Kenta Onishi (Kobe)
Interview by Holly Walder (Gunma)

For the April issue, I had the privilege of interviewing student and fashion collector Kenta Onishi, who gave us his thoughts on vintage fashion collecting in Japan.

First, some questions as a collector:

What first attracted you to vintage fashion?

The background of my preference for old stuff is actually because of my parents, especially my mother. They really like classic rock therefore I was used to listening to that kind of music. Old pop stars such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Bon Jovi, and so on were stuck in my brain when I was a child. What is more, my mother loves antique stuff, so I was also accustomed to old things, which means my love for antiquities has been formed since I was born. I first discovered vintage clothes when I was 15. I just strolled in the centre of my hometown, Nagoya, without any purpose and coincidentally, I saw some vintage rock band’s tour T-shirts from a window of a vintage shop called ”GREAT.” I can certainly say I was attracted to them because of my favourite music.

When you say, “vintage fashion,” what period do you focus on?

The definition of “vintage fashion” depends on what country you are in. For example, if they are from the USA, the ‘90s can be called “vintage” nowadays. Whereas if they are from France, only the ‘50s can be so. What is interesting is that ‘90s products were not called vintage at all when I was 15, however, as long as the word “vintage” is related to industry, the definition of the word can be wider just to create a new sense of value. 

What I would not like you to forget is that I am talking only about vintage fashion in Japan.

What appeals to you about American and French vintage fashion?

American and French fashion tastes are quite different because dressmaking culture has been rooted such a long time ago in France even among the general public. On the other hand, American vintages were mostly made by a machine, that means they are symbols of America’s economic development. So, the silhouette of French clothes tends to be curvy and more neutral or womanly. Plus, you can often see beautiful and artistic hand repairs by French workers. Compared to French vintage, the silhouette of American clothes is much more linear, manly, with more simple sewing. 

When I am in an artistic or serious mood, I usually wear a French work style, but when I want to be more casual or relaxed, of course I will choose American clothes from my wardrobe.

By the way, I will explain deeply later, but vintage means a collection of organised value-added details, and many vintage lovers find the label vintage appealing because it adds a new value to the clothes that they can use to differentiate themselves. 

How do you find vintage fashion in Japan?

There are some accumulation spots of vintage and second hand clothing in Japan. For example, you can see very many shops in Shimokitazawa, Koenji, and Harajuku in Tokyo. As follows, some big cities have that kind of spot, such as Osu in Nagoya or American Village in Osaka. However, you cannot miss [the] Hokuriku area because there are very famous shops called “Mushroom” in Niigata and “Foremost” in Toyama, even though the area is quite rural. In Japan, actually the word vintage almost means American vintage, but if you want to see French vintage, you ought to go to “Mel” in Shimokitazawa and “Mind Benders & Classics” in Kyobashi (Ginza).

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start collecting vintage fashion?

Anyway, it is all about building knowledge of details otherwise you would not understand why they are so expensive. In addition, the knowledge will help you with distinguishing authenticity.

What trends did you discover in your thesis?

Congratulations on completing your thesis “A Genealogy of Vintage Fashion in Japan.”

This research clarified the genealogy of the fashion style called “French vintage” in Japan today. 

First of all, although the medium changed from magazines to SNS, and trends shifted from French to American, the framework of vintage fashion as an industry stayed the same. Media has undergone a dramatic transformation in the 30 years since the 1990s, but that the word “vintage” has added a value to second-hand clothes and a meaning to wearing them, and that the existence of individuals who transmitted a unified ideal image of the recipients made vintage a fashion style.

I consistently took the perspectives of assigning and differentiating value to objects and people within the discursive space of the media, relying on Baudrillard’s theory that consumers in contemporary consumer society attach value to the symbols attached to products and consume those symbols, and Bourdieu’s theory of “places” and the “habitus” that emerges in each of those places. 

In developing my view of French vintage in Japan, it was also necessary to consider the development of a new fashion style, French vintage, in continuity with American vintage, the first vintage fashion to take root in Japan. Therefore, I first attempted to elucidate the background of the establishment of American vintage by analysing the discourse that appeared in men’s fashion magazines, which systematised vintage-related knowledge and served as a manual for consumption activities.

On the other hand, there is almost no data available on the early days of French vintage between the decline of magazines and the rise of social media, so I conducted an interview with the owners of French vintage speciality shops and analysed it verbatim. However, since the shift of dissemination of information to social media, information about French vintage has been disseminated through blogs and subsequent social networking services, so I organised how information was developed and given value through blogs/Instagram/YouTube, and examined who was responsible for the practice of French vintage as a fashion style, too.

The background of the establishment of American vintage in the ‘90s was the systematisation of knowledge about vintage by men’s fashion magazines and its transformation into symbols for consumption. Especially magazines called BOON and Hot Dog Press in the ‘90s showed old jeans and other items by listing and differentiating only pictures of details attached to them on a page, thus establishing a hierarchy and assigning a value to each item. In addition, men’s fashion magazines featured charismatic individuals as ideal figures of the practice of consumerism, and they talked about their wealth of knowledge and unique styles. What is more, Hot Dog Press encouraged people to imitate the fashions and hairstyles of Takuya Kimura and others, who wore exactly vintage jeans. Even though vintage lovers tried to differentiate themselves in the field-vintage by wearing more highly valued details based on systematic knowledge, charismatic people and celebrities functioned as a common ideal for consumers to unify an image being aimed for a fashion style known as American vintage—and the fashion style was established.

In the 2000s, however, according to the result of the interview, with the decline of magazines and the underdevelopment of the internet, there was no place to assign vintage values to old French objects, so the symbol used to convey the value of objects in the early days of French vintage was the “antique,” and old French objects were seen more like art. But in 2011, blogs began to systematise knowledge about French vintage, which was then taken over by Instagram, where hashtags further symbolised details and reinforced American vintage conventions that praised systematisation.

Yuumin & Kiuty educated viewers on YouTube about the knowledge of French vintage systematised by Instagram and other platforms, and gained a following, especially among young men. As their influence grew, their videos changed to introducing their own outfit and lifestyle; in other words, they became a content themselves, and they had become the ideal image, or charisma, for viewers to transmit their unique sense of style and lifestyle. 

From magazines in the 1990s, blogs from the 2000s to the early 2010s, and social networking from the mid-2010s onwards to the present, it has always been the media as the discursive space that has assigned vintage value to “just old clothes.” Men’s fashion magazines, in particular, have made old jeans “cool and valuable” and assigned meaning to wearing them. And it was charisma with a unique sense of style and strong influence backed by a wealth of knowledge—as well as individuals as fashion-icons who represented only the more “cool guy” ideal of masculinity—that brought American vintage to the forefront of fashion style. Since the development of the internet—which transformed the media from magazines to digital—the systematisation of knowledge about French vintage has been done on blogs, and with the spread of smartphones, the place has shifted from blogs to social networking sites, but there has been no change in the underlying practice of vintage fashion, which places value on symbolic details. As I said, Yuumin & Kiuty became charismatic by spreading the symbols and the meaning of wearing them more widely on YouTube, and later created an ideal image by conveying their unique sense of style and the practice of a French vintage lifestyle, thus establishing the fashion style known as French vintage.

What did you find most interesting during your research?

The owner of Mind Benders & Classics told me that old French stuff was valued by the word “antique” and they were recognised as art more than vintage at the dawn of French vintage. However, it was very interesting to see how, as knowledge became increasingly systematised, the art-loving perspective was gradually involved by the current consumer society and, by extension, capitalism.

Do you have any predictions for the future of vintage fashion in Japan?

As long as clothes are consumable things, the number of vintage clothes will definitely decrease. But the vintage industry will add new value to clothes that are still not old or valuable enough to make them new vintage, so possibly sweatshirts which your dad wore while sleeping would be vintage in the near future. Vintage buyers have been digging new rubbish which is capable of being able to add value even today.

On the other hand, trends in modern society can easily and quickly change. If you might regret when your vintage clothes get less worthy, I would recommend you just buy some masterpieces such as Levi’s 501XX.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell the reader?

Despite what I told you, building knowledge about details is the most important, I would like you to choose what you find cool. I believe that the purpose of wearing vintage clothes should be to touch the time which we cannot reach. (1)

  1. Heike Jens   “Dressed in History: Retro Styles and the Construction of Authenticity in Youth Culture”[Fashion Theory,Volume8,2004,pp.387-403.]

Kenta Onishi is a student mainly studying vintage fashion in Japan at Kobe University, and he has also been collecting vintage clothing for more than 15 years.

Holly Walder is the Fashion Editor for [CONNECT]. She follows the French philosophy that vintage starts pre-1950s.