An Interview with Lisa Yamai
Meet the Visionary Behind Japan’s Most Important Outdoor Brand
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From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.
Lisa Yamai was blushing. Earlier in the night, the heiress to Snow Peak, the largest camping brand in Japan and started by Lisa’s grandfather, swept in and manhandled our campsite. First, she finagled a finicky camp stove into working shape and then went around lighting fires with a jet-engine-like blazing torch. After dinner, we settled around a stainless steel fireplace under a sky full of stars in Niigata prefecture in Japan, a region anchored by 8,000-foot mountains, rice paddy-filled valleys and, well, Snow Peak’s headquarters.
I wanted to travel to Japan to find out more about the brand — whose footprint in the U.S. is small, but highly regarded for its impeccable aesthetic and smart, functional design — as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. Snow Peak’s success is predicated on products like beautiful and modern camp-kitchen cookware, stainless steel camp stoves, minimalist dining setups, tarps and tents. While the U.S. only makes up around 20 percent of the brand’s total sales, you’ll find that at Japan’s campgrounds, Snow Peak is one of the major players, with Coleman and Montbell thrown into the mix. The brand, however, is not lost on America’s camping-obsessed, even with all of the lower-priced competition; over the years, I’ve seen many a diehard camper unveil their few bamboo-and-steel Snow Peak products with special care and presentation, like artifacts to be revered. Suffice it to say they have a following.
Snow Peak was originally founded under the name Yamai Shoten in 1958 by 26-year-old Yukio Yamai, an avid rock climber. It’s no coincidence that this was only a year after a young Yvon Chouinard started forging his own pitons in Southern California and founded Chouinard Equipment, Ltd., the predecessor to Patagonia. At the time, the world had a heightening obsession with rock climbing. There was a growing fever over who could tackle the faces of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite Valley first, while, back home in Japan, outdoor enthusiasts were celebrating the first ascent of the Himalayas’ Mt. Manaslu, the world’s eighth tallest peak, by a Japanese team.
Yukio’s location in Niigata’s Tsubame-Sanjo, an area rife with factories focused on metalwork, placed him in a prime location for professional success. He began by designing and selling his own pitons and crampons made from titanium, stainless steel and aluminum. He also designed climbing apparel that he had custom made by a tailor in town, and which he later sold to his friends separately from the Yamako brand. Much of Snow Peak’s success, though, can be attributed to Yukio’s son, Tohru Yamai, who came into the business in the mid-’80s, just as SUVs were on the rise. Tohru could sense that his community in Tokyo was craving nature, so he envisioned a camping experience that capitalized on the growing market of outdoor-oriented SUVs — one that required less labor than the school-camping trips of his youth, which involved digging a crude trench for water flow around two-piece tent setups. It was only a few years later, in the early ’90s, that Yukio and Tohru became almost single-handedly responsible for inventing Japanese outdoor camping culture as a whole.
Today, Snow Peak’s main headquarters, which is only five years old, is home to 100 public campsites and its very own gear-testing field on 41 acres of rolling grassland spliced from a neighboring golf course. Two concrete-and-glass buildings crown the property. The larger one holds offices and conference rooms, while the smaller one houses a store and a camping hub with gear rentals and vending machines filled with green tea and canned coffee. An outbuilding houses clean bathrooms — complete with Japan’s famously high-tech heated toilets — and large stainless steel sink basins for washing camp dishes. The site’s facilities are right in line with the brand’s ethos — set by Tohru thirty years ago — that camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it.
The campfire’s light bounced off Lisa Yamai’s forearms, which are covered in tattoos (a Japanese beetle and illustrations by famous Japanese artist Kiyoshi Awazu, among others) and her smile was wide as she told me about the rebellious idea she had of going to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York for college. “My father said no,” Lisa said. “I was not a good girl in high school. My dad worried; I wanted to go a different direction from society.”
This should’ve been no surprise to Tohru, given Lisa’s headstrong lineage. But, either way, her penchant for marching to her own drum has served her well. Lisa, now in her late thirties, is Snow Peak’s creative director. In parallel to what her father did 30 years ago, Lisa is moving Snow Peak forward with a line of apparel, which she launched in 2014. She also oversees the design of all hardgoods.
Her unisex designs include space-age hoodies that look like they’ve been knit with one long piece of thick cord; camouflage, insect-shielding mesh tracksuits; insulated midlayer shackets with as much stretch as yoga pants, sailcloth overalls and more. And, according to Kei Hirosawa, one of the main buyers at Tokyo’s Beams stores (which have been majorly influential in Japan’s streetwear scene), her direction is right on point. “The outdoor fashion crossover trend is growing in Japan right now,” he says, pointing me to the magazines Go Out and Outstanding, which often weave Yeti, Patagonia, The North Face and other outdoor brands into urban lifestyle.
Lisa may or may not be next in line to take over the business — it’s undecided, she says — but what is clear is that she has a lifetime of product development experience. Her field-testing days started as a three-year-old, when her dad asked her to gear-test a kid-size version of an adult camp chair. Lisa quickly discovered, through banging and shaking it, that it was far too wobbly. Since then, Snow Peak’s kids’ chairs have adopted a wider base than those designed for adults.
These days, Lisa is working hard to preserve made-in-Japan manufacturing practices across fashion via two new Snow Peak collections: Outdoor Kimono, which is exactly as it sounds (the traditional Japanese garment, built out of technical fabric), and Local Wear — indigo-dyed, patchwork and embroidered styles, inspired by the clothing of Japanese field workers in the 1950s and ’60s, strictly produced in Japan. These two lines can be found online and in the two brick-and-mortar stores Lisa opened in Tokyo and New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
The day after we camped, Lisa and I sat under a tarp display in an airy, two-story design area, where she spoke about Snow Peak’s history, how she balances her design approach with changing trends, and where she sees the brand heading in the future.
Q: When did you join Snow Peak and why?
A: I used to work at a women’s fashion brand, the kind that would put on runway shows. I felt a sense of discomfort with fashion design for self-expression, and it made me realize I was more interested in the cultures that were the source of inspiration for fashion — music, art. I wanted to create a new fashion culture within the culture closest to me, the outdoor lifestyle, so I joined Snow Peak in 2012.
Q: What has it been like to work with your dad, Snow Peak’s CEO?
A: My father has never given me directions about the apparel line. I started the apparel business in 2014, and it was a very big challenge creating a new business for Snow Peak. I’ve never tried creating a business before. I did everything, from making clothes to sales to production, and it’s run one hundred percent through my decisions. It’s really tough work, but it’s the best thing. It’s satisfying, and I am truly grateful to my father for allowing me the room to do as I please. We are also different in management style: My father adopts a totally charisma-driven “top-down” style. I believe a style of management where I rely on others around me and involve them will lead to growth of both the company and the staff.
Q: How has Snow Peak’s equipment changed over time? How important has family been to the product design?
A: I grew up camping in the ’90s. The first time my father started a camping business, we had three in the family: my parents and myself. At the time, we had simple gear that would be enough for three people. Afterward, our family grew to five, then six. As we grew in number and age, Snow Peak’s camping offerings grew in size and scope as well.
Q: What is your design philosophy when it comes to the apparel?
A: The inspiration for everything comes from my own life — five days a week in the city, and the weekends in nature. I think about the texture of fabrics, materials for outdoor wear that could blend in with urban living, simple designs, colors reminiscent of nature, and so on. When I started the apparel business at Snow Peak, there were few other brands making urban-outdoor-style clothing, only Nau and Aether. My goal is to make stylish, urban apparel that is also very comfortable. Snow Peak apparel should be seven-days-a-week, daytime-and-weekend apparel — whole-life apparel.
Q: What was the first piece you designed?
A: The first piece I designed was a flexible insulated mid-layer. It’s water-resistant and has windstop and stretchy synthetic fill. There were no comfortable middle insulated layers with flexibility [on the market]. It’s very comfortable and functional.
Q: What can we look forward to from Snow Peak?
A: Snow Peak consumers and employees who camp a lot always want a fire-resistant garment. Embers spark off the fire and make a hole in nylon or polyester, so we are working with Teijin, a big fabric-maker in Japan, to create one hundred percent Aramid fire-shielding fabric. We’ll make a jacket and a vest. Vests are very popular from Snow Peak in Japan.
Q: Which brands inspire you?
A: Filson. It’s basic, classic and original and will still be all of those things in twenty to thirty years. In fashion, I like Dries Van Noten. I like its botanical prints.
Q: And you travel a lot. Are you inspired by that?
A: Yes. I went to Mongolia to get to the source of camping. I stayed with nomadic Mongolians because I wanted to see their life, their camping style, their systems and process. They have no electronics. No running water and no wi-fi. Eating goat, their main livestock, three meals a day left a big impression on me. I didn’t learn anything for designing garments, but seeing how they paired their Tibetan Buddhist religion with the outdoors gave me perspective and balance in my philosophy for my life.
Q: Not many women-run businesses in Japan. What’s it like to know you might run Snow Peak one day?
A: My father is still the head of the company, so I haven’t yet decided to be next in line. In running a business as a woman, it is important to stand strong to our convictions and our sense of responsibility. I believe the world will continue to evolve thanks to the sensibility of women in business. I’d like there to be more women who can seriously pursue the jobs they want to do with more freedom. It’s also important to have a strong feeling of duty towards society.
Q: Is that why you’re launching Local Wear?
A: Yes. I felt a sense of crisis. Maybe fifty to one hundred years ago, all over Japan, workers were making clothes by themselves with the local materials. But, the local craftsmen are getting old — fifty, or sixty, or seventy. They don’t have a next generation in manufacturing. The local young people in the country are moving to big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, or overseas. The factories are dying, and I am worried the next generation of designers will no longer be able to produce in Japan. Every season, with each new collection being produced, a few factories are going out of business. So, Snow Peak is working to teach younger generations how to make garments. Local Wear is bringing awareness by letting people experience production firsthand.
Q: You are also working tradition into your line with the Outdoor Kimono.
A: It’s a similar philosophy. It’s a collab with a Japanese kimono company, Kimono Yamato. They have been sewing kimonos for one hundred years. They’re feeling the same things: kimono factories and kimono craftsman don’t have a next generation and will be gone. Younger people aren’t interested in wearing kimonos because it doesn’t fit the current times, influenced by Western-style clothing. So, we modernized the kimono styles with functional outdoor fabrics. The kimono is a Japanese garment and Snow Peak is Japanese outdoor camping. Both have heritage and tradition — one older, one newer — but they are linked.