It has been 27 years since NEPENTHES was established.Being always steady and challenging, Keizo Shimizu has always attracted the fashion industry insiders and clothes lovers by his sensational lineup of clothing with the mixture of standards and rebellious spirit. He is truly a pioneer-of-all-time who has easily defied stereotypes, utilizing his flexible mindset and tireless energy. This interview reveals half the life of this exceptional man.
Keizo Shimizu was born in Kofu City of Yamanashi Prefecture in July 1 1958, between a father who ran two movie theaters and a mother with a gift for sewing. He remembers that he loved playing baseball that he had began practicing because of his three-years-older brother, as well as going shopping with his parents when he was quite young.
“When I was an elementary school boy, we went to Isetan and Mitsumine department stores in Shinjuku twice a year to buy our clothes. My brother and I really looked forward to get stuff from VAN which was so popular at that time. My parents sometimes brought us to Korakuen Yuenchi amusement park after shopping. Since my dad went to Tokyo quite often to buy movies, he used to order bespoke suites at Isetan, while my mom could make clothes by herself. Having such parents, I naturally got interested in fashion.”
Shimizu was into baseball when he was at a junior-high school. He said he was not an aggressive boy in his daily life, but became rather excited on grand occasions.
“Although I was neither the fastest boy nor a home run hitter of my team, I could become a stolen base champion and leading hitter after a game. I remember that I was really excited when TV crew came to air the final of a prefectural tournament for which I was playing. I smashed a come-from-behind triple when my team was losing the game. I even dived so wildly though there was no need to do so. I just wanted to be cool.”
Although Shimizu says he is not an attention seeker, the story reveals that he definitely has got a lot of nerve to do a right thing at a critical moment and tries to entertain the audience. It gives us a glimpse of the man who takes every opportunity without flinching language gaps in future. By the way, his triple wasn’t on the air because of commercials. Shimizu became aware of fashion in 1971 when he was 13 and at the first grade of junior-high school.
“I used to share a room with my brother when I was at junior-high. One day, I found a copy of Men’s Club magazine on my brother’s desk. The issue was about the Ivy Style. Because I liked fashion and knew the word ‘Ivy,’ I picked it up and read. There were many photos of Ivy League students and it looked extremely cool for me. Since the magazine belonged to my brother’s friend, I bought another copy in a snap. After that Men’s Club became my bible and I read every issue all over. Especially for the ones featuring feature the Ivy Style, I perfectly remembered what’s on which page.”
It was not so easy to get information on men’s fashion at that time and, according to the designer, Men’s Club was the only source. After buying his first copy at the age of 13, he had read the magazine every month until he moved to Tokyo when he was 19. He also loved to read movie magazines such as Road Show and Screen which his father often bought for himself, enjoying finding something in common between what he saw on-screen and Men’s Club.
Although some high school baseball teams scouted him for his achievement in junior-high, he rejected all the offers. It was just because he didn’t want to shave his head. After winning freedom of hairstyle, Shimizu got deeper and deeper with fashion at high school age. He was actually determined to work for the fashion industry by the stage. When a film titled “American Graffiti” was released in Japan in 1974, the year he was at first grade of high school, the 50s style became gradually hot. It was the time when Japanese actor Hiroshi Tachi and Koichi Iwaki formed a band called COOLS in Harajuku, gaining popularity with the younger generation. Around that time, Shimizu met a book published in 1975 which changed his sense of fashion in a profound way. The title of the book was “Made in U.S.A. catalog.”
“It was just shocking. Until the book was published, everyone thought VAN was all. But the idea was changed then. The way American students wore their clothes looked so free and it made me think that there wouldn’t be any rules to be cool.”
Along with LEVI’S 501 jeans on the cover, there are over 3,000 U.S. made products in the book including garments, work boots, sporting equipment, instruments and furniture which Japanese people had never seen before the legendary book was published. Shimizu was attracted by those items and developed his love of America. He took off his blazer and wore a flannel shirt instead, also shifting his trousers into a pair of jeans. The destination of his shopping tour from Yamanashi was no longer Shinjku. Alternatively he went to a lot more places such as Harajuku, Shibuya, Ame-yoko or Yokosuka to hunt clothes made by American labels.
“After ‘Made in U.S.A. catalog,’ new secondhand clothing shops began to be established and selections of products at imported clothing shops became slightly more casual, I think. I really wanted to have LEVI'S 501 at the time. I tried to dig out 501 or LEE 400 from a pile of jeans at ‘Moriya-Shoten’ in Ueno. I also went to a workwear shop in Koishikawa, ‘Western’ in Kichijoji or ‘Green-Shokai’ in Yokosuka. Since there was no shop handling dead stock stuff, I always visited some shops that were not on magazines or off the beaten path. The information of those shops was mostly spread by word of mouth. In my hometown, there was also a local jeans shop which handled BIG JOHN and Edwin. Since one of the staff who was a bit older than me was also influenced by ‘Made in U.S.A. catalog,’ I went there once a week to get fashion news.”
One day, a button-down shirt the staff was wearing grabbed Shimizu’s eyes. It was not one from VAN. It was so big in size, but looks extremely cool.
“He told me that the shirt was from BROOKS BROTHERS and he ordered it via mail with his friends. Then I also joined them and mail-ordered a blue oxford shirt. I was so happy when it arrived.”
It was the memorial moment when Shimizu succeeded to import clothing for the first time with help from his seniors. As importing clothing wasn’t so affordable habit for a high school boy, he saved his lunch money to buy clothes, as well as earning some extra money by helping relatives to pick grapes. The fee for the job was 10,000 yen a day which was far beyond the average of high school students.
“Since I got a motorcycle driver license soon after entering high school, I could drive a tilling machine. Everyone wanted me because I could do everything they need including picking, carrying and packing from the early morning. I worked for them every summer for about 20 days, from the beginning of my summer holiday to the beginning of the Obon festival. Of course, I spent all the money I earned to buy clothes (laugh).”
There was one more thing that made a significant impact on Shimizu when he was at a high school – it was a serial TV drama titled “Kizu Darake No Tenshi (a Hurt Angel).”
“Sho-ken (Kenichi Hagiwara, a Japanese actor) was wearing MEN’S BIGI designed by Takeo Kikuchi in the drama and I found it really cool. As there were so many MEN’S BIGI items in Men’s Club, I was taken also with such a European style. However I never wore it by myself because the style didn’t fit my husky body. Although I quitted baseball at high school, I still played rugby and tennis then.”
After graduating from high school, he entered Men’s Fashion Academy. Although he had had the world before him with hope to get a job related to fashion and friends who had a shared love of clothing, he was expelled from school after only three month.
“Although I chose the college because there was a teacher who contributed articles to Men’s Club, they’ve got so strict rules that we couldn’t attend a class if we were one minute late. But I actually came in late on a day of a term-end exam before summer holiday and missed the test. When I went home during the holiday, there was a notification letter of expulsion from the college (laugh). Then I remembered that older boys there told me that I should go to Bunka Fashion College if I really wanted to study fashion. But I didn’t want to ask my parents to pay for that and decided to earn my college fees by doing a part-time job.”
He got a job at his favorite brand, VAN, being asked to work at a branch on Isetan Men’s building’s basement floor. After working there about half a year, he succeeded to enroll Bunka Fashion College.
“My class at the college was with about 50 people. Although male students in the class were five or so, most of them loved clothes made by Japanese designers. It was a bit hard for me to fit in such an atmosphere, but the situation became better after I found some guys who had similar taste to me. We often went to various clothing shops in Harajuku and other areas. Japanese designer clothes were really hot then, but the number of shops handling imported clothing was gradually increasing at the same time. Those shops offered not only American products, but also items they purchased in Europe. Some of those began to introduce mixing styles, matching European-made American items such as dinner jeans from FIORUCCI or SASSON with COLE HAAN. There was an innovative shop called “Boo’S Shop” at the Antique Street on the basement floor of Mori Hanae Building. There we could see and were influenced by a highly sophisticated selection of clothes such as a shirt by MARGARET HOWELL, leather items from ARMANI, TANINO CRISCI’S Jodhpur Boots and mesh boots created by STEPHANE KÉLIAN, along with other dead stock products from England. Most of those were too expensive to buy, but I actually bought a shirt from England which was made with Sea Island Cotton. My friends and I liked those small shops which attracted many style icons, too. On the other hand, I also wanted some traditional U.S. stuff for example a shirt by IKE BEHAR and BARRY BRICKEN’s trousers. I even got some clothes from COMME DES GARÇONS as it was rather simple at the time. In the end, however, I re-realized that American casual style fitted me most.”
Shimizu always mixes and matches rough American style such as outdoor clothing or workwears, with Japanese mode clothes or European outfits, using his unique and delicate sense of proportion. His flexibility in designing might be cultivated during the period. At Bunka Fashion College, he had studied the general course for two years and then the industrial technology course for one year to know about production processes. However Shimizu didn’t think of being a designer at the moment. “My goal was to get a job in the import business, especially a job that would allow me to travel to America to buy stuff.”
After graduated from the college, Shimizu joined a company called Union Square through his college friend’s introduction.
“My friend who worked at BEAMS on the Fire Street told me that his nearby shop looked for staff. He thought I might like there. The shop itself was selling female surf style clothing and called Union Square, but its mother company was a wholesale dealer of imported shoes. When I visited the shop and met the executive of the company, I told him that I loved shoes. He then said there were plenty of those in the office and asked me to come as it was close to the shop. The office was like a treasure box for me – there were tons of pairs made by ALDEN, COLE HAAN AND RED WING. I was so excited that I soon joined the company after having an interview with them.
Shimizu then started to work as an opening staff of a shop called “Namsb.” Handling casual clothing from Italian labels such as CP COMPANY and PICCADILLY along with some American products including shirts from GITMAN BROTHERS and SMITH’s painters pants, the shop soon became so popular that it opened the first branch in Jiyugaoka where Shimizu served as a manager. At that time, however, Union Square on the Fire Street was facing with a downturn in sales, being contrary to Namsb’s popularity. And such a situation of the shops provided a turning point to Shimizu two years after he joined the company.
“The president of the company wanted to hear his employees’ opinions on whether he would sell out the property after shutting down Union Square, or start a new project. Although none of my senior workers wished to pick up the ball, I said I would do it because I always wanted to own a shop with a concept like ‘Made in U.S.A. catalog.’ So I asked my boss to give the project to me.”
That’s how a shop called Redwood opened in 1982. Along with American workwears, the shop had wide variety of work boots in stock.
“The shop was roughly divided into the front and back sides and shoes occupied almost half of the back side though the size of the shop wasn’t so big. Since the company exceled at importing shoes, there were so many shoe catalogs in the office. RUSSELL MOCCASIN, MINNETONKA, CHIPPEWA and GEORGIA BOOT... they got all the catalogs of work boot makers I’d heard of. The president told me that he could order all the boots I wanted to handle at the shop, though they had imported just a few of those until then. Because the makers didn’t impose strict regulations on order size, I could order various stuff in small lots.”
Redwood firstly aroused the interest of people in the fashion business, and then developed its own following. Yoji Yamamoto and Tokio Kumagai, Japanese designers who led the scene at the moment, were known as fans of the shop.
“We sold a pair of 6 inches tall double-vamp lace-up boots called “Bird Shooter” at 48,000 yen when RED WING’s boots cost about 29,000 yen. I worried a bit because the price could be too high, but there were so many people who didn’t care the cost to buy good stuff.”
The shop soon became pretty famous and put numerous hot items, CHAMPION’s Reverse Weave, for example, out into the scene. The most popular selling was A2 Jacket from WILLIS&GEIGER. Although the price was 108,000 yen, nearly 100 jackets had been sold in a month. REEBOK is also the brand Shimizu remembers well.
“When there was a sports clothing fair in Harumi, I visited the booth of GYMPHLEX, an English brand, and found that a dummy wore extremely cool sneakers. The staff told me those were for aerobics. At that time sport stores and clothing shops were recognized as totally different things, but the company said they could distribute the shoes to my shop. So I bought low- and high-cut Freestyle sneakers in both black and white colors. Although we couldn’t get any response at first, the shoes were later featured on a music video of a collaboration song by David Bowie and Mick Jagger which was titled as ‘Dancing in the Street.’ The pair was not just worn by Mick Jagger in the video, but also close-upped at the very beginning. The item started to sell quite well from the day after the video was released.”
Just around the same time, Redwood got a new man, Daiki Suzuki, who later joined NEPENTHES and became the designer of ENGINEERED GARMENTS.
“Most of the time I ran Redwood by myself, but needed someone during my lunch break to look after the shop. So I asked Namsb to give me a hand and Daiki often came. Although most of the people in the imported clothing industry at that time hated clothes created by Japanese designers, I love both American and Japanese designers’ products. Daiki had a similar taste and we often talked about so many things around fashion. He was an absolute treasure for me. So I asked him to work at Redwood when the shop needed more people as it became busy.”
Regarding the REEBOK shoes noted above, there is a story between Shimizu and Suzuki.
“When I bought the REEBOK sneakers, Daiki said, ‘such shoes are not salable’ and we got into a fuss. Both of us didn’t even talk to each other for a while (laugh). But then the pair started to sell well and finally Yoji Yamamoto bought it with work boots one day. After that Daiki seemed to get interested in the shoes. I saw him trying it on when I came back from my lunch break (laugh). He actually said something like ‘it’s really nice shoes’ despite the fact that he has slammed it. We still remember the story and laugh. Daiki apologizes and says ‘I’m so sorry for what I did at the time.’ But six-pocket BDU pants which is now regarded as a fashion standard were purchased by him, becoming one of Redwood’s top hit items.”
Later Redwood moved to Meiji Street on where the shop is still located, strengthening its presence as a shop to lead the “American Casual” boom. The top selling item after the move was Nike’s Air Jordan.
“Redwood was the first ever clothing shop which handled NIKE products. Because of the company’s regulation, only sporting stores could sell the items until then. But I saw our regular customer working at the NIKE booth at a trade fair. It was when Michael Jordan started to be active. So I asked him to distribute at least Air Jordan series. Then I finally got approved after some ups and downs. Before that they had rejected my offer consistently. As expected, the products went like hot cakes soon after I started to carry those. But it didn’t sell well at sporting stores. So I bought all the excess Jordans in stock from Japanese shops and sold it out.”
As for work boots, as for NIKE, Shimizu cultivated brand-new ways of the fashion world with his sense of buying and passion, redefining stereotypes as well as throwing common sense.
“Maybe I had a kind of twisted mind. I strongly wanted to handle something that nobody had ever sold. It was not just for business, but also for what I wore. Wearing secondhand clothes were the best way to make my wish come true with little money. My favorite at that time was a pair of painter pants, but what I chose to coordinate with it was not work boots, but GUCCI’s bit loafers that I had bought at SUN MOTOYAMA in Ginza.”
When five years had past since Redwood was opened, Shimizu became independent at the age of 29 and established NEPENTHES in the following year, 1988.
“I think it was the time when the imported clothing world became suddenly eased and diversified. I made a concept to stick to U.S. made stuff when I opened Redwood, and I thought I had done what I could do within the limit. I also wanted to become independent before reaching the age of 30.”
After quitting the company, Shimizu worked hard to start his own shop and decided to open it on the second floor of a building located in a residential area in Jingumae, stepping a little away from Aoyama Street, Meiji Street and Omote-sando Street. It was in a remote part of Aoyama and people had to go all the way just to get there.
“Properties for shops were so expensive to rent. So I chose the location. Although there were absolutely no shops around, I was confident that people would come if there were good stuff in the shop.”
The United States was, of course, the first destination of Shimizu’s buying trip for NEPENTHES. He visited a city called Lawrence located in north of Boston.
“An American student who often visited our shop told me that there was a city named Lawrence located a little north from Boston, as he used to study at Harvard University in Boston. He also let me know that there was a ‘factory store’ of Ralph Laurent in the city. Although I even didn’t know what the factory store was, the student told me that it was a place in which we could find various discounted stuff including what is now called an outlet product. There was, according to him, NEW BALANCE store, too. When visited there for the first time, I brought notes I took at that time. The entrance of the store was so hard to find. I guess it was because the store was built for the company’s employees. The inside was, however, full of RALPH LAURENT products, including tons of denim shirts and polo shirts that everyone aspired then. I bought so many of those as the price was fairly low. The shop staff was so glad that he carried all the things I purchased out to my car. I also bought numerous 995 and 1300 sneakers at the nearby NEW BALANCE factory store. So, NEPENTHES was started its history with the items from the U.S. such as Foot Locker’s exclusive sneakers I bought in LA, some products that IKE BEHAR jointly-developed with department stores including Bloomingdale’s and Barneys in NY along with Hopi’s jewelry.”
Using some driftwood for its interior decoration, the small clothing shop full of American products instantly earned popularity. Although Shimizu constantly went to the U.S. to purchase products from various factory stores including the one belonged to L.L. BEAN in Freeport of Maine and LACOSTE, he couldn't help being skeptical about doing so.
“Diaki also joined NEPENTHES by then after being a manager of Redwood. Despite the fact that most of the products I sold at the beginning were what I bought from American factory stores and all of those sold really well, I began to think that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Since Daiki agreed with me, we stopped purchasing at factory stores after that.”
Then, the items at NEPENTHES store became truly unique and exceptional. The new selection included some collaborate products with American up-and-coming brands such as THINK TANK, MMSW WORKWEAR, 1 BY 2, SIR REAL AND JOHN BARTLET, as well as with Italian top artisanal labels like ZINTALA or LUIGI BORRELLI. The shop also introduced various unknown American workwear labels such as ARROW MOCCASIN to the customers. Surprisingly, NEPENTHES was the first ever shop that sold TOD’S driving shoes in Japan.
“Whenever I was on a buying trip, I looked through the local Yellow Pages soon after I settled in a motel. It was to find local factories, surplus shops or sports stores because they had possibilities to become our business partners. By visiting such local shops, I could find unknown brands which made products based on the needs of people in the area. For example, when I went to a local surplus shop with expectation to find some dead stock jeans, there were actually so cool ones made by a company which I had never heard about. I also found their products with L.L. BEAN tags as exploring the shop more. I then quickly wrote down the address on the tag and called them as soon as I left the shop. It took one and half hour by car to the company, but I drove the way and talked with the staff on the same day. I found a company of Sunforger Cloth, a fabric which became a key factor to start SOUTH2 WEST8, in similar way. We called the way we search those products “a sense of smell.” However we didn’t do it on a hit-or-miss basis. Instead we traveled around the world after careful consideration on what kind of products could be made in our destination. Mostly Daiki took the driver’s seat while I sat in the front seat, looking at a road atlas. Because of lack of English language skills, we often visited companies without making any appointments.”
Shimizu said he felt like searching for treasure during those trips. By doing so, he has built up the shop’s unique selection of products with his extraordinary aesthetic as well as tireless energy to go anywhere to find interesting things, following vague information and his own instinct. Spending two week for each buying trip on average, Shimizu used to go abroad for business at least four, five times a year. Sometimes the number of the expedition to find cool stuff reached around ten times a year. However the 90s was the time when many American labels closed their factories in the States, moving their manufacturing base to foreign countries such as Asia. It became so hard to find genuine made-in-U.S.A. products.
“Since we had already started to make our original products in parallel with purchasing some items through the buying trips and ordered exclusive models, we began a full-scale process for manufacturing our original items in Japan as it became really hard to find trousers made in the U.S. We made those under the label called NEPENTHES and then under the one named HOGGS with a piggy symbol on it. After closing HOGGS because of the trademark dispute, we newly created a brand called NEEDLES to make more sophisticated collection of clothing. Daiki also established OPUS in America. A little later than that, ENGINEERED GARMENTS was set up, aiming to produce the U.S. made clothes as there were not so many of them left. Now there are many brands that have moved their manufacturing bases back to America or highlight their made-in-the U.S. products. I think they have strongly influenced by ENGINEERED GARMENTS, as our shop widely picked up by the media.”
Despite his love of American clothes, most of the products in NEEDLES collection are manufactured in Japan.
“We mostly ordered to make our exclusive models to overseas companies. It was not just because I wanted to have something I had never seen before, but also to keep our identity even if other shops asked the same company or factory to order similar stuff. But there were so many people who tried to do same things. I think the Internet made buying products from overseas a bit easier. In such a situation, it became hard to differentiate our shop from others only with purchased products. I then thought that elaborating our own items in Japan with great care would be the way NEPENTHES should take. NEEDLES to say, we never stop introducing good stuff made in abroad, having a special fondness for American products. But if we try to express what we really want to make now, manufacturing those in Japan from scratch would be the genius way. Our materials and sewing skills are one of the best in the world.”
Although Shimizu didn’t want to be a designer when he was a student, his growing will to express the vision led him to creative activities. NEEDLES was originally created to support imported items, but now it becomes a key brand that reflects the creative ideas which Shimizu has now. As many people have been attracted its creation, the brand succeeded to establish a firm position in the world of fashion. This season’s NEEDLES collection is based on an album titled “Gorilla” by James Taylor, a singer-songwriter in the 70s, though the brand seldom sets a collection theme. The man on the cover of the brand’s look book is in a white suite and holds a banana, paying homage to the prestigious album. The whole collection looks even softer and more relaxed than usual with jackets and pants made with washed-out linen, along with faded colored jeans and shirts. Although each item is quite simple at the core, it seems just exceptional, being arranged by patterns and minute details. The coordinates in the book are, however, in perfect balance and sensational, mixing and matching all of those.
“I don’t make any rules when I design or coordinate my clothes, because ignoring rules which I’ve read in Men’s Club magazine in the past sometimes creates an interesting look. For example, I seldom wear work boots though I’ve got tons of those. If a big man like me wears those, he would look like a fashion geek who loves workwears so much. I like a style which is a bit off-balanced in color, shape, taste, etc. The way Woody Allen wore clothes at the Oscar award ceremony was my ideal and many guys in my generation loved it, too.”
The product Shimizu makes always keeps a delicate balance between standards and avant-garde, arising stimulating tension. You can see such a sense of him through not just his design and styling, but also the way he directs the interior decorations of the shops. It has been 27 years since Shimizu started NEPENTHES, but his sense is refined even further and his attempt to set out on a new endeavor seems almost boundless.
“NEEDLES products are currently shown at a press office in NY, looking for more retailers in the U.S. and European countries. I hope that one day we could open overseas branches of NEPENTHES other than NY. Also I’m now planning to establish a new footwear brand, collaborating with skillful manufacturers in Spain, Italy and England. And I want to make SOUTH2 WEST8 a brand which is strongly related to fishing. Since authentic outdoor clothing becomes quite common these days, I think it’s going to be more interesting to make something geekier. Personally speaking, I’d like to build my own atelier in Hokkaido and indulge myself in fishing to deepen the concept of our new label (laugh).”
Shimizu doesn’t like fruits including grapes, peaches and melons though his hometown, Yamanashi Prefecture, is famous for fruit growing. He never misses evening drinks and likes to have his beer and sparkling wine with ice cubes. His current favorite drink is Lambrusco Grasparossa. He loves to spend his time at comfortable pubs and bars. With a full motorcycle driver license, he is also crazy about the iron ponies. However his main transportation device is a customized electric bike which features a saddle made by BROOKS. His love of watches is also a thing to be noted. Although he has various watches including the ones from ROLEX and PANERAI, IKEPOD watches designed by Marc Newson are the largest in number in his collection. Shimizu is now planning to move to Hokkaido to spend all his time to do mountain stream fishing. At the age of 57, he is still an influential man with bottomless curiosity and energy.