- When did you come to know about track pants for the first time?
- When I was at junior high. We all had to wear a track suit in P.E. at that time. The color of the suit varied by grade and mine was green. There was no stripe on the sides, I think. It wasn’t called ‘track pants’ in Japan then...
- We called it ‘Jersey’, right?
- We actually call it ‘Jassey’ in Yamanashi ( laughs ). From a fashion perspective, I still remem- ber jersey training pants worn by my school’s soccer team members. It came with roomy thighs and tapered legs like jodhpurs pants. I think it was something you wear at a warm-up exercise. Some rebellious senior students loosely wore the pants a bit below the waist and I found it really cool. But there was an unspoken rule that only senior stu- dents could wear the pants in that way (laughs), so I had to wait until I became a senior grader to assume the look.
- So, it was the first track pants you wore as a part of fashion.
- adidas ATP jacket which became a huge trend in Japan in the 1980s.
- Yes, but the trend didn’ t last long. I hadn’ t worn track pants for long after entering high school. During the first year of high school, I learned about the Ivy League style through Men’ s Club magazines and then became totally absorbed in 1950s looks that are seen in the movie American Graffiti. After reading Made in U.S.A Catalog in my junior year, I got into the so-called American Casual style, matching a flannel shirt with Lee’s bootcut jeans and Converse shoes.
- When did you come to get interested in track pants again after that?
- Actually, track jackets caught my attention first. It was when I moved to Tokyo after graduating high school. Because tennis players such as John McEn- roe and Björn Borg attracted much attention in Japan around that time, magazines like POPEYE featured warm-up jackets they used to wear - the ones made by FILA and SERGIO TACCHINI. That was why such clothes aroused my interest again. Another reason was adidas ATP track suits made as the official training wear for the Association of Tennis Professionals. My favorite was the navy one with white stripes. The track suit later became one of the design inspirations for me when making my own track suit for NEEDLES. Looking back, I think those things made me recognize track pants as a fashion piece.
It all started
with adidas ATP track suits.
Shimizu came to take an interest in fashion at the age of 13, after seeing photos of American Ivy League students on a magazine belonging to his three-year-older brother. But when did he first meet a pair of track pants? Here’s a story of how he encountered them in his younger days.
Introducing Latest American Sportswear
as the Manager of REDWOOD
After graduating from Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, Shimizu joined a trading company mainly selling imported products to retail stores and through their own outlets in Japan. When the company opened a new store on the Fire Street in Shibuya in 1982, two years after his employment, he was selected as the manager. The store was named REDWOOD and later became known as a legendary concept store handling clothes and shoes bought mostly in the U.S. And, not long after the opening, Shimizu added the ATP track suits to the store’s impressive selection of clothes.
- Shortly after the opening of REDWOOD store, RUN-DMC made their debut in the U.S. I was so shocked when seeing them in the ATP track suits that I immediately purchased it for our store together with KANGOL’s Bermuda hats and Superstar shoes from adidas. I think we were the first retail store in Tokyo that started to carry such hip-hop related items because of RUN-DMC.
- Did you buy those items by yourself in the U.S.?
- Yes, we did. I frequented NSGA, a huge sporting goods trade show held in Chicago. There weren’ t other Japanese buyers there at that time. But sportswear brands would not do business with a dubious Asian retailer, so you first had to negotiate with a sales person who was in charge of your area. Then you needed to use an export service agency of the area to ship items to Japan. Although it was the time when the sportswear industry was clearly differentiated from the apparel industry like that, we carried the ATP suits and var- ious other imported sportswear and sports sneak- ers such as adidas TROOP known to be worn by LL Cool J, along with REEBOK shoes and NIKE Air Jordan.
- You started your own company, NEPENTHES, in 1988 after leaving REDWOOD in 1987. And the company’s own label NEEDLES was launched in 1995. Did you already have the idea of making track pants when starting NEEDLES?
- The first NEEDLES track pants released in 2008.
- No, I didn’ t have a concrete idea at that point. But, when working at REDWOOD, I saw an American movie which I couldn’ t remember the name. In the movie, there is a scene in which a father in navy track pants throws a tailored jacket over his T-shirt to go see his son’s baseball match. That scene remained in my mind.
- The look reminds me of the ones in NEEDLES collections (laughs).
- Thinking about it now, yeah, it does (laughs). Also, after I started NEEDLES, I think, COMME des GARÇONS released track pants with four stripes on the side. It was red pants with white stripes, if I remember correctly. Though I myself couldn’ t wear the piece because it was made for their women’s collection, I found it really cool. Such fragmentary events made my desire to make pants like those more concrete.
A Kid’s Track Suit
in Berkeley Inspired Me to Make
the Adult Version.
NEEDLES launched its first-ever track pants with a matching jacket in the spring of 2008. From the poly jersey fabric with moderate gloss, wide fabric tapes on the sides to crease-like stitches on the legs, many of the signature features of the item were already seen on the first model.
- The first track pants were released in the 2008 FW collection after over ten years since the launch of NEEDLES.
- NEEDLES had released track pants several times before then, though those pieces didn’ t come with a butterfly embroidery and five stripes like the current ones. The first model was made as a kind of a trial because I happened to find brushed back jersey fabric with better quality than the one used for usual track suits. It was in black with a single red stripe on each side. Someone said to me that it looked like a costume worn by Shinya Hashimoto (Japanese wrestler), though (laughs). I designed several other models since then, but it was just an on and off thing at that time.
- What made you come up with the idea of the current design in 2008?
- Around that time, I traveled to the U.S. quite often, and I happened to see a kids’ track suit at a vintage clothing store on Telegraph Avenue in Berke- ley. It rang a bell, and I bought it, thinking to design an adult sized version of it.
- What was so appealing about the item?
- There were no brand tags on it, so I guess it was made quite a while ago to jump on the bandwagon of he popularity of adidas track suits. The pants had five stripes on the side, and I liked the daring approach of increasing the number of stripes from three to five rather than reducing it to simplify the design (laughs). As I wanted to add a brand logo to my pants like the ATP track suits, I designed an embroidered butterfly on the waist. I chose the motif because I like the movie Papillon, and it fitted well with the overall design.
- So, NEEDLES’ signature butterfly motif was created because of the track pants!
- Yeah, it was.
- What colors did you use for the first model?
- One was in black with purple stripes and another was in burgundy with yellow stripes just like the kids’ track suit I found. When choosing colors for track pants, I always pay attention not to make them look like sportwear. Though I cannot remember how many models I’ ve designed so far, I’ ve seldom used color schemes often adopted by colleges and sports teams for their uniforms.
- Besides the ingenious use of colors, the width of the tapes on the sides and the fineness of the fabric differentiate the item from sportswear.
- The design of the tape is definitely important. The kids’ track pants I found at the vintage store featured a similar kind of tape on the sides to the one I now use for NEEDLES. If you make it with a high-speed knitting machine, fabric becomes finer and smoother like usual sportswear. But our fabric is slowly knitted with a very old machine to add a wool-like texture. I find the good old vibe of the fabric so adorable, don’ t you agree? By the way, only one such machine is left in Japan, at a factory we use. So, we may be not able to make the tape again if the machine breaks.
With a Desire to Make
New Staple Pants
That Can Be Replaced with Jeans
The first NEEDLES track pants were created with inspiration from an unexpected encounter. The reputation was, however, not so good despite Shimizu’s devotion to the item.
- How was the response of your first track pants after it was introduced in 2008?
- It was actually terrible (laughs). It caused no buzz.
- But you’ ve been constantly releasing new models since then.
- The biggest reason I kept designing it was because I wanted to wear it by myself. And, I’ve always had a desire to make new staple pants that can be replaced with jeans. And for me, these track pants are what I was looking for.
- Have you actually worn them by yourself?
- Without exaggeration, I’ d worn the track pants almost every day for about ten years until quite recently (laughs), pairing them with leather shoes, clogs, a coverall jacket or a tailored jacket. I did it partly with the intention of showing how to wear the item to people, but basically, I’m a person who sticks to one thing once getting into it. After a while, my enthusiasm for track pants gradu- ally transmitted to our store staff, and then to buyers we work with. It was about seven or eight years after the collection with our first track pants when the item became widely known. It took so much time for the item to be publicly accepted.
- Now your track pants are loved not just in Japan, but across the world, and famous musi- cians such as A$AP Rocky proclaim themselves as fans.
- We’ ve never approached them for advertising purposes. It all happened naturally. I do feel delighted to hear that musicians and actors wear NEEDLES during their performances, because music and movies always inspire me. Knowing people coming to like our products or styles and seeing our brand’s items becoming known in unexpected manners is so fascinating. It simply makes me very happy. And, from some time on, people in the States and Europe started to speak to me on the street (laughs). When I visited London recently, a guy suddenly came up to me, saying “My friend loves NEEDLES so much. He owns over ten pairs of your track pants.”
- People from various countries have posted photos of them in the track pants on Instagram with the hashtag “#needlestrackpants”. I realized that many of them own several pairs in different colors. It’s fairly common to have a few pairs, and there are some people who own over ten pairs. I think it rarely happens to other products. They love your track pants in a totally different way.
- It’s addictive. Once trying it on, I also couldn’t stop wearing it (laughs). The fabric hardly sags at the knees unlike cotton pants or jeans, nor gets damaged on the surface even after repeat- ed use. And the quick-drying properties make it always look clean and fresh. The item is truly easy to care. It’s one of my essentials for overseas business trips.
- I’ve heard that you have never used the same color scheme twice for the track pants although having been releasing two to three different color combinations on average per season since 2008.
- We develop our exclusive fabrics for every collection, and I try not to use the same color scheme. So, yes, our track pants have never come in the same color. Though I’ve used our signature color combination of black and purple a few times, the actual color of each black fabric is slightly different, while the purple shades of the fabric tapes also vary from violet to reddish ones.
- Speaking of variations, You added a new model made with Jacquard fabric to your staple lineup in 2017. That one features a classical all-over pattern and is more eye-catching than the initial model with the fabric side tapes.
- The design is based on a style seen in the U.S. in the 1970s. In Japan, it is known as “New Trad” and was once popular among certain youths. The style normally consists of patterned flare pants with L-shaped pockets and a tailored jacket. As a long-time fan of the look, I incorporat- ed it in our track suits.
- As far as I see on Instagram, the patterned model seems to attract more and more fans.
- It seems like that. Especially in cities like Osaka where people have always tended to prefer more edgy items in NEEDLES collections, the Jacquard track pants sell better I also see Instagram at times and it brings me joy to see people around the world enjoying our track pants in various ways.
- Jacquard collection from the current 2021SS season.
Track Pants Are the Core
When I Make a NEEDLES Collection.
It’s been thirteen years since the launch of the first track pants. Although it was available only in a straight fit at the beginning, now the item is available in a narrow, bootcut or H.D. style, allowing the wearer to mix and match it more freely. You can pair it with anything from a tailored jacket to a military coat to a motorcycle jacket to a sweater to a shirt to a hoodie to mules to heels to flip-flops. As Shimizu expected, his track pants became one of the ‘staple pants’ for many people.
- You design so many different items for a NEEDLES collection every season. At what point while creating a new collection do you decide the color scheme of your track pants?
- Now I always do it first. I determine the design direction of the track pants in the first place, and then think about other items.
- So, track pants are the core when you create a collection.
- Yes. It’s the core. And I always keep in mind that people now see the item as something that rep- resents NEEDLES, though it was a kind of curveball piece at the beginning.
- Many of your customers say that they came to know NEEDLES and became a fan because of the track pants.
- Well yeah, I have been making it for a long time (laughs). But it’s very true, the item has created a chance for young people to experience the world of NEEDLES. They accept new things without being caught up in common ideas and existing rules, and enjoy wearing so-called challenging items in their own ways.
- Around the time when this issue is published, you will launch new tie-dye track pants that are available only at NEPENTHES stores. I know you have made various types of tie-dye items for NEE- DLES, but isn’t it the first time for you to design track pants with it?
- Tie-dye patterns are one of the things that sym- bolize not just NEEDLES, but also NEPENTHES as a whole. I therefore thought the design is perfect for this issue that looks back on the history of our track pants.
- What would you pair with the pants?
- Oh, you can pair whatever you like. Despite the bold appearance, the item is quite easy to match up with lots of outfits. It would also look cool to pair the pants with our matching track jacket. Some of our customers wear it as a suit when visiting our stores. It looks simple, but I find it really stylish. If I do the same thing though, I may look odd and as if I’m a school teacher ( laughs ).
Keizo Shimizu：The CEO of NEPENTHES and the designer of NEEDLES. Born in Kofu City, Yamanashi Prefecture in 1958, Shimizu established NEPEN- THES in 1988. His own brand NEEDLES was launched in 1995. His recent favorite track pants are “the regular fit pair in black and purple. I loosely elasticized the hems by myself.”