As a Japanese designer, Suzuki makes more American clothes than local designers, without caring any trends and criticism.
Daiki Suzuki was born in 1962 in Hirosaki City (*01) of Aomori Prefecture, a place known for apple cultivation and cherry blossom trees, and spent his childhood surrounded by the natural environment.
“I used to enjoy playing baseball, collecting insects and crawfishing with my friends. Having no computer games, we spent most of the time outside. I had looked forward to seeing our annual Neputa Festival (*02), too.”
Despite what he is now, Suzuki was a very small boy, having almost nobody shorter than him in his class. Being a class clown, filled with curiosity and active, he became absorbed in cycling.
“I started to ride a bike during my elementary school days and it greatly expanded my sphere of action. I used to decorate my bike so heavily with electric spectaculars to take bike tours with my friends. As I began to remodeled original parts and frequent a bike shop, the shop owner and I established so close relations that he asked me to help him out with fixing a bike’s tires. After a while he suggested to me to work for him during school holidays. Having learned various things there, I eventually became able to assemble a disjointed bike all by myself.” He spent most of his school holidays to work as a part-timer at the bike shop. “By doing so, I could get a discount when buying bicycle parts and alter my own bike with some tools for professional. It was so much fun.”
Even as a youngster, Suzuki followed through what he was interested in just as he does now. There is one more story that depicts his love of cycling. “I wanted to be a professional cyclist at that time. Although I couldn’t ride a bike in Hirosaki during wintertime because of heavy snowfalls, I bought an indoor training equipment and did some exercises at the entrance of my house. I even asked the bike shop owner to sponsor me to participate in local road races. I really wanted to go to a high school which had a cycling club, but my father didn’t allow me to do so and I had to choose a local high-ranked school instead.” Magazines were also something that attracted young Suzuki. Made in U.S.A. Catalogue was published in 1975 while POPEYE started its history from the following year. Various types of American culture shown in the mags had ignited his passion for fashion. “Book stores were definitely our treasure boxes around that time. I used to stand there and browsed books. At the beginning I read some movie magazines, too. I was in the eighth grade when I encountered Made in U.S.A. Catalogue and POPEYE. I was really into the latter. I think the magazine used to issued on the 10th and 25th of each month, but I could get it a day earlier at a station stand. So I bought all the issues there and read it all over repeatedly.”
After going on a local high school, Suzuki joined a mountaineering club because of his favorite magazines, Made in U.S.A. Catalogue and POPEYE.
“Since I was interested into outdoor fashion, I thought it was a good idea to join the club to utilize my hobby. I imagined that the club members would wear jackets from SIERRA DESIGNS and JANSPORT’s backpack when climbing a mountain. But the fact was far from that. There was a strict rule in the club and we couldn’t choose what we wore freely. Actually I had to carry an old filthy Brown Duck backpack which weighed like an elephant. I looked like a war veteran with the gear and it was not what I wanted (laugh).”
The gap between ideal and reality made Suzuki avoid participating in the club. He then joined a handball club (*03) at his friend’s invitation. Although he dedicated himself to the sport, his love of fashion grew rapidly at the same time. “I think the first fashion item I bought was from VAN. I also purchased lots of classic style clothes made by VOX, McGREGOR, J.PRESS, HANG TEN, WAY-OUT, GQ and HARVARD mostly at a shop named VAN SHOP SHIMIZU in Hirosaki City. Though I had visited the shop since I was in junior high, I started to buy more after getting into a high school by spending my wage from the part-time job. Then I met boys who liked same types of clothing and music as me. Although we often went to clothing shops together, it gradually became a kind of competition. We kept saying things like ‘I wore LEE’s 200 jeans as the first among us,’ ‘I bought Stansmith’ or ‘I wore TOP-SIDER shoes.’ And we were not allowed to wear or buy same stuff as others (laugh). So all of us started to find new things.”
As the competition kept reaching new heights, they tried to get rare items from Tokyo through mail orders. However the experience made Suzuki feel a bit depressed. “When I bought IZOD LACOSTE clothes from BEAMS through a mail order, the staff who received my phone call hanged it up in the middle of the conversation. Although I couldn’t understand why he did such a thing then, now I think he might not be able to get what I said because of my local accent (laugh). When I made a phone call to a shop called BULL in Tokyo, soon after hearing that they had unique CONVERSE shoes in stock, the staff put it down, too. I was really shocked then by being not able to get the pair. (*04)”
A little later, the boys who had tried to get “Ivy style” clothes or American made pieces started to focus on products made by “Japanese designers’ (DC) brands” which became popular across Japan at that time. “At one point some of us bought MEN’S BIGI stuff and it renewed competition among us. If one of my friends got something from GLASS MEN’S, another would go for MELROSE clothes. I then chose to buy from COMME des GARÇONS even the brand just started the men’s line. Although I was in American casual style at the first grade in high school, I bought my clothes only from DC brands during the second year.” Around that time Suzuki began to have a vague dream to work in the fashion industry in the future. “Though I wanted to do something related to fashion, I thought that a country boy like me couldn’t compete with sophisticated people in Tokyo. So, for me, it seemed a good idea to get a decent job after graduating a decent university, enjoying fashion as a hobby. That was what I thought then.”
In 1980, Suzuki went on to a university in Saitama Prefecture, expecting the transportation convenience to Tokyo. The town was, however, much more countrified than he imagined.
“It was not what I had expected from college life. Having no well-dressed student around, I thought my hometown was much cooler than the place. So I often played with my friends who came to Tokyo from Aomori. They were studying at fashion colleges in Tokyo and I felt envy when listening to them talk about fashion. After all I left the university half a year later.”
Since he hadn’t discussed with his parents about leaving school, he had to earn his bread and butter after that. “I wanted to go to Vantan Design Institute to study fashion, so I needed to save money to enter the college while earning the cost of living. Mainly I worked on the night shift at a printing company. There I could earn 8,900JPY a day. During the period I went to work at 6PM and finished at 6AM on the following day. I should go to bed soon after getting home to prepare for the next day. If you lead such a life, you have no time to play. So I could save enough money without knowing it. On the following year, I successfully got into Vantan (*05).”
Suzuki studied clothing design and pattern making at the design faculty of Vantan. “I didn’t actually study design at the college, but I could get many crucial relationships during my college days;” he said. Around that time he wore DC clothing stylishly from head to toe, having black as the base color. “My friend who ran a concept store in Aomori brought me to some fashion brands’ exhibitions when he came to Tokyo on a buying trip. Then I started to receive invitations for those bands’ exclusive sales. Since we could buy DC clothing at very low prices through such sales then, I used to buy all my outfits on such occasions.”
After getting an official job offer before graduating, Suzuki quitted part-time jobs at factories and started to find a new part-time job in the fashion industry to spend the rest of his college life more efficiently.
“I think it was about six months before graduating. My friend said we should get a part-time job at a clothing store as long as we had got offers from companies related to fashion. As he started working at a BEAMS store, I brought my resume to BEAMS to get a same job but they rejected my application then and there. Just imagine how shocked I was. Then I attended an interview at a shop ran by Union Square (*06) and got a job there. The shop was where I met Shimizu (*07).”
He spent most of his time working at Union Square until he joined a company which ran a DC brand. But he quitted the company in half a year and struggled to get a new job at another DC brand.
“When I asked his advice, Shimizu said me to come back to Union Square. Since Namsb, a shop I used to work, had enough staff, I was assigned to another shop named REDWOOD (*08) started by Shimizu. After a while I got a job offer from a DC brand and was ready to quit working at the shop. But then Shimizu suddenly asked me; ‘Why don’t you staying here?’ I was like ‘What?’ because his words were completely unexpected. Seeing me so confused, Shimizu also said; ‘I will do things for you. It’ll be better than moving to other companies.’ Although I couldn’t see any solid evidences in his words and it was almost impossible to understand what he really meant, I thought I would try it (laugh).”
With a dream to be a designer in the future, Suzuki became attracted to a job at a clothing shop. His productive days at REDWOOD drew Shimizu’s attention and made the shop owner convinced that the boy could gain more valuable experience through the job. “Because I wanted to be a designer, I had been into DC brands. After working at REDWOOD with Shimizu, however, I began to recognize the depth of American made clothes. I enjoyed knowing something new every day. I then started to think that I should get enough knowledge on American clothing before being a designer. Later I also realized that creating and running a shop was really fun. I gradually changed my dream from being a designer to running my own shop. So, when the president of Union Square asked me if I wanted to be a full-time, I accepted it.”
Suzuki said he had learned all the important things through working as shop staff. His words are based on the days he spent at REDWOOD. “If you love fashion, it must be so fun to work at a place you can touch and wear a pile of clothes. It’s really great that you can talk with various customers as well as having conversations with people who you may not encounter in ordinary circumstances. There were some customers who were active in the front lines. It’s nice to utilize your knowledge, too. Nobody will tell you how to explain charms of products, how to dress mannequins or at which timing you should open a line of communication with a customer. After repetition of trial and error, I found my own way to be shop staff. It was really great to see that people sympathizing with our taste visited the place in where we showed what we thought cool.” Suzuki had devoted himself to his job as shop staff for five years. He even became the owner of REDWOOD after Shimizu had left the shop to establish NEPENTHES.
What made Suzuki decide to leave Union Square was a postcard he got at the age of 26.
“When we worked at REDWOOD together, I asked Shimizu an awful lot of questions and requested to tell some stories about the U.S. whenever Shimizu came back from his buying trip to the country. I think that made me feel like as if I had been in the country even though I had never traveled there. And I actually told our customers what were happening in the U.S. without really knowing it (laugh).
Then a high school boy who frequented our shop had traveled to America to study and sent me a post card saying; “America is just like you have told me before! I find SERO’s shirt really cool as you said!” I was really glad when receiving the card, but thought that I should go to the U.S. on my own at the same time. That was why I decided to leave Union Square.”
Suzuki quitted his job after a while and headed to America for three weeks soon after his last working day. “I stayed in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York for a week each. California is so nice place that I became eager to live there someday. And I feared for my physical safety when I was in New York (*09). There I stayed at my senior’s place, a filthy apartment located in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen. A sofa he gave me to bunk was unbelievably dirty, too (laugh).Though I decided to stay there in the end, he asked me to go out and get some beers in the midnight. On a different day, he bought me a night club called Robot, saying he had some influence with the doormen. But he just went away in about thirty minutes and I wondered what to do, getting left behind. As I glanced around, all the people in the place looked like gangsters (laugh). I wanted to go back to his place, but it was the middle of the night and I didn’t know how to get there. So I decided to stay in the club until dawn broke. As I thought it would be the best way to defend myself, I kept dancing in the middle of the dance floor until morning (laugh).”
After going back to Japan, Suzuki worked as a stylist and writer for fashion magazines at his fiend’s invitation. But he couldn’t continue those jobs, as he had to travel to the U.S. for the second time as a NEPENTHES buyer. It was just one year after his first trip to the country which had a crucial impact on him. “I went to Boston as a shoe manufacturer which NEPENTHES took a trade was located in Maine. Boston was the nearest city from there. I stayed in Boston for six months with B-1 and B-2 visas. What I had to do in the city was checking and sending shoes to Japan, and that was everything I knew before traveling. Since I didn’t decide where to live beforehand, I had to find it on my own after arriving there. I don’t remember how I found the place, but I somehow rented a room for extended stay in an apartment in Cambridge. I was all alone, having no TV set and telephone in the room. I became really nervous as it got dark although sunrise made me feel energized again. That was how I lived in Boston.”
After traveling back and forth between Boston and Japan for one and half year, Suzuki moved his living place to New York. In contrast to his life in Boston where he bought clothes at surplus shops and locked up deals with the shoe manufacturers, he began visiting exhibitions and showrooms of various brands to find unknown designers. “In New York (*10), I devoted myself to finding budding brands and negotiating with established manufacturers to make exclusive products for us. I introduced TOD’S around that time. Since other import shops in Japan started to handle work clothing and products made by American outdoor brands, I wanted to do something different. That was the reason I began buying from up-and-coming designer brands in the U.S. I thought it would be also good to handle clothes that attracted us only by how it looked as it has different charm from classic masterpieces. It was quite a new idea for NEPENTHES and no other shops in Japan bought things in that way at that time.” From then on, buying from both well-established brands and budding designers gradually became a new direction of NEPENTHES. But that didn’t always go well. “All decision-making related to buying in the U.S. was up to me then. Because I’m such an emotional person, I believed that all the things I had bought was sold out until Shimizu told me they had tons of the products still in stock. Although I was confident in my choice, I hadn’t cared about details such as quantity of each order. I’ve learned so many things from process of trial and error.”
In 1994, Suzuki moved his base to San Francisco because NEPENTHES’s main business partners, MMSW WORKWEAR and THINK TANK, were based in the city. Suzuki himself did want to move to the West Coast as he got married and was expected to be a father soon. Along with settling a new office, NEPENTHES opened a small shop in collaboration with a brand called 1 BY 2. Four years after that, he got a phone call from a friend in New York.
“It was my friend, Kevin. He said the downstairs of his room was empty and the place seemed perfect to run a shop. As he suggested me to do so, I asked Shimizu if he would take the offer. Shimizu said yes, and I thought I could manage a shop-cum-office as then-rent in New York City was relatively low.” That was how NEPENTHES NEW YORK opened in 1998 on Sullivan Street in the SoHo district. Along with various exclusive products and clothes from up-and-coming American brands, the innovative shop handled brands like ENGINEERED GARMENTS, NEPENTHES NEW YORK and NEEDLES.
“When I was thinking that we should have some original lines in the shop, Todd Killian, a designer and our longtime business partner, said that a shirt manufacturer was in financial difficulties and sought a job. So I made an exclusive shirt with them. Actually, ENGINEERED GARMENTS 19th BD Shirt (*11) is based on the item although I made it under NEPENTHES NEW YORK brand at that time. ENGINEERED GARMENTS was started around that time as a brand producing American made pants because it became quite difficult to find the item in Japan.”
NEPENTHES NEW YORK went silent three years after its start-up as the brand’s casual outfits didn’t fit New York City of the day. However Suzuki rather intensified his activities in clothes making, exploring new American factories, mostly in New York, as well as adding various items other than pants and trousers to ENGINEERED GARMENTS. In 2002, he launched a complete collection of the brand for the first time and held an exhibition exclusively in Japan. After getting an enthusiastic response, Suzuki moved even forward.
“I had a discussion with Shimizu and we decided to participate in an overseas trade show. We thought Pitti Uomo would be the place to exhibit. Although it is known as a tradeshow with a formal atmosphere, showing casual clothes at such a venue would be rather attractive, we thought. However we couldn’t exhibit at Pitti Uomo at that time because it was too late to apply. So we alternatively chose Designers Collective to exhibit. After considering whether we would show something very exotic or something very American, we finally took the latter. Since the trend at that time was the style with pointy shoes and thin, skinny, light and soft clothes, I wanted make heavy, stiff products from which visitors could feel America. As I used 14oz canvas and 24-30oz wool fabrics to make the series of clothing, each item became so thick that it doesn’t look wearable by today’s measure (laugh). I think staff of sawing factories got annoyed with us.”
Designers Collective, a tradeshow started in the 1980s, meant something special for Japanese buyers. To participate in such a prominent expo, NEPENTHES team created their first collection visual at a suggestion of Tokuro Aoyagi who worked at the brand’s New York office (now he is a creative director of the brand). “Because I had paid marked attention to the show as a buyer, I had a special fondness for it. If we had to choose an overseas tradeshow to exhibit before participating in Pitti Uomo, my answer would always be Designers Collective. I also worried that we might fade into the background at any then-latest tradeshows and projects in New York. If we exhibited among old-fashioned makers, we might stand out, we thought (laugh). The show started despite our anxiety and we had no visitors at all as suspected. When I became a bit nervous, John Bartlett, a designer of his namesake brand, came to visit us as he had his own booth at the venue. As our products attracted him, he bought a buyer of Bloomingdale’s (*12) to our booth. Items which the buyer ordered then caught the eye of people from Woolrich Woolen Mills (*13) who had dropped into the well-established department store. The brand later asked me to be their creative director because of the products they saw.” As originally planned, they exhibited at Pitti Uomo in the following year.
“A man from PAUL SMITH booth saw our products as he passed by and really loved it. He then kindly introduced the brand’s business partners to us. I was so glad that we could have many visitors though our booth was quite small. Exhibiting at tradeshows always gives us a lot of opportunities to meet new friends and business partners. If we could keep making better things, people would see the quality.”
Since then ENGINEERED GARMENTS had continuously participated in Pitti Uomo and Designers Collective, keeping enhancing its reputation as well as increasing business connections. Revivals of good old American outfits and products have never happened without ENGINEERED GARMENTS and its bold efforts. The brand had a significant effect on Japanese brands’ forays into Pitti Uomo. As his achievement was highly appreciated also in the U.S., Suzuki won GQ/CFDA Best New Menswear Designers in America Award (*14) in 2008.
Suzuki opened a shop in 2010 again in New York, naming it as NEPENTHES NEW YORK.
“Although I mostly work as a designer now, I always consider myself as a clothing retailer. I think Shimizu does same. Everything we’ve done so far wouldn’t have been realized without having shops. Owning a shop in America had been my dream since I decided to join NEPENTHES. Although the shop in the SoHo didn’t work, I always wanted to try again in different place and situation. When we moved our office, I found an empty space on the first floor of the building and thought that the place looked great for a shop. The building is located in the Garment District, an area with a lot of wholesale offices and factories. So it might not be a place to open a retail shop, having nothing to attract people. But I gradually started to think that it would be rather exciting to have a shop in such an odd place.”
When Shimizu came to New York for an exhibition, Suzuki showed the space to him. He loved it and agreed with Suzuki’s idea. Although having failed in their first New York shop, the guys never adjust their opinion to please the city. They believe only in themselves. Well, that is definitely the style of NEPENTHES. Suzuki signed a contract in October 2009 to rent the place and opened a shop in September 2010 as he spent plenty of time on interior renovation. In 2015, NEPENTHES NEW YORK marked its fifth anniversary.“We have ran the shop smoothly, but it is just because more people know about us than when we opened our first shop. We still have plenty of things to do to make the shop more attractive.”
After quitting to exhibit his latest collection at Pitti Uomo, Suzuki held a catwalk show at the shop in July 2013 while various art exhibitions and pop-up shops of budding brands also take place at NEPENTHES NEW YORK. “It’s crucial to organize events and parties to keep conveying what we think interesting now. It may also create opportunities to visit our shop regularly as it is located at a remote place. Regarding the runway show, it happened because the atmosphere of Pitti Uomo has changed and our previous style to launch a new collection would soon be stuck in a rut. When considering what our own unique expression is, a runway show held at our own shop came into my mind. Since it was an experimental approach for us, we didn’t do it again and keep carrying out various new projects such as making movies and magazines, instead.”
THE GARMENT DISTRICT JOURNAL, a magazine published by NEPENTHES NEW YORK in March 2015, was not only with news related to fashion, but also with articles on art, publication and music in New York, having Suzuki as the editor in chief. “Although it was planned to be issued as an one-off mag, we are currently working on the second issue which will be out during the fashion week in the city.”
With a wealth of exciting ideas, Suzuki has launched various innovative projects as a designer and “a clothing retailer.” As he describes himself as a person who cannot stick to things, what makes him stay motivated?
“When I started ENGINEERED GARMENTS, skinny black pants and pointy shoes were sold well. I kept telling my friends that I didn’t like it, but nobody really cared it. Since it became really hard to find American made products and I couldn’t find any clothes I wanted, I thought I should make those by my own. That’s the reason I established a brand. Although the reason had motivated me for a long time, now we can find clothes made in the U.S. and products I really love. So I have to lift me up with a different type of motivation.”
ENGINEERED GARMENTS has produced brand-new outfits by reconstructing designs of good old American made products. Although there are so many brands with similar concepts, ENGINEERED GARMENTS always remains one and only, transforming great masterpieces into novel items.
“What I do is basically a rehash of something I saw in the past, but I’m a person who easily becomes perverse. Though I have my own rules, everything might go in the end. People think I have never changed my idea, but actually it changes frequently. Sometimes I think I run out of ideas and at other times I become eager to turn over my job to someone else. But it is impossible for me to do so as I worked with a team (laugh). While I think of such things, an idea comes from somewhere and a collection takes shape at a furious pace. I try to make it faster, but it always finishes right up until the deadline. All the products I design must be of satisfactory quality and appearance. Although high-end brands might be able to make better stuff, I’d like to keep designing clothes only ENGINEERED GARMENTS can produce.”
The representative of NEPENTHES AMERICA INC. and the designer of ENGINEERED GARMENTS. Suzuki was born in 1962 in Hirosaki City of Aomori Prefecture and moved to the U.S. in 1989. After changing his living base several times in the country, he settled the office in New York in 1997. In 2009, he won GQ/CFDA Best New Menswear Designers in America Award, becoming the first Japanese CFDA member.