This Japanese Brand Perfected the Button-Down Shirt
In the early ‘90s, a small shirt shop opened above a convenience store in the Japanese coastal city of Kamakura. Though the brand’s product was familiar — it offered traditional button-down shirts — its approach was quietly revolutionary for the time. The husband-and-wife co-owners, Yoshio and Tamiko Sadasue, chose to work directly with factories to produce high-quality shirts and sell them directly to customers at an affordable price. Named after the city, Kamakura Shirts garnered a loyal following domestically, one that expanded stateside after the brand opened a store in New York City in 2012.
For the Yoshio Sadasue, owning a clothing brand was something of a birthright. His father owned a clothing shop in Hiroshima and the extended Sadasue family were textile merchants dating back hundreds of years. Before founding Kamakura Shirts, Sadasue worked at Van Jacket, the legendary company that first introduced American Ivy League style to the country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was there where he met his wife and had a first-hand education in style and business. So years later, when the Sadasues started a business of their own, Yoshio worked in a factory making shirts while Tamiko managed the shop.
Over the past few decades, Kamakura Shirts has established itself as one of the best brands available, offering top-tier quality and affordable prices. Its shirts, like those sold a half-century ago, are made from 100 percent cotton fabrics with thread counts ranging from 100 to 300. They are finished with single-needle seams that are equally clean on the exterior and interior, and they feature buttons made from natural shell. And while the business has expanded in recent years, the Sadasues continue to nurture relationships with respected factories and utilize all-Japanese manufacturing.
Kamakura Shirts now offers a wide range of styles, but the quality and prices still reflect Yoshio Sadasue’s mission: Japanese-made casual shirts start at $79 and dress shirts start at $89. And while the value is certainly enticing, it’s Kamakura Shirt’s dedication to craft that makes these garments superlative. To learn about the history of the brand and how the brand perfected the button-down shirt, we recently talked with Sadasue.
Q: Your father owned a clothing shop in Hiroshima. How did this affect your view on style at a young age?
A: I learned that people wore clothes to impress others and that is why they buy clothes. When we were short of all things after the war, it was Van that taught me how a gentleman should dress to impress.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to pursue a job in the clothing industry and how did you get a job at Van Jacket?
A: For the first two years after graduating from university, I followed the path of becoming a scientist but my body felt my roots as a merchant. I decided to become an honest and sincere merchant at that point and started to work at Van Jacket, a company that my father was a distributor for when nobody was willing to hire me.
Q: How did your view on style change during your time working at Van? Did you change positions at the company?
A: My concept of clothing changed completely following the introduction of the Ivy Look by Van. The look was all about style with rules. It was a concept new to Japan.
Q: How did the rise of Ivy style affect the business? Why was the button-down shirt banned in schools?
A: Japan was suffering from a shortage of goods, while the US was prosperous and abundant with things. The grownups had lost all confidence in life, but young people were full of admiration towards America and the Ivy Style captured those young people’s hearts. Due to the popularity of the Ivy Style, Van became number one in Japan for menswear. The button-down shirts became the outfit of choice for bad kids, and that’s why schools chose to ban them.
Q: What did you do between the time that Van went under in 1978 until the time you started Kamakura Shirts in 1991?
A: When Van became bankrupt, I worked for a GMS and then worked for an American brand called Villager. I was in charge of establishing a preppy-style womenswear brand there. But when Jonathan Logan absorbed Villager, I moved to a company called Scene that was run by one of the ex-Van members.
Q: What was the impetus to start Kamakura Shirts? How did your time at Van affect your early business decisions?
A: Japan’s apparel business developed by learning from Western clothing from a wholesaler’s standpoint, but I knew that the age of factory direct-to-retail would come so I started a retail store. Fifteen years after Van’s bankruptcy, you couldn’t find real, authentic button-downs anywhere, and apart from Brooks Brothers, no company had the right understanding of them anyway.
Van was selling five hundred thousand button-down shirts just fifteen years before then. So I thought of a shirt store that sold those very button-down shirts for old fans of Van. There were five hundred thousand of those prospective customers.
Q: What is most important to you about the shirts your brand produces? What sets them apart brands Americans might be more familiar like Brooks Brothers or Gant?
A: Even Brooks Brothers, the originator of button-downs, came under European ownership and lost the charm of the authentic button-downs that the American people loved. It was engulfed by the wave of efficiency-oriented mass production like most other clothing. Shirts were once undergarments, which means that a carefully constructed silhouette that matches the body is necessary, yet such minute attention to detail is unachievable in a production line that requires efficiency.
That is why I was convinced that the production lines in Japan, able to care for the finest of details, were what many fans of button-downs were waiting for. I for one wanted such a shirt.
Q: How has your business changed over the past 16 years? Have changing public perspectives about style influenced the business?
A: Fashion styles change but occasions, for example, formal, will never disappear and there will always be a need for that. We have consistently maintained a high standard and have done everything in our power for further improvements to quality. People’s desire for high quality will not diminish.
Q: Tell me about the decision to open a store in New York City. Does this bring the story of the button-down full circle?
A: I knew it would be difficult for a Japanese brand to promote Western clothes to an international market. But I thought that no one in the world, not even an American brand, would be able to produce authentic button-down shirts of the good old days. There I saw my window of opportunity. If our button-downs were accepted at the birthplace of them, I believed that they would be accepted anywhere.
Q: What does the future have in store for you?
A: My wish is to train craftsmen who will pass on the techniques and quality expected of made-in-Japan for generations to come. Also, I would like to establish a factory that can streamline production as much as possible while keeping much of the process still by hand. I hope that the creative environment of monodzukuri (making things) becomes something that people aspire to, that it becomes people’s dreams.
Brunello Cucinelli has proven that capitalism and human dignity aren’t mutually exclusive. A profitable company can and should look after its workers and give back to the community. It is possible to deliver consistent growth without sacrificing a product’s quality or a worker’s quality of life. As the brand’s 40th year draws to a close, we had the chance to catch up with Cucinelli in the midst of a busy travel month. Read the Story