Since at least the 1980s, Japanese fashion designers and their clothing brands have dominated the zeitgeist. Initially, with the cutting-edge, vaguely apocalyptic stylings of Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, and later, with decidedly less radical fare (pivoting around practicality and quality manufacturing) from labels like Engineered Garments.
Whatever the Japanese fashion scene’s eclectic, ever-changing rhythms; it is a constant that homegrown designers from the Land of the Rising Sun possess massive clout abroad. As such, any self-respecting clotheshorse needs to possess a working knowledge of Japan’s most commercially and critically successful labels — which is where we come in.
Below, you’ll find a short list of what we think of as the best Japanese clothing brands. Covering streetwear, couture, and even practical daily garments; we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the leading Japanese clothing brands right now — including where to buy them in Australia. Ikimashou!
Boss Hunting’s Must-Know Japanese Clothing Brands
White Mountaineering has always been a Japanese clothing brand that walks the knife’s edge between practical outdoor apparel and cutting-edge designer garb.
Yosuke Aizawa, the label’s founder and creative honcho, comes from a storied fashion lineage: having worked under Junya Watanabe throughout his 20s, before going on to launch White Mountaineering in 2006. The brief here is something along the lines of “Patagonia, but make it super-premium and super-vibey”.
Having internalised many of his legendary mentor’s essential teachings, Aizawa’s clothes often begin with a familiar foundation (e.g. an alpine mountaineering vest) which is then injected with a heady dose of atmospherics.
The ability of the average White Mountaineering garment to so directly capture some aspect of our natural world — be it snow or subtropical forestry — means Aizawa is never short of collaborators. The brand has previously worked on projects alongside Barbour, Vans, and even fellow Japanese label Uniqlo.
Suffice to say: as a fashion designer, you’ve probably made it when the artist formerly known as Kanye West has dedicated an entire song to you. Yet Watanabe’s influence extends far beyond the boundaries of rap & hip-hop culture.
Himself a student of the elusive Rei Kawakubo — Japanese fashion’s original High Priestess — Watanabe was instrumental in the inception of the now-iconic Comme des Garçons Homme line. His signature aesthetic style, usually entailing traditional menswear that has been dissected, deconstructed, and otherwise reconfigured to procreate bold new forms, has been widely aped but seldom equalled.
Fashion heads nominally describe the work of Watanabe’s namesake label as “workwear”, though that simple terminology doesn’t always capture the rich abstraction and highly singular personality of his designs. Outside the brand itself, Watanabe’s collaborations with Carhartt and Levi’s continue to be well-received.
Both a brand and multi-label retailer that captures the distinctive nature of Japan’s fashion ecosystem, Beams was originally set up in 1976 as a lifestyle store. Over the decades, the iconic label has evolved into one of Japan’s most popular department stores — with more than 20 boutiques all across the Greater Tokyo Area.
Somewhat confusingly, Beams’ own internal clothing label is actually known as ‘Beams Plus’: reflecting founders Etsuzo Shitara and Osamu Shigematsu’s preference for a timeless mid-century look, blending together Ivy style, sportswear, and classic Americana.
The brand produces robust, elevated takes on staple apparel: whether it’s the army-inspired ‘MIL’ jackets and trousers, or any number of special collaborations. For some real ‘inside track’ pieces, be on the lookout for the Beams x Levi’s capsule — now in its fourth instalment.
If you’ve seen even a handful of the outrageous “Harajuku Style” photos, taken by dudes like Shoichi Aoki during the 1990s, chances are that the name NEIGHBORHOOD will be more familiar than you realise.
Founded in 1994 by Shinsuke ‘Shin’ Takizawa, the brand was at the centre of a counter-cultural movement in metropolitan Japanese fashion: defined by similar labels including WTAPS, A Bathing Ape, and Undercover.
Despite many years of global mainstream success, Takizawa has stayed true to his love for old-school American motorcycling culture. As a result, clothes which are authentic to (or look like they might emanate from) that subculture are a speciality.
The brand’s distressed denim and leather rider jackets are particularly prized — frequently spotted in the wardrobes of globe-trotting rock’n’rollas the likes of John Mayer and Norman Reedus.
Signature items: Gel-Kayano 30, GT-2160, Gel-Quantum 360
Where to buy: ASICS Australia
Where American sportswear dynasties such as Nike and New Balance enjoy broad appeal, ASICS has always resonated the most with a specific niche of pro/amateur athletes — namely runners.
The brand was founded in 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka (yes, that Onitsuka) and in the intervening decades has solidified its foothold on the global performance footwear market.
In Australia, the Gel-Kayano 30 continues to do much of ASICS’ heavy commercial lifting; powered by a unique 4D guidance system that I’ve honestly found much more responsive and comfortable than anything being put out by the more mainstream athletic brands.
That said, despite the earned reputation of ASICS as a serious athletic manufacturer, the Japanese clothing brand is gaining traction with a new segment of lifestyle shoppers; through models like the dad-approved GT-2160. Of late, that silhouette has even gotten a New Year glow-up specific to the Australian market — courtesy of local sportswear outfit Earls Collection.
The omega to Comme des Garçons’ alpha, few would argue that Yohji Yamamoto is one of the two most influential Japanese fashion designers (the other being Rei Kawakubo) of the 20th century.
Comparisons between Yamamoto and Kawakubo are as frequent as they are inevitable: both designers achieved critical recognition (particularly from the European fashion establishment) in the early 1990s; favour an elemental approach while designing; and are noted for clothing that exists primarily in the monochrome colour spectrum.
Through his work with Adidas and his own eponymous line, Yamamoto has helped to define many of the aesthetic trends of the last three decades. #Drapewear and the ‘dropped crop’ trouser were all innovations that he popularised in the late 2000s; and Yamamoto was among the first runway designers to successfully cross over into streetwear with the Y-3 Qasa — a groundbreaking hi-top sneaker, which remains a staple of the avant-garde dresser even today.
Signature items: Geometry jersey stitch shirt, ‘Wool like’ compact shirt, Pleats puffer
Where to buy: Camargue (Sydney)
Despite his passing in 2022, Issey Miyake continues to be a palpable presence in the realm of Japanese couture. Widely regarded as Japan’s most outstanding fashion technologist, Miyake’s name qualifies for our list of the best Japanese clothing brands — purely by reputation alone.
The Hiroshiman designer is best remembered for clothing many of America’s leading public figures in the 20th century, such as Steve Jobs and Robin Williams (the latter of whom was apparently a fan of Miyake’s radical ‘Parachute’ bomber design).
Inspired by the work of intellectual artists like Constantin Brâncuși, Miyake introduced a rigorous approach to the task of making clothes that fused together art and technology; and both lofty and mundane inspirations. In this arena, critics often cite his “reinvention” of the humble pleat; which Miyake made relevant for everyday audiences with his Homme Plissé and Pleats Please diffusions.
Between that, and his frankly Homerian output of design work in product categories ranging from bags and fragrances to watches, it’s not surprising that in every fashion capital across the globe (never mind in Japan) ‘Issey Miyake’ is a household name.
COMME des GARÇONS
Inarguably the most important of Japanese clothing brands in this (and probably the next) century.
If you come away from this shortlist remembering only a single name, you’d do well to make it COMME des GARÇONS (“CDG”). Helmed since its inception (in 1969) by the legendary Rei Kawakubo, CDG paved the way for multiple subsequent generations of Japanese fashion designers.
The brand’s debut at Paris Fashion Week in 1981 is now the stuff of industry legend: blowing a hole in the stuffy, orthodox forms of European couture with an aesthetic that was — at least, initially — denigrated with all sorts of negative (and, in hindsight, frankly racist) commentary. (In 1982, WWD famously dubbed Kawakubo’s ‘Destroy’ show the “Hiroshima bag lady look”.)
One could dedicate an entire essay to the impact that CDG has had in the realm of fashion runways alone. But, in truth, that’s merely one small corner of the label’s sprawling, almost biblically vast universe. In the past decades, there have been over a dozen CDG-branded diffusions: including COMME des GARÇONS Homme (designed by Junya Watanabe) and the infamous PLAY sub-label. (You can recognise pieces from the latter by their distinctive bug-eyed heart logo.)
Even if the brand’s pointedly abstract garments aren’t to your liking, we’d still urge you to take a crack at its diverse line of fragrances: brimming with such Kawakubo-esque creations as an eau de parfum that smells of concrete or a daytime scent made in conjunction with Monocle magazine.
A Bathing Ape
Signature items: Classic BAPE tees, ‘Double Shark’ full-zip hoodie
Where to buy: Subtype (Australia-wide)
Frequently stylised (both on and offline) as ‘BAPE’, Tokyo-based label A Bathing Ape has been a crucial part of Japan’s now mainstream streetwear culture since the early 2000s.
The label was initially established by Nigo, a former stylist and editor at Japanese fashion magazine Popeye, in 1993. Now arguably better known for his ongoing creative partnership with Pharrell, Nigo nonetheless first garnered widespread attention among fashion circles via A Bathing Ape.
The brand’s success can be attributed, in no small part, to its popularity among some of the biggest hip-hop acts of the new Millenium; and though its influence in pop culture has waxed and waned in subsequent decades, BAPE has always managed to stay in the proverbial conversation.
Graffiti-esque camo trousers, the infamous ‘Shark’ hoodie, and dozens of variations on the ‘Bapesta’ (the brand’s own take on the Nike Air Force 1) all continue to be major bestsellers.
Notable for being the only classic menswear brand to grace this list, Ring Jacket was established in 1954 by the insurance salesman Jhoichi Fukushima.
Disappointed with what he saw as the low-cost and rudimentarily made tailoring of post-war Japan, Fukushima set up the company with the ultimate goal of producing relatively well-priced ready-to-wear suiting; with as close to as much handicraft consumers would expect to find in a bespoke product.
Over the decades, the brand has won a strong reputation (within the clothing industry) as a reliable white label manufacturer: making for high-end retailers in and outside of Japan. That all changed about 15 years ago, when Ring Jacket began marketing itself with select retail partners in Asia and North America.
In tandem, the ‘house style’ that the Osaka suitmaker is known for has evolved. Less boxy and Anglophilic than before, the overall look of a Ring Jacket suit has more in common with southern Italian tailoring. Free, easy, and pitch-perfect for Australia’s long roasting summers.
Be on the lookout for the brand’s non-wrinkling ‘Balloon’ wool blazer, or, for the cold weather equivalent, the absurdly titled ‘Creamy Waffle’.
Not unlike White Mountaineering, Visvim is yet another pioneering Japanese clothing brand that is the product of unique anthropological study.
Pretty much an extension of founder Hiroki Nakamura’s own wardrobe, Visvim’s collections over the years have tracked the life and work of its mercurial founder. Previously a designer at Burton Snowboards, Nakamura was inspired to leave the safety of employed life behind to start a brand that pays homage to the world cultures he’d encountered while travelling.
The spinning and dyeing of Visvim garments are thus an homage to ancient South American technique, but Nakamura is also not above incorporating the best of modern technology where relevant. The brand’s best-selling ‘FBT’ consummately illustrates this: reimagining the traditional Native American moccasin for a generation of shoppers more accustomed to first-class lounges than the Great Plains.
Guitarist & songwriter John Mayer has been notably bullish on the brand: going so far as to wear an inordinate number of Visvim pieces, all layered atop one another, on the cover of his 6th studio album Paradise Valley (2016).
Famously known for working with a spartan colour palette and distinctive skull & bones logo, Mastermind began life in 1997 as a punk-infused, premium streetwear label.
Its founder and lead designer, Masaaki Homma, is yet another student of iconic Japanese fashion god Yohji Yamamoto; with the latter’s influence evident in the monochrome shades and deceptively simple tailoring that are recurring themes at Mastermind.
That, however, is where the similarities end. In contrast to his mentor, Homma’s work embraces very explicit references to the alt aesthetic of punk and goth. The visual distinctiveness of those subcultures is often parlayed into highly technical clothes: think sweatshirts with an exploded patchwork technique or tees studded with Swarovski crystals.
Among numerous fashion cognoscenti, the late great Karl Lagerfeld was a notable fan.
It’s hard to imagine a time before the arrival of Uniqlo in Australia, but thanks to the Japanese high street retailer, the average shopper need never worry about where to get their hands on well-made basics (or “LifeWear”, as the brand calls it) ever again.
Set up in the 1980s as the “Unique Clothing Warehouse”, the company’s business documents led to it being erroneously registered as “Unique Qlothing”. Tadashi Yanai, the brand’s long-time CEO, liked this mistake so much he renamed the company Uniqlo — a contraction of “Unique Qlothing”.
Despite decades in the business of making approachable and affordable wardrobe basics (its ‘Airism’ underwear has a cult following), Uniqlo has shown, on innumerable occasions, that the brand’s designers have their finger on the pulse when it comes to contemporary fashion.
The irreverent, pop culture-inspired ‘UT’ tees draw on Japan’s globally revered iconography of tokusatsu and kaiju cinema. Meanwhile, the list of high-profile partnerships from the world of fashion grows ever thicker. In the past, Uniqlo has joined with brands ranging from Ines de la Fressange to Helmut Lang, and even fellow homegrown cult labels like White Mountaineering (also on our list).
In recent years, the brand has also embraced the lifestyle around tennis in a huge way: as is evident in their ongoing collaboration with Roger Federer — designed by none other than JW Anderson.
Frequently compared (somewhat arbitrarily in our minds) to Uniqlo, Muji is renowned primarily for its selection of affordable and increasingly eco-friendly household goods: encompassing everything from linens and cutlery to full-size furniture items.
However, unbeknownst to many, the Japanese retailer does a very tidy sideline in men’s apparel; all of which hues to its philosophy of minimalistic, no-brand design — intended to work seamlessly with the majority of what’s already in your closet.
If you’re looking for some of Muji’s most essential pieces, we can’t say enough good things about the brand’s sockwear; seamless pyjamas; summer-assured hemp shorts; and its hilariously named ‘Less Tiring’ sneaker collection.
If you’ve enjoyed this curated look at our favourite Japanese clothing brands, then why not consider a few of our other menswear and style-related stories? We’ve picked a handful to get you started: