blackmeans, one of Japan’s leading leather brands, not only possesses an absolute commitment to the phrase “JAPAN MADE,” but their fine processing technique draws attention from top designers from around the globe. Launched in 2008, blackmeans is often associated with “punk,” “motorcycle,” “tribal” and “hardcore.” When one hears of blackmeans, “daring” and “toughness” comes to mind.
There is no doubt about blackmeans founder and designer Yujiro Komatsu’s commitment to the type of leather that they are committed to nor, the punk rock band that he idolizes. This is not the point of this article. It will instead unravel untold stories and refresh one’s preconceptions about blackmeans, and to remind the forgotten true nature of fashion.
This interview was first published on HYPEBEAST JAPAN, where it and the accompanying photoshoot can be viewed in full.
First, could you tell us how blackmeans began?
I had experience processing leather through working at luxury designer brands that participated in events like Paris Fashion Week. Upon my resignation, the leather factory asked me to work for them — this was the beginning of everything, back in 2005, before blackmeans.
However, the leather factory was in Japan’s Gifu prefecture, and I did not have any intention of moving there. Nevertheless, at that time, the factory was under a lot of pressure from the advent of cheap processing lines from overseas. They recognized that they needed to create a new demand for themselves, and also the fact that I was well versed in leather processing for both product and clothing. With that being said, they offered me a role with three conditions: focus on business development to cultivate new clients, open a processing factory in Tokyo, and launch our own brand.
I was under the impression that Mr. Komatsu, you led a career purely of manufacturing, however you have been in sales (business development)?
I really enjoyed sales. I used to read magazines at stores to determine where to go for sales. Japanese leather items are categorized as high-priced items. Often by looking at the price, I can determine whether a leather product was Japanese made or not.
It was an absolute cold call. I may be familiar with leather, but I was no expert (in sales), so often times I had to bluff to make my way in. To portray such an image, I used to put wax on the cover of my notebook to give it a vintage look to make it seem like I’ve been using it for many years! At the same time, we had the skill to create complex leather pieces. With such ability, we were able to get orders from top Japanese luxury brands that were at the height of their prosperity at the time.
Things were going smoothly but I also found myself running out of capacity. One time, I accepted an order for 1500 leather jackets without securing the manpower needed for production. This was when I started working with one of blackmeans’ founding members, the Aruga brothers. Back then, the two brothers were also running their own brands, and we all needed a processing factory in Tokyo. So the three of us decided to rent the current space.
“For blackmeans, it was more important to work with and understand the ideas of ‘leather’ in ‘Japan’ as an identity.”
So, at this point, you have fulfilled two of the conditions: business development to obtain new clients, and to open a processing factory in Tokyo.
Yes, that is correct. And we were then left with the last condition, to start our own brand — this was the beginning of blackmeans.
The concepts of “punk,” “motorcycle,” and “tribal,” was this something that was at the core of blackmeans from the beginning?
Actually, these weren’t our concepts or themes. These are just words we simply liked. However, it is true that we were indeed influenced by “punk” and “motorcycle” culture.
For blackmeans, it was more important to work with and understand the ideas of “leather” in “Japan” as an identity. Though the request of starting our own brand was from my employer, I already had an idea of brand name and logo before that.
What meanings does blackmeans’ logo have, using a bird as its symbol?
The two circles are barbed wires, and by looping it twice, it symbolizes being oppressed. The bird in the middle is a dove, but this was inspired from the tobacco brand I was smoking at the time called “Peace.” However, the dove is also a symbol of peace from Noah’s Ark. So the image of a dove holding an olive branch while being surrounded by barbed wires came together nicely.
Also, the wings of the dove are drawn to look like five-fingered hands. By looking at Japanese traditional crafts, it is said that Japanese people had skillful hands since ancient times. I think that fine craftsmanship is the roots of the Japanese, but it is also true that such crafts were made by lower class members of the feudal society and comes with a harsh history. However, Japan is now recognized as a country of respected craftsmanship. In today’s era, there are not many who chose craftsman as an occupation, but if we follow our roots, I believe all Japanese people have “craftsman” as part of their genes.
Today, many of the factories have relocated to other parts of Asia, and the number of craftsmen are declining. The idea of product making in Japan itself is facing crisis. As a craftsman myself, this is the reason why I used the hand as the wing, as it links to the idea of freedom. What would happen to us Japanese when hands required for production work gets taken away? It may seem quite heavy but I don’t think it is wrong to feel this way.
“If we focus on fashion or a ‘cool’ aspect too much, we tend to forget to enjoy the process.”
What does the brand name, blackmeans, mean?
Prior to the launch of blackmeans, I used to visit leather tanners in places like Himeji and Sumida-ku, for OEM (original equipment manufacturer) work. These were the places where Japanese leather history was made, and when I visit them, it really made me feel like I was creating a piece of history alongside leather tanners and it brought me joy.
The history of such craft had a negative image, so I wanted to make them positive going forward, and such feelings grew stronger as I was deciding on a brand name. So I decided on “blackmeans” as a respect to those who paved the way for Japanese leather work, and to name ourselves the term they used to describe such workers.
As I continued to work in the leather industry, there was a sort of pride that started to build within me. For example, it used to frustrate me when I saw “Real Italian Leather” as a catch phrase back then. It felt odd that the Japanese were using the term “Real Italian Leather,” and I wanted Japanese people to know that Japan is also a home of leather.
There is also iconic incorporations of prajna-paramita (Buddhist scripture) into your designs. Can you tell us more about that?
Back in the 1970’s, John Lennon wore a “sukajan” (embroidered satin baseball jacket) created by a Japanese designer with prajna-paramita as its design. So ours is a tribute to this historical jacket that broadcast Japanese culture to the world — this was actually an idea of my colleague’s, Akitomo Aruga. Many Japanese know of this scripture’s name but not many know the meaning of what is written, including myself at the time. However, once I looked into it, I found many great things written, to the point it resonated with the brand concept and identity of punk and blackmeans.
It is important to understand current events and changes in society, and to go with the flow, but if you are constantly going with the flow of time, your true identity, ideas and style may easily be lost. My understanding of the scripture, prajna-paramita, is to free yourself from such flow and to establish your identity.
I have learned from “punk” that the idea isn’t just to go against the trend, but to not lose yourself from the flow of society and to establish your identity in a positive manner — it has no religious meaning. How punk came to be from the extreme state of people in London and New York is the same as how the prajna-paramita was saving the souls of the Japanese in similar circumstances. Therefore, I feel that prajna-paramita is the Japanese interpretation of attitude towards punk. So I really feel that this scripture matches with our roots and the philosophy of blackmeans — I really like it.
In the fashion industry, when one style trends, many people will crowd around that; and once the second trend comes, then whoever moves on is perceived to be the winner. But with a punk-like attitude, if the first trend suits the style of the person, then that person is the true winner for being able to find their own style — that’s revolutionary. I was lucky to obtain such a perspective from punk at a young age. It takes courage to walk the town in out-of-trend clothing, but that difference gives you the strength to live strong in today’s society. We live in a world of change, so once you find your own style, live the era, but it is important that you update that style of yours with your own twist.
Speaking towards a “fashion” aspect, it is hard to come by a brand as adventurous as blackmeans.
Yes, it jumps into your sight whether you like it or not. If it’s not interesting, then I can’t really motivate myself. However, since production is a business, we still need to create along the lines of the “best sellers” from a merchandising perspective. But I still try my best to maintain my sight on creating what I like to create.
When I used to do OEM work, a designer requested for colorful leathers, but later upon speaking to his boss, he had to stick with just black leather. It’s not my work and I get the fact that leather is expensive, but I truly felt: Why not do what you really like? I had to subdue my voice back into disappointment. This is why for our first blackmeans exhibition, we wanted to showcase to people and especially designers that even when using colorful leathers, we can work freely and do so much.
“I want to make sure that whoever wears blackmeans clothing doesn’t visually get sucked into crowd.”
It seems like an ideal lifestyle, the best of both worlds — making things that you like while incorporating a fashion brand — and established status.
Well, even if you think that you’ve created something you truly wanted to, as a result, there could be a case where it is not accepted. It happens every season — if it’s a piece where you put in a lot of effort, then the damage is significantly larger; then sometimes something you didn’t put much effort into ends up selling a lot. After 10 years, my mentality has grown stronger! Even if I feel like a piece won’t be accepted, I will still follow through with it despite my surroundings trying to stop me! I know when blackmeans goes for exhibitions, we should carry lesser quantities of samples given the size of our brand as it would shed some waste and make more business sense, but that doesn’t carry the image we want to showcase to our audience.
I met “punk” in my early teens, and found out that people in punk culture customized their own clothes. I was quite crafty so I started customizing clothing, furniture, instruments and pretty much everything around me. And through that process, I couldn’t stop myself from not customizing everything and making it my own. The joy I had from doing that back then has more value to me than the times I spent learning in specialized schools. But of course, the pieces I made prior to schooling were unique, given there was no training.
In your LABORATORY/BERBERJIN R in Tokyo, the designers and craftsmen of blackmeans are full of humor and laughter.
Right before exhibitions, we are always in a tight spot, but being under this pressure and intensity, I feel like it allows us to go 180 degrees and release our minds in a totally opposite direction, leading to free and innovative state. For example, there was a season called “BRAND NEW TRIBE”, where we couldn’t decide on the best accessory to attach to a design. In the end, since “TRIBE” was the theme, we just picked up a rock on the side of the street, wrapped it in leather and hung it from the belt as the finalized design! If we focus on fashion or a “cool” aspect too much, we tend to forget to enjoy the process. Since we like doing this, it is important we enjoy at all times.
For the prints on thrifted clothing available at LABORATORY/BERBERJIN R, you take on a similar approach?
Yes, I hope people can sense the fun atmosphere right up to the display at the store of blackmeans products.
With all that being said, is there something that makes you think, “blackmeans has to say true to its philosophy?”
I want to make sure that whoever wears blackmeans clothing doesn’t visually get sucked into crowd, even though it is only natural that some prefer fashion that blends into the crowd as a lot of society is built like that. It would be ideal if both blackmeans clothing and minimal fashion can feed off each other.
Mr. Komatsu, you have experienced working for designer brands. Recently there are designer brands that avoid the fashion weeks/seasons and do their own show. How do you see this and structure of fashion as a whole?
About 10 years ago, before I started blackmeans, the stores of Paris and the fashion industry resisted street culture like hip-hop. But today, it is mainstream. Through the flow of time, I’ve seen cultures accumulate power and demolish the old systems many times. I find that moment extremely exhilarating. However, I also admire Paris for being the center of fashion and history. Twice a year, new products are born and at the same time, something that was new six months ago becomes a thing of the past. I personally think whoever came up with the idea that the newest is the most valuable is incredible. It is fascinating that every year, fashion brands fight on the same grounds, and at the same time, I expect something out of that, something revolutionary. In my life, the “punk” I met at the age of 12 was revolutionary, but given that punk culture was born from revolution, I must have sensed its vibe. I’m constantly on the lookout for something that gives me such an impact, and if that is something more beautiful than punk, then I sure do want to meet it.