‘One has to be an individual’: GQ Japan editor, 70, on bourgeois dress codes undermined, and wearing two watches
- In seersucker Thom Browne jacket and shorts, and bow tie, Masafumi Suzuki stands out on his Tokyo subway commute, and he wouldn’t have it any other way
- He talks about his love of English idiosyncrasy, wearing ties as a protest and how Virgil Abloh at LV is as revolutionary as Barack Obama in the White House
In a society in which the nail that sticks up is still too often hammered down, Masafumi Suzuki has never been afraid to stand out from the crowd.
While “salarymen” commute in their unofficial uniform of white shirt, sober suit and dark shoes, on the day we meet, Suzuki took the subway to his office in Tokyo’s Shibuya district in a smart seersucker jacket of pale blue and white stripes over a matching waistcoat and with a bow tie at his neck. The suit’s trousers end at his knees. He wears long black socks and thick soled shoes with white uppers.
It is very important to be an individual, Suzuki believes.
Now 70 years old, Suzuki has been editor-in-chief of the Japan edition of GQ magazine since January 2012. Before that he indulged his twin passions of fashion and cars at a number of publications, including as editor-in-chief of Navi and then by founding Engine magazine.
The roots of his fascination with fashion go back a long way. “It started when I was around 15, because any boy of that age with an interest in fashion was because they had a serious interest in girls,” he said.
“So I was living in central Tokyo, I was a pupil at a private school at the foot of the Tokyo Tower and this was 1964 and the first Tokyo Olympic Games,” he said. “Japan was gradually becoming internationalised – at least on the surface – and I was a very keen reader of the fashion publications of the time, the most famous of which was Men’s Club.”
The magazine was a pioneer that “opened new horizons for men’s fashion in Japan”, Suzuki tells the Post.
The look, known as “Ivy League” – after the styles adopted by students at elite east coast universities in the United States – was all the rage, as represented by Brooks Brothers.
As the 1970s dawned, European fashion – Pierre Cardin, Yves St Laurent – began to gain more of a foothold in Japan, but Suzuki says he remains primarily influenced by the Ivy League designs.
Today’s wardrobe is Thom Browne – and Suzuki admits that he’s probably one of the brand’s best customers at its Japan flagship store, in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.
“Thom Browne is much younger than me, but he has somehow resurrected the spirit of hopefulness and optimism that there was in fashion when I was 15 or 16 years old,” he said. “He has that attitude in his clothes. They are what the sporty, young, smart, well-dressed and well-bred people wore then, and he has brought that back.”
By this point in our conversation, I can no longer restrain my curiosity and have to ask why he is wearing a watch on each wrist. Suzuki smiles.
“I started doing it about 20 years ago to have balance on both hands,” he said. “When I was a car journalist and I drove a left-hand drive manual vehicle, it was important to still be able to see my watch. So I started wearing two and just continued.”
A perfectly reasonable answer, but also intriguingly idiosyncratic. I get the impression that Suzuki rather enjoys being described as idiosyncratic. He nods and replies that idiosyncrasy is “a strong feature of the English gentleman”.
“One has to be an individual,” he says. “In order to be an individual, one has to dress individually and dressing individually is required to be an individual.”
And he is optimistic that Japan’s unwritten dress codes are beginning to fade away.
“They are losing ground because of the changing lifestyles of ordinary people, changing social structures and a change in a culture which previously embraced a dress code,” he said. “There has been a typically bourgeois dress code in place in Japan since the early 20th century, but that is being undermined.
“That does not mean that a totally new dress code is on the horizon, but that the rules are fading away and we will have new dress codes that will not proclaim to be universal.
“For fashion, the name of the game used to be exclusivity, but now it has moved to inclusivity,” he said. “And I think that’s a good thing, as I would rather live in a world that is inclusive and diverse than the opposite.”
Suzuki is uncomfortable, however, with official proclamations on fashion, such as the Japanese government’s annual “Cool Biz” campaign, which promotes workplace energy conservation by dressing more casually in the office.
“I don’t like the idea of the government dictating fashion to economise on electricity,” he said.
In the editor’s letter published in Engine when the Japanese government first announced its “Cool Biz” diktat, Suzuki insisted that fashion should be all about innovation, creating something new and liberating oneself from a conservative mindset. In protest at the government policy, he decided to wear a tie – and now he never leaves home without one.
Suzuki insists upon attending the launches of designers’ new collections in Paris twice a year – he bemoans the fact that he can’t get to a city that he loves for its culture as much as its fashion more often. Virgil Abloh’s work caught his eye on his most recent visit.
The artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections since March 2018, Abloh founded the Off-White fashion house in 2013 and was named in the top 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine last year.
“His appointment to Louis Vuitton was revolutionary in the men’s fashion world,” says Suzuki, comparing it to the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American US president.
“I see him as empowering black people who have not really been accommodated into the higher ranks of many aspects of culture, fashion, society or whatever,” says Suzuki. He also says he enjoys the wryly chosen name of Abloh’s fashion house.
Asked to choose a favourite Japanese designer, he unhesitatingly names Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, saying: “They’re still both very relevant and their sales have shot up in the last few years because they’re being worn by Chinese, Korean and Western customers and they’re newly popular with millennials and ‘generation Z’ idol bands and other foreigners.”
Fashion has long been a core focus of GQ, and although traditional print media has been broadly assailed by online media, Suzuki’s title is still holding firm.
“Papers like the Yomiuri and the Asahi are losing readership, and while I would not say it’s a losing fight, I do think that it’s a constant battle about decreasing reader numbers,” he said. “In our case, readership is flat, but we take a holistic view, with print still the core of the GQ brand but supplemented by multiple platforms.
“We believe it is still important to take time because designing pages, working with photographers, page designers, editors takes a concerted effort. It’s like creating an opera or a movie.
“And we have a very strong revenue stream from advertisements, and that has been increasing ever since I became editor-in-chief.”