Beams: A Close Look at a Pillar of Japanese Style
The impact of Japanese fashion and street culture on the world of menswear during the last fifty years should not be understated. From groundbreaking designers like Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto to pioneering masters of style and culture like Hiroshi Fujiwara and Jun Takahashi, not forgetting the everyday trendsetters on the back streets of Harajuku, there is no other microcosm of menswear quite like Japanese menswear.The discipline has been studied in detail over the years by authors, bloggers, and style authorities alike. Most recently, by W. David Marx in his in-depth study Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. From the early adoption of Ivy style (see: Take Ivy) to the revival of classic American workwear and heritage, Japanese menswear has been and remains to be, ahead of the curve.
Laying the Foundations of Japanese Style
Perhaps most interestingly, Japanese style can be seen as a juxtaposition, at least on the surface. The adoption of other (often western) style cultures by a land and people whose historic traditions differ drastically may seem strange at first. But the beauty of Japanese style is that those imported cultures are re-appropriated into something unique, unintended by their originators, which becomes quintessentially Japanese. For example, while channeling the roots of style in American college campuses, Japanese menswear became the authority on Ivy style, to the point where the western world looked at the imitator rather than the originator for tips on how to dress ‘right’. Similarly, from channeling the styles and nuances of European fashion and culture, Japanese avant-garde quickly became the gold standard when it premiered on Parisian runways, in the early 1980s, garnering more attention and credit than the original in some cases.
Marx traces back the roots of modern Japanese style to earlier times but his emphasis remains on the period immediately following the Second World War. Due to shifting cultural factors and western expansion, the mid-twentieth century arguably birthed the phenomenon which fascinates us today. There were some who were quick to catch on and took steps to start brands which would have a lasting impact far beyond their original intentions or develop publications which would form the basis of today’s literature on men’s style. The brands that withstood continued to pave the way, cementing themselves as pioneers of modern taste. One such brand which undoubtedly falls under this umbrella is Beams.
The name Beams is as synonymous with Japanese style and culture as Ferrari is to Italy and the world of motorsport. There is a common acceptance that Beams is one of the originators of what we might now consider as Japanese men’s style and the brand is a cornerstone in the menswear narrative. From its humble beginnings in Harajuku in 1976, to a host of high profile collaborations, Beams remains a well-respected architect of style with an international impact. While it would be impossible to cover every aspect of this retail giant in one article, we’ve collected some key information on the brand’s history and development over the years.
The original aim of Beams was “to bring change to the culture and lifestyle of Japanese youth”. Over the years the brand has worked as an editor extraordinaire by curating a select offering and working towards “the simple mission of shining a light on great products from around the world”. Beginning primarily as a ‘select shop’ or what we might consider a multi-brand store, Beams has “always welcomed times requiring revolution” in order to bring new and exciting product into its stores. Beams later came to offer its own lines of clothing and lifestyle products, often in close collaboration with carefully chosen partners. However, the company does not own any production facilities but instead has “deep relations with amazing factories” which is the result of passionate brand directors and buyers who are constantly looking for new and innovative designs. The name Beams itself plays on the brands original ambition; “casting a light on quality products from around the world, supporting others as a solid structural unit and leaving customers with beaming smiles”.
In the early 1970s, Etsuzo Shitara was introduced as “a guy from a cardboard box company” to Osamu Shigematsu, a die-hard Americana fanatic with a penchant for true US style. From procuring authentic US surplus and vintage items from local PX stores on US bases in Japan to flying to Hawaii at 19 to stock up on clothing unavailable at home, Shigematsu was obsessed with authenticity. He saw a gap in the market, to provide the Japanese youth with true pieces of American culture rather than Japanese goods made under foreign license names which lacked a level of authenticity and were made only for the Japanese market. Shitara was President of Shinto Inc., a packaging company who had stumbled into some trouble due to the Oil Crisis of 1973 and was looking for another way to revive the business and increase profit. Enter Osamu Shigematsu, who pitched the idea of selling authentic goods to the Japanese youth of Harajuku. Shitara was sold and Beams was born.
The first Beams store opened in February 1976 in a small space just over 20 square meters in a building which later became the current menswear flagship store (BEAMS Harajuku). Originally inspired by American college campus style, Beams primarily sold fashion and lifestyle products which were displayed in the style of a UCLA dorm room. Named ‘American Life Shop Beams’, the brand was fiercely dedicated to emulating American popular culture in the east, following the early (and enduring) trend of Ivy style. In order to offer an authentic product and experience, Shigematsu bought a cheap plane ticket to California and left with “enormous empty bags” according to Marx. This allowed Beams to go directly to the source and offer completely authentic product like no one in Japan had seen before, including a pair of running sneakers from then-upcoming Beaverton based brand, Nike.
Beams wasn’t just selling clothes or trying to make a quick buck by peddling sweatshirts—it was selling a lifestyle. The brand wanted to better illustrate how people overseas were living their lives, by offering an accessible slice of that culture in Japan. Building on the vision of Teruyoshi Hayashida’s Take Ivy, Beams gave customers a sense of place, like they had been transported to the American West Coast and could adopt that same college campus culture. Beams wasn’t working in isolation either. That same year, Americana-focused Popeye Magazine was founded and the two companies began to work together. While Beams was a driving force in the Japanese fashion movement at this time, it was part of something bigger, building on the foundations laid by Kensuke Ishizu and his contemporaries. However, that’s not to say that Harajuku was the booming epicenter of style that it is today; in the 1970s the Japanese men’s market was considered underdeveloped and there were no major landmarks like Laforet Harajuku and no back alley streetwear hubs like Nowhere.
Continued Expansion and the DC Boom
In the ensuing years, Beams expanded quickly, opening its second store in Shibuya in 1978 which introduced a new line, Beams F, which was followed by International Gallery Beams in 1981. This coincided with an expansion in subject matter also, as the brand began to look towards American East Coast styles as well as the arts and culture of Europe. As Beams continued to birth more of their own sub-labels alongside new storefronts, Beams began to stock the most desirable foreign brands before anyone else. It was during these years that Beams cemented their approach to curation “with cultural antennae held high to the skies, constantly searching for the latest styles, fashion, and lifestyles”. This came at an opportune moment as 1980s Japan was experiencing significant economic growth and a boom in business, resulting in the youth of Japan becoming more interested in fashion and having more money to spend in stores like Beams.
As well as looking towards design conscious brands of Europe, Beams also searched for new product closer to home. Merging the appeal and energy of the first DC (Designer and Character) Boom, the brand also started to work with Japanese craftspeople and small carefully curated brands. This was realized via another sub-label Beams Modern Living (later re-branded as Fennica) which included midcentury and Scandinavian furniture via its London buyers like Terry Ellis. Traveling to key cities overseas, Beams buyers played a crucial role in the company’s expansion and the realization of Shitara and Shigematsu’s vision. Apparel planning and production became a key part of operations, particularly where collaboration was concerned. This coincided with the continued fashion boom in Japan, with Tokyo quickly becoming the fashion mecca which we know it as today.
The Bubble Pops and Beams Plus
In 1988 Yo Shitara took over as President of Beams which was shortly followed by the burst of Japan’s economic bubble. However, Japanese fashions continued to develop and the 1990s ushered in the era of ‘Ura Hara’ (translating roughly to ‘back Harajuku’) with streetwear hubs like BAPE opening behind the Beams flagship store. The back alleyways and side streets of Harajuku continued to explode with cultural icons like Nigo, Tetsu Nishiyama and Shinsuke Takizawa paving the way in a new generation of street style. While clothing remained core to the Beams offering, the brand soon opened a record store, art gallery and a cafe. The brand’s collaborative efforts also continued to diversify during this period, which included working with Motorola in 1997 to offer a phone in 100 different colors and Japanese fonts by graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook.
But, Beams didn’t forget its roots and as a reaction to the continued monopoly of streetwear in the Japanese fashion scene, Beams Plus launched in 1999. Largely considered one of the premium sub-labels of Beams, Beams Plus was created to offer “authentic menswear that can be worn forever” with an obsessive focus on fabric, details and construction. Coinciding with the #menswear revolution, Beams Plus was later sold to overseas customers through Italy’s WP Group. The brand also caught the eye of Toby Bateman, Managing Director at Mr. Porter, as well as gaining retail space in New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. It was not only the quality of the product which elevated Beams Plus, but also how and where the product was sold which sees the brand continue to be a strong pillar in the menswear world today.
International Expansion and a Return to Roots
In May 2005 Beams opened its first overseas store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong (with more shops opening in HK later that year). This Asian expansion was in recognition of Japan’s advances within the fashion and menswear world over the last two decades as well as an increased desire from the overseas market to have the editorial curation of Beams in their own country. Beams stores soon popped up in Beijing, Taipei, and Bangkok. In addition, Beams amplified its online presence and launched an e-commerce shop. More sub-labels continued to appear with Kodomo Beams which offered children’s clothing, Beams House which was a destination for upscale mens’s and women’s dress clothes and Vermeerist Beams which worked on the philosophy that the store buyers would work as the store staff so that they could communicate directly with customers about the product offering.
In the 2010s the company grappled with the era of social media and continued to expand its online presence, as well as creating the Beams Institute of Creation which extended the companies influence and editorial prowess to other brands. In 2014-15 Beams renovated its flagship store in Harajuku and dedicated the first floor to a series on continually changing pop-up shops. Based on seasonal changes and trends, staff would reinvent the displays and product offering on a regular basis. This sprouted relationships between Beams and other brands such as Pilgrim Surf + Supply. Back in 1976, Beams had been created with the intention of bringing great products from all over the world to a Japanese customer. Fast forward to 2016 and Beams Team Japan was created in order to support Japanese goods and people. Through this initiative, Beams worked with local governments to produce guide books for Japan and to create new products based on local traditions. This eventually led to the company exporting these Japanese goods to London and Paris in order to showcase the traditions of Japanese culture and the skills of its people.
Today, Beams continues to be an innovator and market leader when it comes to men’s style. The brand has a firmly rooted global presence which continues to grow and a dedicated team of staff who support the company’s philosophy. It’s safe to say that over 40 years after its inception, Beams has accomplished more than most. And perhaps what is most staggering is that the brand has remained true to its core principles, all the while expanding in new and innovative ways, but never diluting its offering. It is difficult to encapsulate all the brand has achieved during its lifetime, as well as what its future might hold. But in the words of Nigo, Beams really is the “very pinnacle of Tokyo culture”.