Breakfast with W. David Marx

Toast, Coffee, and Pop Cultural Analysis with the American-Born, Tokyo-Based Author

  • Interview: Adam Wray

“Places like this—they’re never going to build a new cafe with these chairs and these tables.” I am sitting across from the author W. David Marx at a quiet restaurant just a 10-minute walk from Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing, the intersection that has come to represent, for so many tourists, Tokyo in all its bustling futurity. I asked Marx to pick a spot for us to meet that I would never have gone to otherwise. The place he chose, Aoyama Ichibankan, fits the bill. The decor is vaguely Art Nouveau, the interior dark brown wood and matching leather. Marx tells me cafes like this one cater mainly to older men who come to smoke and read the paper. “When I moved here in 2003 it was about finding the newest, hottest thing, and now it’s about finding the oldest thing you can’t believe still exists. It’s finding pieces of Tokyo’s past that haven’t gotten the wrecking ball yet, and documenting those.” Marx, an American, has devoted much of his professional life to studying Japanese popular culture. Last year, he released his first book—Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. It is a lively piece of cultural history, examining movements in Japanese fashion from its obsession with preppy Ivy League style in the 1950s through the rise of the Ura-Harajuku streetwear scene in the 1990s. Taken together, these trends highlight complex patterns of cultural exchange and cogent insights into consumer behavior.

Over a breakfast of toast with ham and cheese, peach jelly, half a banana, a handful of potato chips, and a cup of coffee—that morning’s special set, or mohningu—Marx and I spoke about the economics of Japanese fashion, tourism’s impact on Tokyo, and his fascination with trend dynamics.

Adam Wray

W. David Marx

The first time you came to Tokyo you were working on your thesis, right?

No, the first time I came was in 1998. I got this internship at Kodansha, the publisher. They threw me in a bunch of editorial offices, and one of them did these two fashion magazines: Hot Dog Press, which was more of a lifestyle magazine like Popeye, and Checkmate, which was pure fashion. Neither of them exist anymore. I didn’t know anything about fashion. I was a typical arrogant American living in the South, growing up on MTV, thinking that America is the coolest country in the entire world. Like, communism fell because people wanted Michael Jackson and blue jeans! Then going to Tokyo and being at these fashion magazines, it was like, “Where did this come from?” The level of style in the streets was so high compared to anything in the U.S.

What sort of intern stuff did they have you doing?

When I was at Hot Dog, they had nothing for me to do, so I would just take back issues of the magazine and go through them. I saw this t-shirt that had the Planet of the Apes face on it. Someone told me the brand had just reopened their store. I went that afternoon and they literally had someone sitting outside with a velvet rope who said, “You can’t come in.” It was Nowhere, A Bathing Ape’s store. Which I knew nothing about, almost no one knew anything about outside Japan at that point. I went back the next day and waited an hour in the August sun with all these kids, and then there was another hour line inside the store. The way they sold t-shirts, they had a rack with one of each version, and you would have to get one, take it up, and they would get you one from the back. So, if everyone wanted the same shirt, they had to wait for it to come back to the floor. The woman bringing the shirts back would just get mobbed. It was either a really stupid system or it was intentionally brilliant, slowing down retail. By the time I left the store it had taken three hours. In 1998, in the U.S., there was absolutely no parallel to it. Just up the street on Takeshita-dori there was this flea market where people would sell “vintage” A Bathing Ape and Goodenough t-shirts from the year before. Literally the versions from the year before going for $300. It was the first time I’d seen a $300 t-shirt. When you have no context for it, it seems insane. I went back to college and spoke to a professor about it, and he said, “Well, there’s your thesis.” So, I came back to Kodansha and read every single issue of Hot Dog from the period that A Bathing Ape existed, tried to identify when the brand showed up on the radar, and interviewed a bunch of people.

Then I came to do my Master’s in Tokyo on the Japanese music industry, so I actually moved here in 2003. Honestly, when I came back in 2003, it wasn’t that interesting of a time for Japanese fashion. It was kind of the end for streetwear, but it was before BAPE got big in the U.S.

There’s just no young people anymore.

So, it was over in Japan but still pre-Pharrell.

Pre-Pharrell, but soon Pharrell started showing up. I remember N.E.R.D. was here and they brought Nigo out on stage and people thought that was kind of funny. Then Japanese fashion went into five or six years of all the magazines really hitting the Euro, Dior, tight black suit stuff for men, and for women it was all about how to dress in order to marry very rich doctors. I got really into trying to not write about the world I was interested in, but about what was actually popular. I was trying to figure out the clockwork motion of fashion trends. In 2007, the fall trend was colored tights. Like, colored tights are in! All the magazines I read, everything was styled with colored tights. Then you go to the stores and it’s all colored tights. And then you’d go out in August 2007 and there’s no colored tights, and then suddenly in September 2007 it’s all colored tights.

Is that clockwork mechanism still in place?

To a lesser degree. There are fewer people buying into the system.

Are there just fewer people buying clothes in general?

There’s just no young people anymore. Plus less money. Around 2000, incomes started to drop. I started blogging in 2004, and I was obsessed with this idea of Japan in terminal decline. My logic was that the reason Japanese fashion and music was so great was because there was so much money pumped into it, even on the fringes. If the Bubble Economy of the 80s was all about the money explosion in Japan, the 90s was the taste explosion. Then if you looked at the trends in consumption in the 2000s it was like, “Wow, no one’s buying anything anymore, what does that mean?” You’d go to Omotesando and it was like, “This can’t exist. This cannot be sustained.” The one thing I couldn’t foresee, and my great error, was an increase in foreign travel. An increase in travel, especially from Asia, injected all this money that lets these places still exist. I think if it was left to Japanese consumers it would be really difficult to sustain. That being said, there are so many people interested in designer fashion here that even if 80% of them disappeared, the top 20% still keep it afloat.

It definitely still feels like a more saturated market, a more sophisticated sensibility.

It’s also just the numbers. You have 12 million people in Tokyo, which is a lot, but that’s not really what Tokyo is. The amount of people that could get here within an hour is something over 40 million. So, on a weekend, if I’m going shopping in Harajuku, there’s 40 million people that can do that. Even one percent of one percent of one percent of that group is still a massive amount of people.

So the numbers still work for a vintage shop in Harajuku.

And those places are concentrated—people go to all the shops. I was correct about the small picture that consumer trends were going in the wrong direction but I missed that it could still be maintained by globalization. When people ask, “What is Tokyo style now?”, it’s complicated. You used to be able to go to Shibuya and Harajuku and you could walk down the street and say, “Here’s what the style is.” But now there are so many tourists it’s impossible to say, “This is what Tokyo looks like.”

Outside of fashion, how has the city changed since you moved here?

The tourist influx in the last five years has radically changed everything but it’s really difficult to be angry about that. Tokyo is massively under-touristed. As one of the great cities of the world, it should have tourists. Major European cities are full of tourists, and Tokyo never had that. Shibuya Crossing was just a thing you crossed to go return CDs at Tsutaya and now it’s a landmark. It’s hard to walk through it because people are constantly shooting with their GoPros or whatever.

Everyone’s bumping into each other because they’re all taking selfies.

The fact that it took this long is kind of interesting. It’s hard to regret the tourism, but it has really changed the vibe of the city.

It changes how people orient their businesses

The fact that there are so many English menus, that’s new. It’s good—Japan needs some sort of economic injection and this is helping. When I first moved here, maybe every six months someone I knew would visit. Now every week there are three people I have to go see. And they’re staying at places I’ve never heard of and going to eat at fancy restaurants I’ve never heard of.

This distinction/imitation principle can be extended out to explain how all of pop culture works.

You ask friends for Tokyo suggestions and you get hundreds of recommendations

Everybody has this course that they’ve set out for themselves through internet research that is also alien to anyone who actually lives in the city. If you live here, you’re not eating $100 wagyu every night. The places I’m used to going to are kind of uninteresting for a tourist—more of the old Tokyo than the new Tokyo. A lot of the new Tokyo is relatively generic compared to other major metropolitan centers, like Third Wave coffee and speakeasies. Tokyo rebuilds things all the time. It’s kind of a stereotype, like, “Japanese people like new things.” There’s this shrine, Ise Jingū, that’s famous because they rebuild it every 20 years. People use it as this great metaphor for Japanese culture. But the difference between Tokyo and Ise Jingū is that they rebuild Ise Jingū the exact same way every 20 years, so it looks the same way it did thousands of years of ago, and it’s beautiful. But everything in Tokyo is torn down every 20 years to be replaced by something ugly and new, so there’s nothing intentionally old left. I’m obsessed with finding what has been left behind. Places you wouldn’t be able to look up on the internet.

Can you tell me a bit about the new book you’re working on?

What I’m trying to do is describe a general theory of pop culture and look at, step by step, the basic principles people use to make decisions about what they buy and how those decisions come together to create trends. Georg Simmel is this German sociologist who early on figured out that the thing about fashion is that you don’t just do it to be different from some people, you do it to be the same as the people you aspire to be. In his day, it was about socioeconomic class. The upper class wants to be different from the middle class, so if they see their style being ripped off by the middle class, they have to find a new one, and it creates this perpetual cycle because they’re always chasing styles. Today, it’s not just class. And there’s a spectrum—some people are super imitative, some people are super individualistic, but everyone is on the spectrum. This distinction/imitation principle can be extended out to explain how all of pop culture works. I’m using that and systematically describing all these rules, almost like a parody of a math proof.

Like trend physics.

Because people are obsessed with being different you can predict the direction of the next style. It’s not predictable in a perfect sense, but it’s predictable in general, because the next thing can’t be the thing that came before, and it can’t be the thing before that, either. There’s a book on a similar topic by Tom Vanderbilt called YouMay Also Like, and at the end of the book he’s like, “Taste is totally unpredictable, it’s just random, it’s like the stock market.” But the stock market does move in a direction. It’s been going up for a long time, it just doesn’t go up every single day. Trends have direction because they are boxed in by what came before.

We also have a phenomenon we call retro, with clear, regular patterns. In the late 80s, you had a hippie revival. In the mid-70s you had this 50s Grease thing—it’s like clockwork.

It’s like a 20 year cycle, and the whole thing just shifts down a timeline.

Right, and that’s not some magical thing. It’s because a style that enters the system as distinctive, then becomes mainstream, then people who aren’t paying attention to trends start doing it, and finally it gets to a point where it either doesn’t exist or it becomes so unfashionable that it becomes a distinctive thing again. And that takes usually 15, 20, 25 years. Like, pleated pants—pleated pants are back because if you wear cool pleated pants, no one will confuse you with the 60-year-old wearing Jos A. Bank pleated pants.

You’ve got pleated pants by Vetements.

The reason fashion is so drapey right now is because tight was in, and tight a few years ago was the distinctive thing that made you look different from the normal schlub. But eventually even people who don’t care about fashion started wearing tight-fitting shirts.

There was Hedi's tight Dior suit, and then Thom Browne shrunk it even further, and now regular guys wear those cropped trousers.

And once people are wearing that stuff without knowing who Thom Browne is, magazines can’t push it anymore. You can’t go back to the Hedi suit because it’s still out there, so if it can’t be fitted, it has to be bulky.

There are only so many ways that clothing can be on a body.

When you first see a new style like drapey clothes, it looks ridiculous, because you don’t see anyone actually wearing it. And then as more and more brands make the clothing, more people start wearing it, and then you’re more comfortable wearing it, then that becomes a trend, and then there has to be a counterpoint. Even in the 50s and 60s, Roland Barthes was explaining that long hair was not in because of changing attitudes on gender, long hair was in because short hair had been in.

One thing that’s changing is that the internet reveals to you much more quickly that the decision you’ve made is a decision someone else has already made. It’s actually slowing trends down because people are less willing to adopt something knowing someone else has already adopted it. If you realize instantly that everyone else is doing that thing that you’re doing to be distinctive, that forces you to make a decision: am I going to be part of the trend? It used to be that you could be part of the trend while simultaneously thinking that you were still an individual who wasn’t. The internet is laying bare that process in a way that is really making culture much more conservative.

  • Interview: Adam Wray