大衆: The Interwoven Threads of Culture, Couture, Thrift and Translation

Image by The Common-Folk

本. My friend tells me that in Chinese, this character has no standing translation of its own. One of the basic principles about Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese (CJKV) writing systems is that some characters can only signify words if attached to other characters. They are things that cannot mean anything without a semantic context. However, here this 本 was, printed bold and alone on the back of a Japanese kimono-style jacket, sitting in a Salvation Army Thrift Store in Chelsea, Manhattan. Stylized to resemble an official East Asian stamp seal, 本 spoke confidently but ultimately offered an incomprehensible message. 本, and thus the jacket, meant nothing to me.

As inexplicable as this garment initially seemed, it at least read as something more than just an unfortunate victim to culturally exploitative fast-fashion. In its own right, the jacket carried a genuine luster that said good things that 本 could not: what with the jacket’s careful and sharp tailoring and its rich, clean sheen of indigo color. Attached to the elongated kimono-style front collar are two ties and two slits to contain them. And of course, that mega, matte, beckoning, and emblazoned 本, both in spite and in all of its ambiguity, argued on behalf of this garment that it was nothing short of an unassuming but definite treasure. This treasure was priced at $7.99.

I knew nothing about the brand The Common-Folk, as printed on the jacket’s label. I knew nothing about the designer, and what their relationship to Asian culture and heritage was. Purchasing this piece would perhaps make me no better than an ignorant person getting a Chinese character tattoo. I dropped hesitancy about purchasing the jacket after finding the brand’s website. The Common-Folk, which the founder had stylized in Chinese/Japanese characters, “大衆,” was not trying to appeal to the common folk at all. Pieces from the most recent collection similar to the one I had found had a starting retail price of $245 according to its website. I purchased the jacket because it is, after all, thrift that first brought me there.

The Common-Folk creates designs that blend binaries – East and West, past and present, individuality and uniformity, artisanry and industrialization, form and flow.

Joseph Azulay is the founder, creator, and designer of The Common-Folk. Indeed inspired by Japanese traditional garments, he launched its first collection in 2016. The Common-Folk specializes in handmade and house-made denim products using textiles produced in mills directly sourced from Okayama, Japan. In a day and age when cultural inspiration usually reads as cultural exploitation, from what Azulay divulges in his feature interview with Hypebeast, I consider Azulay’s approach to his brand to be one of relatively mindful cultural conscientiousness and intentionality. I make this judgment with the authority and perspective I have as a person who belongs to an Asian culture often appropriated from, although I am not Japanese.

During a trip to Kojima, Japan’s denim capital, Azulay developed an affinity for Japanese denim. In his interview with Hypebeast, Azulay explains how Japan rose as a fashion frontrunner in creating denim after World War II. Among many of the cultural exchanges that occurred during the post-war period between the East and the West was the popularization of American pop culture and fashion among Japanese youth. Japan began importing U.S. denim in the 1950s and started producing its own denim brands in the 1960s. These brands went from emulating Western denim to completely innovating the textile’s manufacturing process. Today, Japanese denim specialists are best known for their attention to dye, quality, and aesthetics. Many of the Japanese denim factories still use the same original machines and methods that, while dated, are what make Japan’s version of denim timeless and worthy of its reputation. R&B artist Daniel Caesar released a song in 2016, “Japanese Denim”, in which he contrasts his fickle lover to the undeniably firm strength of the Japanese denim textile. Japanese denim is a product of flawless art, and yet Azulay challenges its limits.

The Common-Folk creates designs that blend binaries – East and West, past and present, individuality and uniformity, artisanry and industrialization, form and flow. The kimono jacket I found was a modern reinterpretation of the yukata, a casual summer kimono. The matching pant, which I did not find at the thrift store, was inspired by the tattsuke-hakama, a baggy work pant worn by samurais. Azulay designed the pants so that they could be cuffed like those of Japanese rice paddy farmers, but he additionally gave this detail a contemporary and humorous function to showcase socks.

[Azulay] makes a modest contribution to a greater conversation about fashion history, politics, and street culture, and he does so by listening to and engaging with the voices and stories of those who began it and knew it best.

Therefore, it is not only the utility of Japanese denim, but the story of its reappropriation and reproduction that inspired The Common-Folk to create a brand faithful to the foundations of innovative Japanese artisanal textile making in the wake of an age that seems to only promote monotonous mass production and impersonal industrialization. The Common Folk’s mission is to put the Japanese man back behind the machine. It truly celebrates the common folk.

It is evident that The Common-Folk as a brand has deeply meditated on the ways cultures, histories, and people change over time. However, it focuses on how the aspect of time is the link between those changes and how this idea can be extracted and executed in fashion. The brand’s product visuals showcase the ways Azulay has coupled ideas and images of different historical eras and fashion movements. Its models pose in front of chains, trucks, and factory buildings in the streets of Kojima, Japan, a nod to the place of muse. The backdrop of these photoshoots conveys the ways in which the urban and the industrial are independent motifs but are ultimately inseparable realms. The Common-Folk’s clothes’ dual sleekness and structure make us think of the young urbanite, loitering and loving life, or the aged samurai, wary and watchful as a sentinel. It is to say, all work and all play makes Jack a cool boy. Azulay brings the denim into 2017 fashion by using a sharp and simplistic palette of classic denim indigo, monochromes, and camouflage. Azulay’s designs are a reimagining of the traditional style that the Japanese had abandoned as a consequence of Westernization. In his interview, Azulay elaborates, “I’m trying to bring that [traditional] style back – not replicating it but celebrating its differences and bringing it into the present.” Azulay strives for this goal, as he leads consumers to consider where Japanese design has been and where it can go.

Where it went was into a Salvation Army and then into my hands. Through all of the transliteration and transformation, this story was lost in the jacket’s transplant to New York City, making its worth and value inapparent. However, the jacket had a context now. Should this not make the jacket translatable and allow 本 to speak plainly?

Azulay explains to Hypebeast that this arcane 本 is an old Japanese family emblem which he claims means “original.” However, the canonical meaning Azulay ascribes to his clothing gets lost in translation and in transaction. The product name given to the jacket by HBX, the e-commerce store run by Hypebeast, is “Osaka Indigo Yukata Kimono Jacket.” Yet, the jacket’s history and production has nothing to do with the city of Osaka. In the product description of the jacket, HBX provides its own translation for 本: “CLASSIC,” a slight deviation from the word “original,” a decision likely made to appeal to the targeted consumer youth. To harken back to my initial judgment, I consider 本 an “unfortunate victim to culturally exploitative fast-fashion.” 

But this is one crucial link between fashion and language: change. Words, tastes, and contexts change all the time. To ascribe a meaning to something is not to inherently immortalize it. One thing I like about what The Common-Folk does is that Azulay makes no grand attempt to claim Japanese clothing and culture as a fashion discovery. Rather, he makes a modest contribution to a greater conversation about fashion history, politics, and street culture, and he does so by listening to and engaging with the voices and stories of those who began it and knew it best. To where the conversation of 本 will go is indeterminable – it has clearly been up to the winds and those who choose to follow it to decide. For me, it is enough that 本 finally means something.

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