Why Are Japanese Sportswear Brands Making Business Suits?

We unpack the strange mix of economic, lifestyle and sporting trends that have produced this niche item in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics.

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Last week saw a flurry of activity at the nexus of sportswear and tailoring, when the Japanese divisions of ASICS and adidas released their own interpretations of the traditional business suit within days of each other. While adidas went for a more toned-down aesthetic that saw muted Three Stripes branding running down the sleeves alongside the incorporation of DELTAPEAK and CLIMALITE technologies, ASICS wasn’t shy about its hand in the creation of its suit, preferring instead to emblazon its logo on a ribbon on the sleeves and legs, much in the style of Kappa tracksuits of yore. The short skit that accompanied the release of the suit starred singer/actor Takayuki Yamada, who inserted himself into the role of a salaryman. But while he went through the motions of board meetings and PowerPoints, his absurdly flamboyant (and somewhat deranged) actions spoke to the zeitgeist of the current generation of Japanese as fashion-conscious, boundary-breaking, passionate about life outside work, and who singularly reject the gruelling corporatism of the baby boomers before them.

Why has the humble business suit become the site of quiet protest for this particular generation? For the most part, the suit has become a symbol of the oft-ridiculed salaryman archetype — representative of hours spent in fluorescent-lit boardrooms, sardine-tin commuter trains, of suffocatingly polite workplace culture, of hopes dashed for the promise of lifetime employment. The suit is inevitably de rigeur in Japanese workplaces and its symbolism cannot be underestimated when compared to the West, which has long since made the switch to emancipating the office worker from the necktie.

Japan Sportswear Business Suit Menswear Industry

Left: adidas “Performance Setup Suit. Right: keisuke kanda x ANREALAGE x ASICS business suit.

However, things are slowly changing within the fashion and lifestyle realms. As part of his wide-ranging economic reforms, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to convert the country’s staid management culture to reignite economic growth and investment, beginning with throwing out the lifetime employment model in favor of giving employers more flexibility to hire and fire. In the process, Abe hopes to cut out the mediocrities and inefficiencies rife in Japanese corporations, encouraging them to streamline operations and award employees based on their performance as opposed to time served.

The effects of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake also cannot be underestimated. In its wake, scores of Japanese entrepreneurs were inspired to create social enterprises to rebuild their country, a trend which has since been fostered by the prime minister’s “Abenomics” programme to stimulate innovation and create jobs. In this new environment, young entrepreneurs who have forgone climbing the rigid career ladder are naturally opting for more dynamic lifestyles, and it is in this context that the suit must adapt to its wearer and not the other way around.

According to Euromonitor Research, there’s also been a marked change in consumer tastes after the earthquake, with more relaxed and comfortable fashions taking hold nationwide — as a result, the sportswear market grew by a considerable 5 percent in 2014 alone. The government’s Cool Biz campaign — which encourages companies to limit electricity consumption especially with air conditioning during the summer — was lengthened and intensified after the earthquake, resulting in declining sales for men’s suits. What better opportunity for sportswear brands to fill this void while simultaneously introducing new segments of consumers to the benefits of performance materials?

Japan Sportswear Business Suit Menswear Industry

Keisuke Honda for Ministry of Supply.

It’s at the confluence of these trends that the curious athletic business suit has arisen. A video for Quiksilver Japan’s “True Wetsuit” — a business suit made from neoprene and adapted for surfing — speaks to the awkward dichotomy unique to this generation between work and play. The salaryman, seduced by the call of the waves, seamlessly segues into saltwater thanks to his innovative neoprene business suit construction while warding off an impending meeting with scheduled SMS messages. Elsewhere, high fashion stalwarts like Yohji Yamamoto are experimenting with the paradox of sporty business suits, with his COSTUME D’HOMME line taking cues from Olympic athletes and Japanese astronauts to create the “cut motion + motion sewing” collection that aids, rather than hinders movement through redesigned pattern-cutting and unconventional use of materials. Meanwhile, Boston-based athletic suitmakers Ministry of Supply is also trying to make headway into the Japanese market, recently recruiting Japanese soccer star Keisuke Honda to become the spokesman for the brand’s moisture-wicking blazers.

In the afterglow of the Rio Olympics and in the leadup to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on home soil, we can only expect more creations like these to hail from Japan thanks to a continuing health and wellness trend — market research firm Yano Research Institute predicts that the Japanese domestic sporting goods market will likely reach ¥1.43 trillion JPY (approximately $13.8 billion USD) in 2016, a 2.3 percent increase from last year. While athletic business suits have remained a niche marketing product thus far, all signs point towards this new fashion taking hold in the years to come. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you find the salarymen running just a little bit faster to the morning train on your next trip to Tokyo — they might just have upgraded their wardrobe game since last you visited.

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