YOON & JUN TAKAHASHI
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CHAMP MAGAZINE - ISSUE #9
"IN CONVERSATION"
Jun Takahashi is designer of Japanese fashion label,
Undercover, founded in 1990 since first showing in Paris in 2002.

Unlike anything else, his designs gained attention with an outsider, essence of anarchy paired with an impressive level of craftsmanship and design. Graduating from Bunka Fashion College and starting a cult store, ‘Nowhere’ with friend Nigo, his influences came from everywhere, even a nod to Vivienne Westwood and Rei Kawakubo, but most importantly the culture he was involved in at the time. Now his refined aesthetic has come from 25 years in the game. Undercover celebrates it’s 25th anniversary next year, an impressive feat for any independent brand and company. In addition to Undercover, he designs a running line for NIKE, and collections for retail giant Uniqlo. It’s all about the graphics and challenging structures, and it’s all completely new. A visual exploration from the surreal to expand the imagination, alternate to current design trends and common imagery.

Yoon is designer of Ambush, a Tokyo-based fine accessories label which is known for bold and striking designs. A strong stamp of
Harajuku culture, paired with global influences of underground
cultures and independent rebellion. Humble, direct and insightful, Yoon’s curious nature is paired with a knowledgeable perspective on the cultures around her. Originally from Seattle, she has called Tokyo home for 11 years. With a background in graphic design that explains her knowledge for methodology in visual design and communication, her design and art direction for Ambush is unique, confident and encouraging a personal identity unlike no other. Breaking every rule, because she is making the rules.

Both Jun and Yoon work in a genuine sense, doing what they love, and collaborating with friends. Their cultural backgrounds and upbringings are different, but the commonality is a rebellious nature at the core, pushing the norm and seeing how far they can take it.

Music has always been a significant influence for both designers. A musician himself too, Jun started a Tokyo cover band of The Sex
Pistols with friends, including Hikaru Iwanaga. Even nicknamed
‘Jonio’, from a likening to his resemblance to Johnny Rotten. While Yoon can be found DJing around Tokyo, complementing music influencer and husband MC Verbal, an integral member of influential Japanese hip-hop groups M-Flo and Teriyaki boyz.

Both locally-based, yet globally-focussed designers, they both in fact met in Tokyo at a mutual friends Karaoke birthday party. Since then, they frequent the local karaoke kan together and it’s usually a theme of old rock songs, “…I sing in Japanese, and Yoon in English!’

CHAMP sat down with both Yoon and Jun at his Undercover Head Office in Harajuku, in an insightful conversation about Tokyo and Japan’s changing fashion landscape, the importance of global connections, and key inspirations from two designers unlike no other from each of their unique perspectives…

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CHAMP: ON STARTING THE DAY

YOON: I woke up at 6. And I watched the Woodstock movie, and I got ready and got to work just before 10am.

JUN: I woke up at 6 in the morning, and I was going to go for a run but it was raining. So I went to lift some weights instead, and then started with breakfast. Next year is going to be the 25th year anniversary, so I'm working on multiple projects, collaborations. We will make a book, and have a few upcoming
special collaborations, we can't announce anything yet but are very excited. We just had an exhibition for our t-shirt graphics a few months ago at PARCO Shibuya, and a big celebratory party at the club, Sound Museum Vision in Shibuya. Too much on the table!

Y: I'm working on the next collection, I'm so
behind! But recently, we just made pieces for the Undercover Paris show, and for Sacai in Paris too. Also, Ambush is now at Dover Street Market.


C: ON HAVING A GLOBAL CONNECTION

J: I was born in Kiryu, Gunma, but Tokyo is where I started and where my family is. I have some complaints about Tokyo, parts that I don't like, but at the end, Tokyo is really interesting. That's where everything is happening, and as I said about social networks, I have no problem being connected with friends globally, and I go around the world for work, so it doesn't really matter. A few years ago, all the movements in Tokyo were overflooded and flat, nothing new was going on, but the younger generation like Yoon, or even younger like in their 20s now, are doing something interesting. I'm enjoying checking out whats next, what the younger generation of people are doing. I would like to pass on what I've learnt from my elders, like Rei Kawakubo, who I got influenced by, and I'd like to pass that onto the younger generation. I feel like it's my position to do so, and I'm interested to see what that's going to turn into globally.

Y: For me and V, as I'm not originally from Tokyo, I'm more comfortable dealing with people globally and knowing what's going on outside. But then again at this point now, you can't really think domestically anymore if you do a brand. So you just have to be conscious about what's going on everywhere. As long as you know your target market, and your audience globally. We have to keep up with everybody, wherever the demand is.

J: Things are a bit different nowadays with social networks and everything, so I feel more connected and closer to each other, my audience. In my age group, I am using social networks quite a lot, but the younger generation are born and raised with it, so I feel more connected and closer to it.

Y: Yeah, before, consumers had to go after to find stuff, but now we almost have to go after them in a sense because there are just too much options out there now. That's how I feel with a lot of customers, maybe for you though it's different, because Undercover has a 25 year history, maybe there's a bigger customer fan base / a bigger following. But as a young brand, Ambush, we feel like we need to put ourselves more out there precisely with a very clear message, otherwise it just gets smothered and we don't get noticed especially in digital platform. Has that ever played a role in Undercover?

J: I feel it's a natural movement, because I started 25 years ago, when the computers and internet were not on the market that much, so as I grew, technology and I grew together. It was a natural thing for me to be adapted to it. It's just one of the tools that people can notify with social network, internet, and everything. But my type of customers are still going to the stores, touching and feeling the actual product, and I feel the importance of the experience hasn't really changed much. Social networking totally helps to link up with people to get into depth and then talk, and still have a physical drink together. It doesn't have to be virtual, so that hasn't really changed.

C: Is this the age of transparency, from social media?

Y: Curation is the key. Curating what you show. Because once you put something on the internet, it's permanent.

J: It's not quite transparency, because I still have some secrets, and privacies that I keep. I have my judgement, what to be put out and what not to put out, but I have been through times where I've posted something, and pulled it back soon after. I've been putting out lots of information for years now, trying to reach out to the market, what I'm thinking and what I've been doing, it's exactly the same just a change of the tool. It used to be a magazine, or my own blog, but now it's Instagram or Facebook. So I'm pretty familiar with using those tools, but it's just the tool thats different.

Y: I think i'm the opposite! I've never had myspace, I don't have Facebook. I hated these things, but one day someone asked me, 'What do you do, exactly?', and I realized there's no point for me to say it, I just have to show it. I'm lucky to have the chance to meet a lot of great people and see a lot of great things, so I just thought I'd put it up, and thats how I started. But I realize it's important now that the brand is growing bigger and because that’s how people communicate now. Another thing is, the way people are going to perceive what we make is different than how I project it., then I should just control it by putting out with much curation. That's how I started Instagram and twitter. But, if I didn't do a brand, I don't think i would be so active in social media to be honest.

Y: Have you ever mentored anyone, as a designer?

J: I like finding some younger people and hearing about what they're working on, or what kind of problems they're facing, and synchronising when i was younger, the same kind of problem I then some of those people already have the answer, so it's very interesting to talk to the younger generation. I started my own company, instead of working for multiple companies, so i've already made so many mistakes, to come up to this point. And still! So I can give a lot of advice to those struggling now… Even though i made so many mistakes, and I'm still making mistakes, they turn out to be something good for me. So don't be afraid to get out, and don't be scared of making mistakes.

Y: True. You do learn by doing it. Me and Verbal got into making jewellery because he's an artist, and a few years back, all the stylists we hired would bring clothes that was really stereotypical, what rappers should be wearing. Thats wasn’t who he is so we decided that we're just going to get the budget from the record company directly and get the outfits he would like to wear on stage. During this time, we'd look for show pieces or big jewellery for the stage but there just wasn’t what we were looking for in the market. We happened to know a few people who could actually make pieces for us, and that's how everything started…It was really organic.
Also because we're not trained as jewellers, we didn't approach it in a conservative way and that’s where lots of crazy ideas came about. We didn't necessarily think about practicality or rules in the beginning but I now that the brand is progressing, we do understand that not everyone can wear showpieces and difficult pieces, so through much try and error we are learning how to produce pieces that customer wants but without compromising on the design side.


C: What are the challenges you see now for designers that didn't exist before?

J: Something I did have to do back in the day is, was just my mainline fashion show in Paris (Undercover), but now as a business that is not enough. I also have to do more reasonably-priced ranges, and thats something I didn't have to do back in the day, but I am enjoying doing it because there's things I can learn.

Y: I think a good designer is someone who can make something creatively good, but also making it accessible. You need to be creative, but at the same time you need to make an unique business model that fits your creation and vision. At the end, building that business model is a part of the big designing process at your brand. Up to this point, you have high-ends like Cartier, or Tiffany, with the finances, stones and all-gold… or it’s mass-market stuff. There aren't that many jewellery brands that are in the middle that you have their own world and being a unisex brand. At Ambush we are almost creating a new blueprint for this market right now. So there are a lot of challenges, and sometimes I think that's partially why it takes a bit of time for people to understand what we do because its quite new to them.


C: On technology & craftsmanship:

Y: it depends on your theme, and what you're going for…..

J: I know that there are new technologies, but they're not so significant and more subtle recently. Considering a price range and product, there actually aren't that many choices or new technology that I'm really interested in. Realistically, for practicality and cost-wise. However, one time I made a whole collection that was knits. They were so breathable but cold, so I combined the lining with a new high-tech material used in NASA. That collection was very interesting and it was a good combination of hand-made craftsman knit, with high-tech lining.

Y: Where we get our jewellery made, there's a lot of craftsmen, but they're not interested in passing down their skills to younger ones.

J: Where I'm from, Gunma, the weavers are well-known for their skill. There are some younger generation who want to inherit the skill, but it's a tough business and a very sad thing. Things are not taken over…


C: ON DESIGNS:

Y: I feel like your older collections were more darker and edgier but now the new silhouettes are more feminine. Is that because your ideal of beauty changed, or do you think you've just become more rounder as you matured as a designer? Are there particular real women around you whom you listen to what they want, or is it always a certain fictional character in your head?

J: I'm one of the rare male designers that's designing women's clothes, and I didn't even intend to start with it! But it was just that I felt with women's clothing I was more free to do whatever I wanted to do, because with men's, 'some guys wouldn't wear this, this has to be this', but with women's you can do a skirt, or … there was just more freedom.


C: On working internationally, but being based locally:

J: The main first step for me was the show in Paris. But even a little before that, some international customers coming to Japan for some sort of exhibition, and they came through and started looking at Undercover. I was very shocked when I first had a show in Paris, because the way how buyers approach you is totally different from the buyers in Japan, they are too honest and on point about this and that. That was a big culture shock for me, more-so than an individual persons influence. But nevertheless, appraisals or criticism, I do enjoy to hear different opinions from buyers towards my collection.

Y: Ambush is locally made in Tokyo but internationally minded. The world is too small to just keep things locally I think. The more we run the brand, we see the gap between how domestic buyers think versus how over seas buyers see. We only had our exhibitions in Tokyo but planning to show for the first time during Mens week in Jan 2015. I think that will be a very challenging next step towards international market.


C: On retail changes in Tokyo…

J: Back in the day, I would come up with a great design and give a strong impact to the customers, but nowadays customers have more options and choices that they can go to fast fashion store with a certain trend on a particular product. This is the challenge, they have the choice of choosing from a great product, or something with a trend. Because of that, nowadays I have to come up with a great design to beat those fast fashions, and at the same time I still have to do lower price range to keep the business going.

Y: Nowadays a lot of young consumers don't seem to care where the design sources come from or the quality or materials. They want instant accessibility. They don't mind buying something that is a copy of something, and they don't even care wearing it - even though they know it's a copy.

J: Even though I understand that there are so many younger generation people who don't care about buying fakes, or what not, but at the bottom of my heart, I feel that its my job to come up with something to beat that attitude of those who don't care, and being original to deliver something that I'm the only one who could have come up with it.

Y: I guess you can't really get mad at how people evolve in the way of thinking because things shift with time. However, I do wish fashion media would play a role in educating younger people not just focusing on trend reports. There are people that seek something unique though mass are usually just followers. For me, I think the most important part of a fashion magazine is the editorial spread. But in Japan, it's more about item shots and categorizing how to complete the looks with lots of words. Why do you think its like that? If I see just one beautifully styled photo, I'll want it instantly. I don't need to read about it because the picture alone will get me inspired. I feel like here, people need to write about everything like they need instruction to how to set up an outfit. I would love to see more real beautiful fashion spreads in domestic magazines.

J: But I feel that Japanese magazines have always been that way, because the Japanese market and readers are not the type of person to see one picture and be influenced by having their own judgement. They're looking for information and what's its about. So they like to read about things, instead of feeling it. I'm right in between the mass and the niche market, and I feel thats important.
When I started the store with Nigo, I was making something not high fashion, not street, so I couldn't be categorised in one or the other. I feel thats very important, and that is creative.
Before, magazines couldn't even categorise high fashion or street fashion, so it was non-categorised, but nowadays after our 25 year history, its pretty much Undercover is a new category… not street or high fashion, and I like the way we're positioned. I started from the streets of music, culture and everything, its very important to make who I am and what undercover is. And that's a very small market of people that can understand.


C: On inspiration:

J: I listen to different types of music. Also a big inspiration is the people I hang out with. Special moments, that are part of daily life.
I used to go to LA quite often, because I had a lot of friends who were into goth or music, and that's where I ran into gnarly images. And in terms of my creation, I like to put cute and gnarly images together and make it into a production. And when I sell it, I see some people wearing the perfect combination of cute and gnarly products and I love it. It makes me happy.

Y: Growing up in Seattle, the depressing weather and the whole grunge thing played a big role in developing escapism in my head. Since Im a visual person, I tend to get inspired by things or people who can paint pictures in my head. Even music, I tent to love artists or songs that makes me see colors. Also I like to switch things up all the time because I get bored easily.

J: I observe things very easily, but I'm bored with the same thing really fast too, but after a long time, those things are still somewhere in my heart, and I still have the base of it. In my mid-20s, that was when I would visit LA quite often, and the way I actually got into fashion was through punk…. I was more into British music culture, and after I went to New York music - more mental way - and when I moved to the West Coast, things were more raw and not fine-tuned, and that was very fresh to me. Wherever I go, new continents or new countries, I meet new people and get influenced by different cultures, different people. I think it's very important to observe and be open-minded for new things, and move onto the next thing. Also, someone who inspires me a lot is the artist Jan Švankmajer. He works with clay animation, combining grotesque and cute together. My friend Nobu from Histeric Glamour introduced me to his work, which I loved. I checked out all of his films and movies, and I even went to Czech Republic to see him, and when Jan comes to Japan we hang out together. But he doesn't speak English, only Czech, and I in Japanese. But we still communicate and go to the flea market together. And Jan is in his 80's! I actually made a collection dedicated to him too. I told him that I get passionate with things very easily, but also bored with things just as easily too. And he said, "you should be proud how you are as an artist, and that's how it should be."

Y: As I get older, I notice that real artists are actually really normal in person. They don't have to put it out there, or appeal that they're an artist, because they're already expressing and channeling it in all their work. No acting.

J: As I get older, I feel like I'm a dry sponge absorbing everything!

Y: Do you think it's because you have less filter, or because you've seen many things so you know what works and what doesn't?

J: I'm right in the middle. I still have elder people where I can get influenced by, and I have the younger generation who's doing something very interesting and I can get inspired by that too. But its nothing particular like a thing or person, it's the whole movement, atmosphere, everything. For example, after the Tohoku disaster the Japanese economy was so down, but now, things are looking back up. The whole 'going down, and back up' atmosphere is very inspiring.

Y: There's a saying, "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." Basically it's saying being old is a state of mind. I think the older people tend to think that, '…I've seen everything and know everything…', so they become more hardheaded, and that's not good - when you're creative you have to be openminded, you have to always be curious.

J: The person who creates things, has to get out and play, and be inspired to come up with something new. So as I get older, I want to get out more, and play more. It's very important to get out and play.