INTERVIEW WITH MICHIHIKO KURIHARA
Fads tend to arrive suddenly, only to be forgotten just as quickly. American vintage fashion is different. No matter how many booms and busts arrive, the clothing’s intrinsic value remains unchanged. As decades pass, devotees have unearthed the stories behind the fashions, linking them together and contextualizing them. There have also been a wide range of articles on the subject, digging deep into the ways American fashion has changed and evolved over the years.
Classic American fashion has inspired countless designs, and formative, early creations have continued to be produced in seemingly endless variations. We’ve seen a grand shift in our everyday lives, yet the appeal of these pieces remains undiminished. Their inherent quality, perhaps? The simpler the design, the more we find ourselves drawn to it for inevitably pure reasons. More complex designs, on the other hand, serve as a record of the needs they met in the era of their creation.
Recently, the dominance of social media has resulted in a massive inflation in the prices of deadstock, while some of the biggest names in fashion make headlines as they shut their doors for good. Market forces are evidently no longer confined to the US and Japan, either. Just what, exactly, is transpiring in this industry named after the USA? We spoke to Michihiko Kurihara, freelance vintage buyer for shop Mr. Clean, to find out.
What led you to get into American vintage fashion?
I was influenced by a friend of mine who was really into American casual fashion. What set things off for me at the start was buying a new pair of American-made Levi’s 517s at a run-of-the-mill jeans shop in town. The magazine Boon was another influence, which helped me fall in love with other American casual brands like Vanson and Schott. Fast fashion wasn’t a thing at the time, and I wanted to buy a variety of different pieces on a budget, so going second-hand was my only available option. Next thing I knew, I was all in.
You ended up in charge of purchasing at Losthills in Harajuku, and you’re currently headlining your own store, Mr. Clean. Have you noticed any changes in the market since becoming a seller yourself?
Japan’s been a major market for used clothing since the ‘80s, but things are currently quite mature. My actual customers generally range from people in their late 20s, up to people in their 40s and 50s. Hardly ever see young kids in their 10s and early 20s. Most of them already have pieces of their own. Take the prices of Champion Reverse Weave sweatshirts and mohair cardigans. They’ve exploded in price, but if you know what they cost at the time, it’s tough to cough up the cash.
I noticed that the tags in your shop have handwritten notes from you listing a piece’s year, name, and anything that required repair.
Part of that’s because I can’t stand around in the shop all the time, but it’s also because I want buyers to be able to see anything that’s damaged or repaired and reach their own conclusions before making a purchase. In the US, I often find myself in places with indirect lighting, or at flea markets at dark early morning, and I often notice damage only after making the purchase. The fact that Mr. Clean’s storefront uses neutral white lighting is a reaction to that. We strive to offer washed and repaired pieces at a fair―that is to say, clean―price.
What inspired the name of your store, Mr. Clean?
It all started around 13 years ago. There’s this line of cleaning products from P&G called Mr. Clean. They aren’t available in Japan, but the character on the packaging is this bald buff dude who kind of looks like me. He’s pretty well known in Mexico, too. When dealers in Mexico and the US would introduce me, they’d call me Mr. Clean. Probably easier than having to remember some Japanese guy’s name. Plus, my last name’s Kurihara, and clean’s Japanese pronunciation starts with kuri. That’s why I went with that name for my store.
Can you talk about the attitude Japanese buyers take towards vintage clothing? Like releasing jeans encyclopedias, or being weirdly obsessed with details, that kind of thing.
The people I saw with the most extreme knowledge of eras, details, and brands were almost all Japanese. That seemed to include military-related stuff, too. I suppose you could say Japanese buyers tend to be more exacting, or like… When chino pants were in style, Americans would be fine with khakis that were 100% cotton, but Japanese buyers would give me these insanely detailed requests. They’d want double-stitched M-45s, or ask for M-41s for the metal buttons. That kind of thing.
Do you think the valuation and contextualization of pieces we have seen so far has happened as a result of market stratification driven by domestic demand?
Fundamentally, yeah. I think Japan was the first to really get the stratification going, too. eBay and social media didn’t exist in the ‘90s, so I’m pretty sure the Japanese share of the market when it came to American vintage clothing was something like 90%. Ultimately, the prices in the US were defined by the price things went for in Japan.
What kind of changes have you seen to supply since the arrival of eBay and social media?
So this is limited to Japan, but there was a magazine called QUANTO in the ‘90s. It was like a paper version of what we’d call a message board today. Looked like a phone book, with lists of sale items and their prices, with addresses and phone numbers to facilitate direct purchases. Today we call that CtoC. Back then, selling through registered mail was the standard. Today we have PayPal and other payment methods, and there are more ways to wire money overseas. Used to be you’d send from a post office via EMS and the like and it’d take a month. Now it arrives in three to four days. The biggest change, though, is that CtoC became the norm worldwide. Today people in Japan can buy from dealers in the US through eBay and Instagram and the like, which, to be fair, makes things really difficult for guys like us.……。
How does the way Japanese consumers buy clothes affect the way you do business?
In America for the past few years, t-shirts celebs like Kanye West and Justin Bieber wear ends up tripling or quadrupling in price. The kinds of folks who buy vintage clothes in Japan have always been kind of eccentric, so they’re way more resistant to trends. I don’t think I’ve seen any big trends like that take hold since Takuya Kimura brought vintage clothes into the limelight. Fundamentally, vintage clothes in Japan aren’t the result of people wearing stuff, getting bored, and selling it. It’s mostly collectors. Recent years have seen the price of denim dead stock skyrocket to up to triple their usual price. There seem to be more people buying in as an investment, too.
I heard you used to spend half of every year in America. Has COVID changed that?
Up until recently, my standard schedule was going back and forth between the US and Japan every six weeks. Towards the end of last February, though, I came back to Japan, closed the shop, and decided to wait and see on things since the US was in a pretty rough spot. I didn’t go to the US until June of that year, so I was in Japan for about three months. That’s not something I’d experienced in about a decade, and it also meant I ran out of product for the store, as well as wholesale product that brands use for remaking, so I ended up returning to the US in June. Currently, I alternate between spending about eight weeks in America and eight weeks in Japan (including two weeks for quarantine).
Buying and selling online has become commonplace, but do you get a special kind of enjoyment from selling in person?
Oh, absolutely. I sometimes buy from local dealers that send me photos while I’m in Japan, but there are almost never any deals to be found there. At local thrift shops, though, I can still find stuff for five or ten bucks that would sell for over 10,000 yen in Japan. That happens a few times a year, and that kind of thrill is the core of what keeps me in the business. It is basically gambling, though. (laughs)
Now that you mention it, Japan doesn’t really have thrift shops, does it?
The idea of donating clothes itself is foreign in Japan. Thrift stores in the US are built on charity and donations. There’s something of the American national and religious character there. Japan has recycle shops, which are similar, but those fundamentally rely on buyers and sellers to survive.
Can you share any memorable stories involving the purchase of vintage clothes?
This was around 2007, before I went independent. A dealer in LA told me about the Army & Navy Store in Texas, a huge store selling US military clothing. It was about an hour’s drive out of the way. I wasn’t expecting much, but imagine my surprise when I arrive and find a building built over a century ago, with four floors packed with used clothes. For about a decade starting in 2007, I’d spend two to three days just digging through that place every time I visited, but I sadly missed my chance to see the store’s final days. Ultimately, the owner decided to leave the business entirely. I bet some of the pieces I bought there are still in circulation in Japan, though. I unearthed all kinds of clothes there, including some very distinctive prison uniforms.
I’ve heard that the US has a lot of regional specialization when it comes to vintage clothes. Is that true even today?
Even new clothing items and brands vary from region to region. Areas with coal mines have specialized work wear, while Rockmount Ranch Wear and other cowboy gear is popular in areas with a lot of livestock and agriculture. Seattle and Portland have clothing inspired by grunge and the local music culture. Levi’s denims are particularly prominent around California to New Mexico, while Wrangler’s the choice in Texas. I do get the impression that the rise of social media has made regional differences a little less pronounced, though.
We’ve seen more and more new pieces that faithfully reproduce the qualities of vintage clothes as of late, but how often do you wear new clothes?
I wear new clothes, but I really love stuff inspired by vintage stuff. I used to hate wearing anything other than originals, but I don’t really give it much thought now. If presented with a pair of sneakers costing 500,000 yen and a quality replica for 20,000, I’d have zero problems with the latter.
Was there anything in particular that changed your mind about that?
The big thing is, I want all of this stuff to be viewed as fashion, first and foremost. When I started getting into vintage clothes, I’d wear an MA-1 first model bomber jacket, a pair of Levi’s leather patch 501XXs, and Converse Chuck Taylors. I’m not saying people who wear all-vintage are wrong to do it. But since I’m a wholesaler, I have a lot of opportunities to buy pieces I wasn’t originally interested in, which naturally means I have more things I want to wear.
The most valuable vintage clothes are all in what we’d call deadstock condition. Has anything in the marketplace changed that at all?
Fundamentally, deadstock commands the highest price. That’s always been true. However, in the early 2000s, we started seeing a growing appreciation for damaged goods. In a select few cases, the damage itself lent a sense of uniqueness and originality to the piece, driving its price higher. Also, Levi’s 501XXs and the like would command basically the same prices as deadstock that they did with good color fading. In that sense, I think you can conclude the range of buyers had expanded at the time.
You also sell clothes outside Japan in Thailand and other markets in Southeast Asia. What kind of trends are you seeing there in the demand for vintage clothes?
LA’s always been the largest market for vintage clothes in the US, with a wide variety of pieces from across the country, and there’s a lot of people from Thailand who work the markets there. Honestly, I don’t get the sense that a lot of white people work in the vintage clothes business. There are famous dealers like Larry McKaughan of Heller’s Cafe, but they mostly deal in high-end stuff. The guys working in warehouses, bringing pieces out to flea markets and the like, those guys are Mexican and Thai. The market in Thailand reached maturity in the late 2000s, and it started to get to the point where you could make more money selling directly there than selling in Japan. The price for Converse sneakers, for example, has been higher in Thailand than Japan since about seven or eight years ago. That means the prices in Thailand dictate the prices in Japan, a little like how things used to be between Japan and the US. In 2017 and 2018, I went to Thailand and did some selling at the huge markets, and I was stunned at the response I received there.
Are there any popular trends unique to Thailand?
Facebook and Instagram are dominant there too, so the trends aren’t much different from the ones in Japan. The climate limits your options a bit, though, mostly to shirts and jackets. Patagonia sweaters weren’t exactly flying off the shelves there. There are a ton of buyers in Thailand, with just as many sellers on the flip side. They have goods coming in from Pakistan and Cambodia, so anything there’s no demand for domestically in Thailand goes to wholesale. Vintage fashion sellers in South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong almost never go to the US, so they’re left to either go to Thailand, or come to Japan. As a wholesaler myself, I do a lot of business with buyers in Thai, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and beyond. Things used to be limited to Japan and the US, but vintage fashion feels like it’s become decentralized.
I’ve heard you buy used clothes for fashion brands to repurpose as upcycled or “remake” pieces. The production process for these pieces involves altering the shape of the original clothing item. Does this inspire any resistance in you, or are you okay with it?
The concept assumes that you’re using pieces that you wouldn’t be able to sell used to begin with, but it has to get mass produced in the first place. Champion Reverse Weave was a total dud a decade ago, so we’re wholesaling items for over 10,000 yen now that originally retailed for 1,200 yen. A large number of them have entered Japan over the years, but a lot of them have been chopped up, turned into cushions, and generally altered from the original forms. In a sense it’s kind of a waste that they produced so many at the time, but hey, if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t sell.
What do you keep in mind when buying new clothes?
I always try to remember that things change with time. You can have a single item, like say, a Levi’s trucker jacket, the 70505. About a decade ago, size 36 was considered the best, size 34s were considered rare items, but as soon as you hit size 40 and above they’d stop selling. Today, bigger is better. A size 46 can end up double the price of a 36 if you’re not careful. Trends and the times in which we live are what affect prices. Just knowing how things used to be isn’t enough. That goes for me too. I’m always learning.
Based on looking at your Instagram, you seem to really be enjoying your time buying in the US.
Hey, the reason I’m in this line of work is because I love going to the US to buy vintage clothes. I probably won’t run the shop forever, but if I can pick up a wider variety of stuff in the US, I might end up opening a different shop. I couldn’t say at the moment, though. All I know for sure is, I want to keep buying vintage clothes over there.
Interview text_ SHINGO ISOYAMA