It never ceases to amaze me the way the Japanese get stuck into a style culture, to the point of obsession, and then take it to a completely different place from the originating source. For instance, take the Americana vintage stores in Tokyo, which do Americana better than, dare I say the Americans (?) Or the gents at Tokyo’s first Tweed Run, who would mix up a Stussy cap and Vans shoes, giving a new spin to early 20th century dapper attire. The process of assimilation, remix and reinterpretation is fascinating. because it is undertaken with such a conscientious effort.
blackmeans is one such label that is rooted in Japanese obsession and genre remixing. This collective consisting of designers Yujiro Komatsu, Takatomo Ariga, Masatomo Ariga and Tomoko Moriya describe themselves as a “Hardcore craft team”. Their beginnings in punk aesthetic customisation were long entrenched since their school days but they banded together whilst working for Tokyo cult streetwear label 20471120 in the nineties. After individual stints at Undercover and experiments in hand-made clothing lines, they formed blackmeans in 2008, backed by a leather garment factory and it is only in the last two years that this incredible leather craft collective have slowly begun to emerge internationally with championing stockists such as Opening Ceremony.
When I asked Komatsu (who gave me my first motorcycle sidecar experience in Tokyo last year) what the meaning of blackmeans was, he wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an answer. That pretty much sums up the cryptic spirit of blackmeans’ referencing in their work. It’s punk, but not as you or I know it. Diffused from crust punk movement in England, they also draw from Tokyo’s active and highly visual underground punk scene, exemplified by legendary stores like DEADEND, where Komatsu worked when he was a teen. Plastered all over the walls of their flagship store in off-the-beaten-track Kami-Kitazawa in Tokyo, are Japanese punk flyers and their basement serves as a den of band practise session room. It feels at once familiar and mysterious.
Mixed in with its D.I.Y. ethos, blackmeans also incorporates other elements. I hate the word “tribal” but in this instance, where the designers are looking at tribal attire from around the world as though they were cutting up collages from National Geographic and pasting them into their work, it applies as a general aesthetic. Komatsu admits he isn’t well-travelled but he says that in Tokyo, he has the freedom to roam freely and go everywhere with his work. Like the mori girls in Harajuku who dress like Bavarian milk maids, who have never been to Germany. Or the owner of the amazing pizza place in Nakameguro in Tokyo that hasn’t been to Naples. With hardcore enthusiasm and bravado, blackmeans successfully fuses everything from Native American feathers and Aztec textiles to Hindu iconography and WWI military garb into a competent mix that they can call their own.
In the background of all this genre hopping, time travelling and ethnic exploration, is the firm belief that blackmeans is a very Japanese label, proud of their Japanese hardcore punk roots and their country’s heritage. Witness their outing at New York Fashion Week back in February when together with other Japanese leather brands, they staged a Leather Japan showcase, soundtracked by a riotous performance by Japanese New Wave/Punk band Turtle Island. Or the touches of Japanoiserie in their collections – the use of certain emblems, references to mythical creatures like the half bird, half man Karasu-Tengu or traditional Japanese textiles.
Furthermore, tying all these seemingly dissonant strands together is blackmeans’ unwavering dedication to Japanese craftsmanship, the way the leather. The aesthetic may be DIY but the resulting garments are anything but amateur. Walk into the blackens store and you’re hit by the smell of wet leather, drying out on racks. Their various factories and craftsmen are elsewhere but upstairs is a leather atelier where they experiment with hardware application, paint and dye techniques and tool well made accessories.
The results of this unlikely mix are leather jackets, accessories and a burgeoning range of garments for both men and women that are instantly recognisable as blackmeans. No wonder the label has gathered up a cult following, best summed up by this picture taken during Tokyo Fashion Week of the blackmeans gang, fronted by the lime-haired Eriko Nakao, a longtime model and supporter of the brand. So much of what’s incredible about the Tokyo fashion scene is the way there are such distinct style tribes and how people express their identity so overtly through their attire. Blackmeans is part of the new wave of Japanese brands that is both steadfastly devoted to its niche but also leaves room for interpretation. Hence why checking out their S/S 14 showroom was a dangerous move on my part given that there were more than a few pieces that I’d like to get my hands on, despite the fact that I’m nowhere near as hardcore as the blackmeans gang. Oh well, as long as Komatsu doesn’t mind my hanging on his distressed leather coat tails of cool, whenever I’m in Tokyo, he’ll have a fan in me forevermore.
Photograph by Mitograph