Although it was founded in a small historic Japanese town, last week Kamakura Shirts opened at its spiritual home: Madison Avenue.
Why spiritual home? Because, according to the company’s marketing materials, “the Ivy League style is in our soul.” Located at 400 Madison, just one block from J. Press and four from the Brooks flagship, the small shop — which carries only shirts and a small selection of neckties— plans to supply a discriminating clientele with “the shirt that Brooks Brothers forgot how to make.”
Kamakura Shirts was founded in 1993 by 72-year-old Yoshio Sadasue, who spent the years 1966-1978 in a variety of roles at pioneering Japanese Ivy brand VAN Jacket. In a gesture only the hardest of hardcore Ivy fans would recognize, a large photo of Sadasue with VAN founder Kensuke Ishizu, the man who brought Ivy to Japan, hangs behind the cash register of the Madison Avenue store.
Sadasue takes a purist approach to shirtmaking. He makes no non-iron shirts, politely scoffing at the idea. All the shirts are made in Japan with tremendous attention to detail. Cotton thread count starts at 80, and all shirts feature natural shell buttons. “I was taught by Mr. Ishizu, who always said to pay attention to quality and details,” says Sadasue.
Basic shirts, including oxford-cloth buttondowns, are priced at a modest $79. They never go on sale, but Kamakura offers a membership club that entitles customers to one free shirt after 16 purchases.
Ivy fans will be pleased to know that Kamakura has made collar roll a priority. According to Sadasue, as Brooks Brothers, inventors of the iconic buttondown oxford, changed factories over the years the collar roll manufacturing technique was lost. “And also the company was bought by Italians,” he says, “and they don’t know buttondowns and tell the factory not to pay attention to the collar roll.”
Achieving the roll is tricky, Sadasue says, and comes down “not to the pattern, but know-how.”
For his Ivy-inspired buttondowns, Sadasue developed a special cotton-lined but unfused collar. It rolls naturally because, as is the case with any curved surface, the top layer of the collar is a slightly longer piece of material than the bottom layer, as it must travel a greater distance.
Sadasue believes his small shop can compete via word-of-mouth and because American companies today are focused mostly on cost and speed-to-market, not quality and details. “We’re making these shirts year-round,” he says, “so we don’t have to rush, and we can ask the factory technicians to do something different to make the shirts better.” Kamakura sells 700,000 shirts annually in Japan, 60 percent of which feature a buttondown collar. In the US, he anticipates that number will be 30 percent.
“We don’t plan to sell to all the men of New York,” he says, “just the 10 percent who really want this kind of high-technique shirt made as it was 30 or 40 years ago. A lot of company owners today don’t have a philosophy for making garments, which have to have an emotional part. It’s not just the physical.”
While Sadasue has taken as his mission to preserve classic Ivy details, not all Japanese companies have the same commitment. Of Onward Kashiyama, current owners of J. Press, Sadasue says the president prefers European clothing and “doesn’t even like Ivy League.”
When I suggest that perhaps Mr. Sadasue should be the owner J. Press, he laughs and says, “Yes, I think so.” — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD