Onitsuka Tiger: Entering the Den of the Tiger

Bringing together a well-designed capsule marked by subtle detailing, Onitsuka Tiger has all the makings to establish an increasing foothold in the realm of sportswear. Designer Shuhei Numata offered us an overview of the brand’s direction, message and goal.

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Often used inter-changeably, ASICS and Onitsuka Tiger represent two closely related but ultimately different brands who share similar roots. Revived in 2001, Onitsuka Tiger represents a throwback to ASICS’ rich heritage. Whilst ASICS is arguably the more contemporary vision of the brand with tech-driven offerings, Onitsuka Tiger looks to revisit and maintain the many years of brand heritage which has made ASICS such a remarkable company since its founding back in 1949. Designer Shuhei Numata offered us an overview of Onitsuka Tiger’s direction and ultimately the message and goal behind the brand. Inspired by the sparkle of sunlight on the scales of freshly caught tuna, gradient stripe and check materials themed after the Skipjack tuna are strong elements this season. Bringing together a well-designed capsule marked by subtle detailing, Onitsuka Tiger has all the makings to make a establish an increasing foothold in the realm of sportswear.

Interview: Eugene Kan

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Interview with Shuhei Numata

Could you give me some information regarding your background in design and how you ended up working with ASICS (Onitsuka Tiger)?

I spent 6 years in the field of oil-painting and conceptual contemporary art at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo before I shifted to design. At the same time I moved my life to Europe. After 2 years of great and exciting experiences with the adidas Originals design team in Herzogenaurach, the vice president of ASICS Europe caught up with me in a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam, and the rest so to say is history.

For many, the differentiation between Onitsuka Tiger and ASICS is a bit murky. What are the differences between the two brands?

The main difference between ASICS and Onitsuka Tiger is that under the ASICS brand, new technologies and features have been created and introduced to the market as of 1972. This is to fully support any athletes in their endeavor to perform to the highest of their ability in competition and training.

Onitsuka Tiger on the other hand was reintroduced in 2001 and brings a collection to the market that is mainly inspired by our rich heritage in sport. Using our expertise in creating well-designed sporting goods as well as mixing it with our Japanese fashion sensabilites and themes, this makes our Onitsuka Tiger footwear & apparel collections unique and different.


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What are some of the current trends in sportswear and fashion you are noticing, how does this incorporate into your design ethos?

I am curious about the Japanese high-street fashion scene with technical garments. That’s really unique and special. Maybe this comes down to the fact that many Japanese designers are really good DJs. They mix all the existing historical design elements to create new excitement. It is truly a Japanese way in the process of creation. My strengths are a bit different. I developed half of my design skills and knowledge in Europe via traveling, friends, a unique style of education and of course from my lifestyle. I usually differentiate and combine Japanese ways of creation together with European methods from a neutral perspective. I am more a translator so to say than a DJ.

With a strong Japanese culture behind ASICS (Onitsuka Tiger), how does the brand incorporate this into its visual communication and design?

I always consider how I might translate and represent our rich Japanese heritage through my designs in a modern and relevant manner. It is not easy. Japanese authenticity, craftsmanship and originality are key words for the executions of my collections. For example, one of the key design elements from this collection is the “Gradation Stripe” pattern. It’s originally based on traditional Japanese fisherman shirts pattern which are inspired by Skipjack Tuna body patterns. It’s a beautiful 4 color gradation repeat but has a small story of Japanese heritage behind. It is not a direct translation (like Kimono patterns on t-shirts) but I wanted to approach it from a more abstract and intellectual method.


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How important is Onitsuka Tiger’s roots as you move forward?

The roots of Onitsuka Tiger are essential for the brand. It is the base of everything we do. This does not mean that we are stuck with only our heritage. Mr. Kihachiro Onitsuka, founder of Onitsuka Tiger, built the brand with a strong philosophy, which is the philosophy of bringing up sound youth through sports. The company has maintained the tradition of specializing in the manufacturing of sports shoes and clothing using original ideas and applying highly technical techniques to compliment our history and past. We should continue to challenge and find new innovative ways in how we can bring this philosophy to life.

What were some of the design elements and focuses that you set forth in achieving this season?

I focused on a clear construction and organization of a simple design language for my initial collection. “Japan” and “Sports” were both among the inspiration of the design elements. The things I needed to do mainly are to “translate” and “tune” the designs for high-street fashion garments. I created some iconic stripe and check patterns for this collection (skipjack tuna stripe/skipjack tuna check) and applied a water-repellent coated 100% wool fabric for the down jacket I created. We used premium quality down and special hand-polished metal zippers to help convey the message of our brand…. These are good examples of what I want to achieve, remix Japanese roots with luxury functional garments by using the appropriate materials.


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We’ve seen numerous sportswear brands increase their fashion offerings and often going about things on a more technical/performance route, is this something you will embrace as well?

My approach is slightly different. Of course, technical features are an important base for me as well, but I am more focused on “good garment with a realistic approach”. Garments should be realistic but special at the same time. Technical features are just a method to create good garments.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Meeting different kind of people from different disciplines. And I get my inspiration from the thinking method of some of the Japanese contemporary artists. Traveling is also really important for me. Spending some time with local friends and trying to adjust to their lifestyle have also brought on various inspirations. It gives me some interesting perspectives since I’ve moved to Europe. It always sort of refreshes my creative state of mind.

Do you have any last words or things you’d like to say?

I just want to say thank you to my development team, Kwon, Karima, Sandra, Aya-aya and others for all the support. Of course, thanks a lot to the HB crew for giving me this opportunity. I’ve been putting in some solid work for several upcoming projects like “sevenEleven” with more and more exciting projects to be launched by ASICS and Onitsuka Tiger. There is a Japanese proverb, “when you want a tiger’s cub, you have to enter the tiger’s den”, who wants to have the tigers cub?
Photography: Season Chan

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