T-shirt bodies from scratch. At the same time, some mass merchandisers started to shift their business to China, and they started to divide into two groups: those who used Chinese T-shirts because they were cheaper, and those who made their own. We were in the original body group that wanted to make more full-spec t-shirts by improving on what we felt was wrong with Oneida style, but NIGO®︎ ended up compressing the t-shirts and putting them in spray cans! I always think of him as a producer, the type of person who pays close attention to every detail of the overall fit and takes every opportunity to show off his gimmicks as well. I was very impressed. That's how the Nakameguro store came to be in 1995.I figured that since I'd started my own clothing business, I want to own a store at least once (laughs). I had already decided that Nakameguro was the place to start. Back then, there were no stores in this area along the river, and rent was cheap, so I came here. I think the spirit that Jonio and his friends showed me of doing whatever you want to do as soon as you can has really influenced me to start out immediately however I can.

I think the interesting part about street stores is that they give you a sense of responsibility toward the community.

—— What kinds of things can you learn from people of different generations?

When I moved out of my previous place two years ago, I found a lot of Urahara novelties in my closet. I thought to myself, how can I make a profit with these? (Laughs.) We were able to do all these things because we all had a clear idea of what we wanted. Now, more than 20 years have passed, and we do everything freely in a way that interests us. In a sense, it was the fact that I didn't have any experience at first; that I started without apprenticing under a designer's tutelage and getting trained before going out into the world, which is the usual way of getting into the fashion world. This created a special momentum for me. And it was having all the people that I did around me, I was bound to be influenced by them (laughs).

And one more thing. The reason why everything in Urahara during that moment only happened in Japan is because the bubble burst at that time; the factories that took on DC brand work in the 80's almost completely lost their work. But around the beginning of the 90's, they were able to start doing it again. As a result, there were a lot of people with production backgrounds that were willing to take on small-scale, small-lot jobs like ours. Although the Japanese economy is based on an industrial structure, it was still not as organized as it is today, and there were still a lot of cottage industries. The fact that Japan had a unique situation, where everything could be produced in small amounts at that time, was one of the reasons behind the big explosion in 1994. If you think about it, even if a movement like that happened in a time when DC brands were popular, people wouldn't have taken notice. But when you're just starting out, there aren’t so many people around, and you do a lot of new and experimental things.

——What do you know about stores in Nakameguro?

I don't see many employees sweeping the sidewalk in front of corporate stores, but the staff of private stores usually do. When you are a local street store, you are responsible for the street in front of your store. When you're in a company, you don't have to worry about what goes on outside your store. I understand that feeling, but I think that the more corporate stores there are, the rougher the town becomes. Even COW BOOKS, which stands next door to my clothing store, started working with me when I talked with Yataro Matsuura about how we should combat the decreasing number of independent bookstores. I think the interesting part about street stores is that they give you a sense of responsibility toward the community.

And one more thing. The reason why everything in Urahara during that moment only happened in Japan is because the bubble burst at that time; the factories that took on DC brand work in the 80's almost completely lost their work. But around the beginning of the 90's, they were able to start doing it again. As a result, there were a lot of people with production backgrounds that were willing to take on small-scale, small-lot jobs like ours. Although the Japanese economy is based on an industrial structure, it was still not as organized as it is today, and there were still a lot of cottage industries. The fact that Japan had a unique situation, where everything could be produced in small amounts at that time, was one of the reasons behind the big explosion in 1994. If you think about it, even if a movement like that happened in a time when DC brands were popular, people wouldn't have taken notice. But when you're just starting out, there aren’t so many people around, and you do a lot of new and experimental things.

—— What do you know about stores in Nakameguro?

I don't see many employees sweeping the sidewalk in front of corporate stores, but the staff of private stores usually do. When you are a local street store, you are responsible for the street in front of your store. When you're in a company, you don't have to worry about what goes on outside your store. I understand that feeling, but I think that the more corporate stores there are, the rougher the town becomes. Even COW BOOKS, which stands next door to my clothing store, started working with me when I talked with Yataro Matsuura about how we should combat the decreasing number of independent bookstores. I think the interesting part about street stores is that they give you a sense of responsibility toward the community.

——Where do you think you got these values?

I guess it's because I was born in Asakusa. You know how privately-owned stores are lined up and everyone is out sweeping in front of their stores? The further uptown you go, you get less of that atmosphere. In the downtown area of Tokyo, that kind of feeling used to be pervasive. I think it will be boring if people don't take care of things around them by themselves. It's a change that can't be helped, though. But I prefer for it to stay that way as long as possible. If it completely goes away, I might get too disheartened and lose my way.

Interview & Text : Yu Yamaki
Photo : Yu Inohara

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