FASHION HEADLINE: An Interview with Honma Masaaki of mastermind JAPAN
Japanese fashion brand mastermind JAPAN ran its last collection at Tokyo Fashion Week earlier. Though for completely different reasons, this is not the first brush with discontinuation the label has experienced, as detailed by creative director and founder Honma Masaaki in a recent interview with FASHION HEADLINE. The exchange covers Masaaki’s amazing story from the very beginning, touching on his first days working for Yohji Yamamoto, struggling to keep the brand alive early on, and the importance of a certain Los Angeles retailer as his first big break. Part 1 of the four-part interview can be read below while the remainder of Masaaki’s insights can be read here.
Could you please tell me the timing of the brand launch and the reasons behind it?
I worked in sales for six and a half years at Yohji Yamamoto. After that, I became a manager for a select shop that lined up clothes of new designers. The clothes at this store were impressive but I could never make the type of sales that I did when I was working for Yohji. I found myself partially placing blame on the young designers and then hated myself for feeling this way. I decided that that was the time for me to start my own brand and put myself in the same situation and try to get positive results.
I launched mastermind JAPAN in 1997. I was reckless enough to suddenly participate in the Tokyo Collection without experience and also create my own company store. I soon found myself deep in debt (laugh). I was doing this all on my own so I couldn’t figure out how to sell my products and I was in a vicious cycle. After 3 years passed after the brand was founded, I decided to participate in an exhibition in Paris to find a way out of the business. I wanted to say, “I tried my best but failed,” to all the people that had helped me including those working in factories and in textiles.
Considering it to be my last chance, I attended the “SEHM” joint exhibition in Paris in 2001 for the first time. When I held exhibitions in Tokyo, only my friends would come see my booth, but in Paris those who are genuinely interested in fashion or working in the industry would come see my clothes. I felt much more satisfaction from this. When I first attended, it felt like it was the first time that so many people came to see my clothes. Ironically though, practically no one placed orders. The results were the same the following season. However, I got so much satisfaction from the fact that so many people came to see my clothes that it put me off from quitting. I kept telling myself that it was the last time since I knew I couldn’t continue like this without making any profits. I finally decided that the third season really would be my last chance.
Having decided that it would be my last exhibition, I decided to create designs in 100% silk or cashmere. I also thought it would be fun to create a T-shirt out of leather (laugh). If people thought my designs were too expensive, my conception was to create something so expensive that it could not be compared to others. I changed my line-up entirely so that each of the items was so high in quality that I could answer any questions posed by buyers with confidence. The designs looked better too and when feeling the texture of the cashmere, the buyers were bound to ask for the price list. When seeing the price list though, they would tell me that I was crazy and that nobody would order anything so expensive (laugh). I was satisfied though. I felt that I had put everything into the line-up. I told myself “if you put in your best and the market still doesn’t like you, that is a skill in itself.”
Just as I was becoming emotional about the fact that my life as a designer had ended, a buyer that had come to see me since the first season came to see me on the night of the 3rd day of the 3rd season exhibition. “I really like your line-up! I will bring the owner with me tomorrow.” On the 4th day, the final day of the exhibition, the buyer and owner came to see me. After showing them all the samples and handing them the order form, the two whispered to each other with serious expressions. Then they told me they would order my clothes. It was the first time to get a big order like that of several million yen. The order came from Maxfield, LA. I couldn’t believe it, but the order did come after I was back in Japan. I said that the deal would be done if they paid me 50% advance. And they did. I realized that they were not joking. Later, when I told them that I would be ready for the shipment and asked them to pay me the balance. They did too and the deal was done. But, all of sudden, I was seized with an anxiety attack (laugh)! I doubted that such expensive clothes could be sold in a foreign country. A week or so after I shipped the clothes, I nonchalantly asked them if the clothes had been delivered all right and if they had sold some of them or not. I was surprised to hear that my designs were huge hits and had been almost sold out. I was even requested to send all that I had in stock ASAP (laugh). And additional orders were placed.
This was the first time I got a glimpse of the direction my brand was heading towards. As long as the creations are valuable, even if they are pricey, 1% of the world population will be willing to sell the items in their stores. If there is someone supporting us, I feel an inclination to continue my current process. It motivates me to raise the quality of my clothes even more and continue studying designs. I don’t want those who support me to be disappointed with what we make. This was when I established the high quality made in Japan luxury line. Made in Japan is something I strive for from the foundation of the brand.
Your products are made in Japan and your brand tags have the names of the people that helped create the clothes on them. Can you tell me the reason behind this?
Right now it is the norm to have labels with the word “Japan” in it but back then it was rare for companies to sell anything affiliated to Japan let alone include it in the company name. I am in no doubt Japanese so if my brand name was mastermind Paris then people would think I was just trying to be cool and laugh at me. The sketches that I draw for my designs are passed along to many people to create the final products. The people that support me go out of their way to create small quantities of an item or create something difficult to structure. That is why I want to put these individual names into the labels on my products. That way, people can look at the labels to get in touch with the same textile designers, fabric stores, factories etc. at a later time. Some of the factories or fabric stores I have worked with have actually gotten calls from haute couture maisons. It also gives the people whose names are on the labels a great sense of responsibility and I have been doing this since my first collection.