BEAMS: Beyond Tokyo | Takahiko Sato

Words and Photography: Lena Dystant

A rare example of hype matching achievement, retail giant Beams has dominated the Japanese market for over 40 years. With a loyal, ever-increasing army of fans at home and abroad, this unstoppable empire started life as a 21 square meter store front in Tokyo’s sub-culture heartland, Harajuku. Founder Etsuzo Shitara was part of a generation deeply obsessed with American culture and built the compact shop as a perfect replica of a UCLA dorm, an ode to West Coast college life. Flipping a passion into a wildly successful business, Beams now boasts over 150 stores, as well as numerous own-brand labels catering to skate kids and middle-aged suit wearers alike.

Beams remains at the forefront of an ever-changing retail landscape, offering a mix of both the in-demand and the totally unexpected. Blurring the lines between fashion and lifestyle from its early days and redefining the shopping experience itself, Beams’ influence is indisputable. At the heart of its popularity: the collaboration. A now-ubiquitous tool employed by luxury to high-street brands, Beams perfected the art of the joint project back in the ‘70s.

To shine a light on the company’s endless list of exclusive releases, publisher Rizzoli launched BEAMS: Beyond Tokyo, a visual retrospective of some of the brand’s most innovative and unusual partnerships. We caught up with Beams’ creative and project editor Takahiko Sato to talk about the book and doing business the Beams way.

Our founder Etsuzo Shitara basically wanted to replicate a UCLA dorm room and the idea of perfect college life. It wasn’t just about the brands like Levi’s, Champion, Nike; it was also about lifestyle, and specifically a West Coast lifestyle.

How and when did the idea for this book first come about?

Two years ago. We initially had a conversation about creating a staff-written Tokyo travel guide because we often get asked about the best places to visit. Books like the Lonely Planet guide only really cover the surface or the touristy places, so the idea was to pitch an insider’s guide to Rizzoli. They didn’t have a history of publishing travel books so instead they suggested we keep the focus on Beams. They felt that would be more interesting to their audience.

They’d already produced books for Undercover, Nigo and Fragment. They were just about to publish Sacai: A to Z and were looking for the next project. Ian Luna, the editor based in New York, had a real passion for Japanese style so he was the perfect person to get involved.

How long was the process of putting the book together?

We finished editing last summer but it took a long time to track down all the archive pieces featured. We sent an internal message to our staff to try and find missing items and that process was lengthy. In fact, there were some very early pieces that we just weren’t able to find, especially material from the pre-digital era. For example, we tried to find a shoot featuring Paul Weller who modelled for us in the early ‘80s for a store-opening shoot. No luck unfortunately.

So is there an actual Beams archive?

Not really. Image-wise, we had to shoot everything from scratch for this book.

How would you describe the format of the book?

Rizzoli were really keen to just focus on collaborations and this was actually the first book of its kind for us. For our 30th, 35th and 40th anniversaries, we created a book with Popeye magazine, so there were some Beams documents available but they were all in Japanese. This is the first in English.

The book is definitely very image-heavy but we have a few stories on Beams and its history. W. David Marx created a detailed timeline for us and helped anglicise some of the strictly Japanese terms. He’s based in Japan and is the man behind the Ametora book, one of the most well-written on the subject. He really unravels the story of Japanese style.

The first Beams store opened in 1976, what was the concept behind it?

Our founder Etsuzo Shitara basically wanted to replicate a UCLA dorm room and the idea of perfect college life. It wasn’t just about the brands like Levi’s, Champion, Nike; it was also about lifestyle, and specifically a West Coast lifestyle. That’s why the company was originally called American Life Shop Beams. They even had an authentic American mousetrap sitting in the corner of the shop.

That generation of people — including guys like the founder of United Arrows — all had a passion for American culture and the only access they had was through the American base camps, which weren’t open to the general public. When they set up stores, they had to go to America to buy stock directly and then fly everything back. This was really the first time a lot of these goods would have been available to Japanese people. The site of the original Beams Harajuku store still belongs to us, but it’s just a small corner of the one that’s there now.

What do you think is the key to the company’s longevity?

It’s as if the staff and the customers have grown together. The people who shopped at the store and the people who worked there were around the same, so there has always been a strong connection and the staff have a real understanding of what their customers want. It all started with West Coast casual style and, as the staff and customers grew up, they moved to the preppier East Coast look and so it continued and developed.

For better or worse, we’ve never had a strict business plan. Personally speaking, I’d say it’s a good thing because having a plan can sometimes slow things down. One thing that has always been crucial is that Beams listens to their staff at all levels. If you work on the shop floor and there was something you wanted to introduce, you could present your idea to management and possibly make it happen. They are the ones facing the customer; they know what they want more than anyone else. In fact all Beams staff, no matter their role, do a period on the shop floor. It works like this rather than top down and that’s very unusual with a company of this size. It’s about taking initiative and listening.

What have been the most popular collaborations?

Well, perhaps it’s not the one that sold the quickest but the most significant was Levi’s in 2013. We were the first company to have our name printed on the leather patch. For Etsuzo’s son and current president Yo Shitara, this was a huge deal on a personal level. Levi’s was one of the brands that started it all for his father in 1976.

We also created a Converse x Levi’s x Beams shoe using Cone Mills denim, which brought together two iconic American brands with this famed fabric. Collaborations are complex, especially when big corporations are involved, but we were pleased with the results. It was a long time coming.

Are Beams strongly involved with the design process when it comes to collaborations, especially multi-brand collaborations?

Yes. Obviously there are restrictions with all brands but we always get really involved. Each brand has a spine and a set of codes and for us, the first step is to understand what those codes are and how we can move within that framework. You certainly don’t want to mitigate the brand’s core. Then from there we start discussing ideas and see how they react. It is a long process and you have to keep in mind that it may not be released for a long time. It still has to be relevant once it reaches the store. Obviously we had many products for our 40th anniversary last year so that was interesting.

What’s the secret to a good collaboration?

Fashion is aspirational. Right from their youth they surrounded by it; it’s a very competitive sector so the message is everywhere. The approach isn’t just to buy but to understand where the product comes from, that is the Japanese way.

It starts with paying respect to the brand itself and understanding their history, understanding who they really are. If you’re bringing two brands together, it’s about getting the best out of both. Actually the biggest thing is not doing too much, keeping it simple. For example, the Arc’teryx bag we did last year — it’s an outdoor brand and they tend to do quite bright colours for bags. In the context of the Beams customer and their usage, we went for a more everyday colour combination, blue and black. It’s very subtle. It’s still very much an Arc’teryx product and that’s clear, but it’s about meeting the needs of the customer and then transcending their expectations.

So is it about offering the customer what they want or something entirely new?

It’s a mix of the two. It often begins with deciding what we ourselves want to own and then hoping that they’ll buy into that idea. You do have to keep proposing new concepts and pushing the boundaries though.  A lot of it is also about timing, especially when it comes to picking up and working with new designers.

What makes the retail scene so unique in Japan?

The population of Japan is around 130 million so the market is huge. The late ‘30s demographic within that is particularly large. Those are the ones who are really obsessed with fashion; they also have the money to spend and proportionately they spend more on fashion as compared to other generations. 

Fashion is aspirational. Right from their youth they surrounded by it; it’s a very competitive sector so the message is everywhere. The approach isn’t just to buy but to understand where the product comes from, that is the Japanese way. You’ll see more Scandinavian furniture in Japan than in Scandinavia and people are extremely knowledgeable about these items. Importantly, it’s not always about trends. “Outdoors” might be fashionable for some, but there are people who have and will always be interested in that world and wear those clothes for practical reasons. It’s more about lifestyle. Those activities will then be catered to by many different brands, whether it’s in fashion or not.

If you look at the Japanese media landscape, there are so many specialised magazines — from climbing to pens — each with a relatively small readership. Each specific interest is then reflected in lots and lots of stores that cater for little sub-categories, really specialised shops. That makes for a really interesting market.

Will Beams always do collaborations?

Yes, it’s interesting because in a way, collaborations have always been a part of what we do. When the stores first opened, the sizing was an issue with imported American and European clothing because of the difference in body shape in Japan. That’s not really an issue now as the gap has diminished over the generations but at the time, we had to work with manufacturers to get the sizing right for our market. So first you work on adjusting the sizing, then you slowly start suggesting new details or functions. That is really how we started off what is now known as the collaboration.

Are you shocked at the increased interest in Beams over the past decade?

Beams Plus started selling overseas around 2010 and Beams Boy opened a store in Hong Kong at about the same time. Distributors outside of Japan had more information about the brand and maybe that was part of it. But to be honest, it’s still relatively unknown in a wider sense. People in the industry and those who are into fashion know it, but it’s still comparatively small outside of Japan.

Is the plan to expand beyond Asia?

We’ve launched pop-ups in Paris and Vancouver, but we have no concrete plans as of yet. We opened the Beams Japan store in Shinjuku last year that focused on Japanese goods, shedding light on Japanese culture and giving these products a platform. We’d like to promote that overseas to educate people about what we have in Japan, so maybe that will be the way we’ll go.

Each market is so different. It’s about understanding how we’ll fit in. If the opportunity is right though we will, we’re definitely very keen. Beams is such a huge company with so many arms and so many staff members, but once you open your first store in a new market, it’s like you’re starting from scratch. You are just one store, you have to go back to the beginning.

Was creating a Japan-focused Beams store last year in Shinjuku a very deliberate move to look inwards from a company that had always looked outwards?

Yes. Obviously Fennica and Terry Ellis do quite a lot of work in this area; they’ve really pushed the craft movement forward in Japan and been involved in it for many years. They were one of the first to shed light on these makers and now everyone is doing it. Look at Muji for an example. Sometimes it takes an Englishman to remind us of what we have, rather like Bernard Leach.

The Beams Japan Shinjuku store is great because it’s exactly that: a reminder of what we have. We get lost in our busy lives and it felt like a much needed gesture. We worked with regional municipal offices when we opened the store to basically find out which areas the prefectures wanted to promote. A few months ago, we installed an onsen bath in the Shinjuku store to represent Beppu, which is famous for hot springs. We also released books on Kobe and Okinawa, alternative guides from our viewpoint as visitors.

Looking back over your history, how has online affected the way Beams operates?

It’s the same for any retailer. The focus is to make the physical stores so special — through service, product or décor, — that the customer will want to come and experience that in person. We want to make people think twice about what a physical store should be and we need to give them a reason to actually visit us. Online has made the staff more conscience that the store experience they offer has to be something special, which is a good thing.

Will bricks and mortar stores always come first?

Interestingly  AI and algorithms are actually tools to make e-commerce more like a physical store, rather than something different or new. The two can certainly co-exist happily as long as the web store complements the physical store. We speak a lot about this in the business and have seen how online can attract a new type of customer to the store, who may never have come in, and generally enrich the overall retail experience.  All our different websites are actually quite localised — for example Thailand online will be curated differently to Japan online — so it’s not a globalised thing. Beams is always about fitting into the local landscape and meeting the needs of the people wherever it lands; that applies even online.

What is the future for Beams?

One part of the vision is to push this regional focus and we’ll also carry on doing what we do with American and European goods.

As a business we try to set new values in lifestyle and set new standards. It might be with product or it might be in stores or service. We recently did a project with the online store Rakuten, where we curated a special selection of products from their huge inventory. It was the Rakuten world as we saw it. Curation is important and a big part of this idea of setting new standards.  It’s about a new way of seeing things, finding things that have yet to be discovered. That’s the way forward.

Find BEAMS "beyond TOKYO" at Rizzoli's official webstore.