Our good friends at Oi Polloi have made it their mission not just to sell good clothes, but to shine a light on the people who make them. Here’s their interview with Shinya Hasegawa, founder of Battenwear and Japanese sartorial royalty.
Ten years might not be much in the long and winding history of the universe, but in the little corner devoted roughly to clothing, coats and culture, it’s a lifetime. With information exchange at an all-time high, styles, ideas and subcultures now live and die in the blink of an eye—and whilst it’d be a bit of a slog to list everything that’s gone on in the last decade in this mere interview intro, it’s safe to say a fair bit has happened since 2012.
But that’s not to say there haven’t been a few constants to rely on—and amidst all the noise a brand called Battenwear has been quietly crafting comfortable, everyday outdoor clothing with the high level of detail often reserved for Japanese work-wear.
As the brand celebrates its tenth birthday, I talked with Shinya about his early years in Japan, his design process today and hypothetical wrestling matches…
Going right back—were clothes something you were always into?
I have been really interested in clothes and brands since I was little. My brother is six years older than me, which is a pretty big age gap for two kids sharing a tiny room. I’m sure it was annoying for him, but it was a gold mine for me. He collected Popeye Magazine and Men’s Club, and issues of both were everywhere in our room. So I was surrounded by fashion and could get into it in an organic way.
For me growing up in the north of England in the 90s, American stuff still felt exotic—and I sort of feel like there was a point where everyone wanted to be American. Was that a similar thing in Japan? What were you looking at for inspiration growing up?
America is so many different things to different people. My gut reaction is to say that I did not grow up wanting to be American, however, in the 90s when I was a college student, I listened to American music, wore American clothing, and ate American food. American culture was definitely part of my lifestyle, but I also was interested in UK culture and of course Japanese culture, and Italian culture—I wanted to take the best of each and include them in my life.
How easy was it to access this kind of stuff in Japan at that time? How did you find out about old outdoor companies or vintage sportswear back in the pre-internet age?
At first, I gathered information from my brother’s magazines. And then I started collecting catalogues. Every time I went to sporting goods stores or clothing stores I used to ask for free catalogues from Patagonia, North Face and so on.
American outdoor clothing was not cheap at the time, and my family was not wealthy, so it was a huge commitment for me to buy even one item. I studied all products and trends by reviewing the catalogues over and over—probably more than I studied my textbooks. I used to memorise all of the details of each item.
Even now, I have a strong attachment toward catalogues. For example, Patagonia catalogues have such good stories to go with their clothing and gear. By reading, I could imagine I was travelling all over the world, wearing the right things. I still have the catalogues I collected since I was a kid in Japan. And I continued collecting catalogues after moving to the USA. It irritates my wife because that’s a lot of shelf space.
Haha I know that one. Are you still collecting much these days?
I haven’t been collecting that much clothing recently. But I browse eBay often and collect other interesting stuff. Sometimes I buy floating pens—the kind of pen that if you tilt it, you’ll see a ship moving, or someone’s bathing suit falling off. They’re very stupid items but when you use them during serious meetings, you can keep yourself entertained.
A must for every meeting. You’re a big wrestling fan—and not just of the WWF variety—but of British ‘World of Sport’ wrestling too. Was this shown in Japan? And did you ever take up the artform or were you strictly a fan?
When I was a little kid in the 80s, there were two major wrestling federations in Japan. All Japan Pro-Wrestling and New Japan Pro-Wrestling. British WOS wasn’t shown in Japan, but New Japan used to have a good connection with British wrestlers, so we had the chance to see Dynamite Kid and others in the ring with Japanese wrestlers.
For me, it didn’t matter which league, I was just a fan of wrestling. That was before UFC (MMA) got popular and the violence was real. As a child, I could watch wrestling and activate my imagination. There were characters and stories—I believed that the wrestling was real, and that was a magical feeling.
Did you ever take up the artform or were you strictly a fan?
As a teenager and young man, I studied Judo and then briefly got into MMA. Now, I am back to just watching wrestling.
A safer alternative. When did you move to New York?
I moved to NY in October 2002, when I was 30, for the purpose of going to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Before that, in Tokyo, I was working for a company and wearing a suit every day—like your typical image of a Japanese businessman. I can’t explain why I moved, except to say that I got tired of coming home late in subways crowded with people in suits, and I needed to make a change for myself.
I remember when I first went to America on holiday in my early 20s I realised all my perceptions of the US that I’d developed from films and TV were sort of warped. How was moving to New York for you—did it match up with the dream?
When I was in college in Tokyo, I studied abroad in New York at a language school for a month. So, I had had a mini-New York experience then, and it became my goal to go back for more. New York City is actually kind of similar to Tokyo in some ways, and maybe that’s why I didn’t feel surprised by it. I think movies and TV can warp anything, but both cities make sense to me.
What did surprise me was the fact that I wanted to stay in NYC after finishing at FIT. Originally, I was going to be in NYC for just 2 years—this is what I told my parents and myself—but then I met my wife, started the brand and had kids. We now live in Los Angeles, which is a completely different kind of place from New York or Tokyo, but we go to both cities as often as we can.
Does it take a certain sort of person to do something like move halfway across the world? I know a lot of people have dreams of doing things like that, but it’s rare that people actually make the leap.
New York is filled with people who make that leap. I think it has to do with a person’s attitude towards change. I like change and making changes.
How did you get involved with working with clothes? I read somewhere how you basically just walked up and down the streets of New York handing out your CV.
While I was at FIT, I started looking for a part-time job in the apparel industry. I used to keep my CV in my backpack while I walked around the city almost every day after classes. And one day, when I was walking on Elizabeth St. in Nolita, I saw a guy standing with folded arms in front of a store. He was wearing zebra pattern print pants and big jewellery. I just had a feeling—I thought he must be someone. I introduced myself to Satoshi and gave him my resume, even though he said he didn’t have any open positions. Two weeks later, he called me because someone had quit suddenly. And we’ve been friends—and he’s been a mentor to me—ever since.
Before Battenwear you worked with Daiki Suzuki on Woolrich Woolen Mills. How did that come about?
Satoshi connected me to Daiki… Well, first Satoshi helped me get a job for the vintage clothing company What Comes Around Goes Around after I graduated from FIT. Then, after about two years at WCAGA, Satoshi told me that Daiki was looking for a design assistant to help him with the Woolrich Woolen Mills line.
At that point, I didn’t have any design experience. At FIT, I studied marketing. But Daiki was interested in working with someone who had a lot of vintage clothing knowledge. And he was willing to train me to make clothes. I worked with him for four years, so it was like college, and I learned as much as I could about how to make clothing in the Manhattan Garment District. It was all really hands on, physical and mental labour, and I loved it. I was really lucky to have the experience.
That kind of thing is maybe taken for granted now, but the mix of different influences at Woolen Mills during that era was fairly forward thinking.
Yes, Woolrich Woolen Mills was an interesting concept helmed first by Daiki Suzuki and then by Mark McNairy, who was also great to work with and I learned a lot from. It was such a cool international project—an Italian company, a historic American mill, a Japanese designer—and we had a lot of fun.
You started Battenwear—or Batten Sportswear as it was then known—in 2012. What made you want to start your own brand?
When Daiki’s contract with WP was finishing up, I started thinking about what was next for me. At the time, I was getting close to turning 40, and it felt like I needed to take my next big step—like quitting my job in Tokyo and entering FIT at 30 years old—I quit my job and started Battenwear in my living room in Brooklyn at 40.
I had been thinking about the idea of the brand for a while, but as I mentioned, I was still new to design, so I was nervous to take on such a big project. But my wife offered to help me run the company so I could focus on design, and we decided that we could only do our best and see what would happen. 10 years later, we’re still doing the same thing!
Nowadays it almost feels like everyone’s an outdoor expert… but not even that long ago in 2012 the idea of making a made in USA outdoor brand inspired by the glory days of outdoor and sportswear was maybe fairly niche. What were people’s reactions to it?
I started the brand in the spring of 2011, with our first collection being Spring/Summer 2012. My first concept for the brand was outdoor and surf, with an east coast perspective. I thought that would be interesting because everyone thought of the west coast as the place to surf—but of course people had been surfing in New York for almost as long. It was the same with mountain parkas which are rooted in the western states, but also have so many links with east coast gear and fashion.
I wanted to take the history of American surf and outdoor fashion vibes and mix them up for something that felt new and different. I wanted to make clothes like the ones I used to study in my old catalogues, but I wanted everything in updated fabrics and fits that were also suited to city life.
At the time, in 2011, the big trend was workwear and heritage. It had been that trend for a while, though, and fortunately most buyers and magazines were out actively looking for what would come next. Battenwear was eye-catching because it wasn’t workwear, but it was well constructed like workwear and was interesting to look at. I think what we made that first season had a nostalgia factor for some people too, because they had also grown up loving these types of clothes.
In other words, we had really good timing when we got started. Even starting from our first season, we were able to get orders from stores all over the world as well as magazine interviews and features. Ten years later, it continues to be an uphill battle because it’s still really a niche brand, but we’ve been lucky to have such support from our stores and our direct customers. Fortunately, there are enough people out there in the world who get what we do here at Battenwear that we get to continue to do it.
Speaking of early and long standing supporters, Oi Polloi has been a Battenwear stockist from that very first season, SS12, and an old Pica Post had one of our first features! It’s a real pleasure to be able to work with you all for 10 years and counting!
It’s crazy it’s been that long. To celebrate the anniversary you let Daiki and Takeshi from Post O’Alls create some pretty unique versions of your product. Was it interesting seeing what they came up with? I imagine it was nice to see how other people approached your work.
Yes, it was very interesting to work with them for the project. I worked with each of them in a different way based on their style. I asked Daiki to take a few Battenwear items and change them to reflect his own style. Since I used to assist Daiki with design, this was a nostalgic moment for me, receiving his hand drawings and taking them to my team to start making the collaboration items.
For Takeshi, I asked him whether we could take a few Post Overalls items and change them to reflect Battenwear’s style. I know Takeshi is super picky about the way to produce workwear, and he has to be the one to choose everything from the quality of the thread to the type of sewing machine. I didn’t want to step on his aesthetic toes, so I sent him my design and requests and he made everything happen.
Looking at your designs there’s a definite mix of influences. Is that cross-section where the interesting stuff happens? Your designs might reference vintage pieces, but they’re not just repro jobs—they’ve got a lot more going on.
My inspiration for design comes from my daily life. I like to watch people on the street and in my travels. Public transit is my favourite place to study fashion and see what colours people are wearing. Surfing is my hobby and when I started the brand I used to surf in New York and New Jersey most regularly with trips to LA every once in a while for work or family. In this way, I could feel the many different surf culture vibes. The similarities and differences between the places I was surfing were really interesting to me and inspired my designs.
It’s the same with my experience with vintage outdoor clothing. There are similarities and differences between mountain parkas made across regions and time periods. There’s a feeling of dynamism and change that inspires me, and I like to twist all of my inspirations together. Making a copy of someone else’s work is just not fun for me.
That sort of brings me to my next question… how do you work as a designer? How does a jacket go from being an idea in your head to a real wearable item?
All of my designs start with a wish. I have a lot of old outdoor items and I have been wearing all of them for so many years, all the time thinking “why didn’t they put a pocket here?” or “wouldn’t it be better for travel if it was packable?” Then I draw what I want, send it to my patternmaker, and make samples of it until I get the item that I want to wear.
I like how with Battenwear a lot of the core designs have been around for a while now, but they change and shift a little every season. How has something like the Shell Parka, which, if I remember right, has been around since the start of the brand, evolved over the last decade?
This may just be me, but I feel like most people don’t change their taste that often. Maybe you have to wear a different kind of thing for work and that means you have an additional set of tastes for suits—but the clothing that you like to wear for a hike or relaxing pretty much stays the same. I have been wearing the same clothing since I was in high school, so I wanted to make items that people could keep coming back for.
The Travel Shell Parka was the first item I made. It’s also one of my favourite items to wear. For the first three years that I made it, I improved it in small ways—I changed the fit and length, and I added pleats at the elbows so that it moved better. Ever since then, I have changed the fabric for various reasons, but otherwise I didn’t have any further edits to make.
I saw there was a good article on your site explaining your reasons for not using technical ‘waterproof’ fabrics, and how you prefer longer-lasting alternatives that might not be officially waterproof, but still do a good job of keeping the rain off. Is it easy to be blinded by technical performance sometimes? Is high-quality low-tech better in the long-term?
I am not a professional climber or a person who goes up Mt. Everest, so I don’t need high-tech clothing. I started to wear outdoor clothing when I was a high school student, and I still keep some of those pieces. Unfortunately, most of my parkas and anoraks with back-coating such as Gore-Tex are no longer in wearable condition because of the coating peeling off.
My outdoor items which have stayed in the best condition and have aged well these past 30 years of use are 60/40, 65/35 or cotton. I have spent time with them and developed personal attachment with them. Because they are part of my life and my memories I can’t throw them away—and if my kids wear these same items when they grow up, that would add so much more to my happiness. This is the type of item I want Battenwear to be.
I suppose it’s sort of like the difference between a simple mechanical camera from the 1970s or a modern camera which is impossible to fix. From what you’re saying about your life it’s almost like all of this happened kind of by accident—from staying in New York after FIT to getting the job with Daiki or starting Battenwear—has it all been a case of just going with the flow?
I think it was more like a case of being in the right place at the right time, which is different than going with the flow, because you always have to search for that place and time. I had always wanted to work in the fashion industry, which is why I went to FIT. Once I got there, I realised that it was definitely the right industry for me, but I wasn’t sure what kind of job I wanted after I was done. I did actually always want to become a designer and work on the creative side, but I did not feel ready for it, so I kept myself in the industry until I was ready. Maybe I’m just a late bloomer.
As for meeting Daiki and getting that opportunity to work with him, that was really lucky. But it was also the result of putting myself out there and making sure that I was meeting interesting people in interesting places.
That makes sense. Rounding this off now with a pretty important question—in a hypothetical situation where they were both in their prime, who’d win in a wrestling match—the British Kendo Nagasaki or the later Japanese version?
I’d hope that the Japanese Kendo Nagasaki would win. It was said that he was strongest in a real fight among all the wrestlers in his community—but who knows? Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago. That is a fantasy and fantasy is the key thing for wrestling fans.
Thanks to Shinya Hasegawa, Oi Polloi, and Sam Waller.