KATO’ started in 1999 as a journey to share a love of clothes. As the brain child of its namesake, Hiroshi Kato, the brand has tread largely unknown in North America. But this is hopefully going to change.
Hiroshi Kato has been a part of the denim culture in Japan for over 30 years now. He’s seen the boom occur and tastes evolve. His passion for scrutinizing over classic Levi’s and vintage apparel drove him to learn everything he possibly could about classic garments. The result lead him to design for a variety of labels, along with consulting at several fabric mills.
The brand itself now carries over 200 accounts in Japan, including Isetan and Barneys NY. Fourteen of their own shops are curated by the designer to include the brand’s goods alongside fellow labels such as Comme des Garcon and Tricker’s. In addition to the KATO’ line and its functionality forward TOOL Project, the brand is currently split into the AAA line (high quality vintage inspired), Grandma MAMA Daughter line (for women), and the 13 Arrow line (contemporary inspired) of sub lines. While differing in theme and function to a certain extent, they are all tied into the same ethos of artisanal craftsmanship.
Enthusiasts love Japanese apparel for its quality and craftsmanship, but western admirers often find Japanese sizing unforgiving. With the advent of KATO’ brand’s North American Made in the US line, many are able to acquire the unique proposition of a high end Japanese brand specifically targeted to those outside of Asia.
We spoke with brand representative Yu Fukushima to learn more about the brand and its products.
Heddels: What is your role and how long have you been with KATO’?
Yu Fukushima: I have been with KATO’ for four years, and currently my title has shifted a little bit and I am in charge of wholesale operations for North America and Europe. As with any small brand, our team members wear many hats. I work very closely with the silhouettes that are ‘authentic’ to the tradition of KATO’, yet still can be appreciated by the masses and be competitive in the North American and European markets. Some days you might find me on the road seeing accounts, other days you might see me packing up boxes to ship out to a customer.
How big is the company?
In the U.S. we are still a small operation, we only have seven members. In Japan, there are about 50.
When did the brand begin to expand into America?
In the past, we had limited distribution in the US – mainly just sold our Japanese goods directly to US vendors, including J.Crew. We soft launched a collection specifically made for the North American / European Market in Spring ’13, and started doing the “whole shebang” in Fall of ’14. We’re going three years strong now and our key accounts include Ron Herman, Fred Segal, American Rag, and Atrium.
Why produce in the US instead of Japan, where the garments are designed? Does this provide any advantages? Disadvantages?
We are part of a company that owns a big (if not the biggest) denim manufacturing factory and wash house on the west coast. We have factories in both the US and Japan. KATO’ Japan is made in Japan while KATO’ North America and Europe is mostly made in the US Since our line is for the American market, it just made sense logistically to use our assets here in the states to make “Made in USA” for the US market.
Most Japanese brands tend to run small in comparison to western brands. Does the Made in the US fact influence sizing at all?
For us, sizing and fit is REALLY important, and as my production team knows, I cannot stress the importance of fit enough. I think in the past–especially when Japanese brands started coming over en masse 15 years ago during the premium denim boom–the impression was that Japanese brands tended to run really small and that you had to size up (which is true to an extent nowadays).
We’ve done extensive fittings with a well-known fit model and continue to make sure sizing is consistent every season. One of the major differences between our brand and other Japanese brands is our line is specifically merchandised and “fitted” for the Western customer. It took us some time for sure, but I think and I’ve heard that we have one of the best fitting shirts on the market right now.
What are Hiroshi’s biggest influences for design?
I think his main focus that we really like to emphasize for the U.S. market is his knowledge and understanding of fabrics. Hiroshi has extensive knowledge and experience in developing and selecting fabrics (he has worked with Ralph Lauren to develop fabrics and washes for RRL in the past). We strive to make “timeless” pieces that withstand trends and fads using exclusively premium Japanese fabrics that set our garments apart aesthetically and to the touch. For the US, the focus is on a soft hand, unique textures, and quality that the customer can see and feel.
What brands are most similar to KATO’? What is distinct about it as well?
Our attention to providing quality, uniqueness and timeless pieces at a reasonable price point every season [makes KATO’ distinct]. I think there’s a lot of brands doing similar things like us… More established brands like Rag & Bone, A.P.C., RRL, Gant… Newer brands like Faherty, etc… but I think our fabrics and fits at our price point sets us apart from the competition (NOTE: KATO’ shirts are approximately $150 in the United States).
What’s has KATO had the most success with in the United States market?
We tend to do very well with our shirting. I think we have the slim fit dialed in, and we play to our strength which is fabric. People love the different fabrics that we present each season. We also have been doing well with chino bottoms… again we carry over our philosophy of classic silhouettes with unique fabrics, and that has definitely been a key to keeping our North American customers happy and excited about new products.
Why should people care about KATO’?
Once you try our shirts or pants on, you’ll definitely want more pieces to fill your closet with every season. I think our silhouettes and fits are the best on the market. We have experience producing for the biggest and most successful brands in the U.S. so I’d like to think we know what we are doing.
Who is KATO’ brand’s target customer?
Our target customer isn’t necessarily an age or demographic, it’s more like a mentality and lifestyle. Our customer is someone who appreciates timeless, classic style and quality, but wear something unique that not everyone else is wearing. He’s the guy in the office who always dresses well, but doesn’t look like he’s trying hard. You can wear a KATO’ shirt to the office and keep the same shirt on for a drink with your coworkers afterwards. Our garments are meant to be worn over and over again, and if the KATO’ shirt you have has become your favorite shirt… then we’ve done our job right.
KATO’ by Hiroshi Kato can be found online and at a variety of stockists.