The Man Who Brought Ivy To Japan

Since the 1960s, Japan has been an important part of the story of the Ivy League Look, and during a few dark periods the island nation has played an important role in preventing the style from possible extinction.

Anyone interested in the Ivy-Japan connection will eventually encounter the name Kensuke Ishizu — perhaps on the inside cover of the newly released “Take Ivy.” Ishizu (1911-2005) was the founder of Japanese Ivy league-inspired clothing brand VAN (officially VAN JACKET), and easily the most important figure in post-war Japanese fashion before the rise of the international avant-garde designers Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.


Kensuke Ishizu was born into a prominent family in Okayama, a large city in Western Honshu. His father ran a paper wholesaler, which he was expected to eventually take over. At a young age, Ishizu developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with Western clothing. As a teenager, he requested his mother to send him to a specific school because he liked the cut of their uniforms. Biographer Takanori Hanafusa notes that this was highly unusual for the era. Until the 1950s, interest in fashion among Japanese men was generally taboo — a taboo Ishizu was central in breaking.

After relocating to Tokyo for university in the early 1930s, Ishizu used the full extent of his family’s wealth to pull a Gatsby. He drove around the city in his own car, bought expensive British-style bespoke suits, spent his nights at dance halls, and fooled around with girlfriends in the empty second-floors of noodle shops. Ishizu started living with his girlfriend in Tokyo, a younger girl he had known from Okayama, and once they got caught, they came home at 22 and were properly married.

After Japan’s imperialist expansion into China, Ishizu got away from his family for a while to move to Tianjin. Here Ishizu helped run a traditional Western gentleman’s store called Ogawa Yoko in the Japanese concession. In 1943, however, as the war started to turn against Japan, Ogawa Yoko’s Japanese employees decided to close the store and properly enlist. Ishizu joined the navy and took charge of a munitions factory. When the Chinese army eventually showed up to liberate the city, Ishizu was thrown into jail.

He was eventually released, and Ishizu befriended the American soldiers who later controlled the city. He became particularly chummy with a first lieutenant named O’Brien who had gone to Princeton. This would be Ishizu’s first time to hear about the Ivy League, but certainly not his last.

Ishizu Launches His Career

After repatriating, Ishizu went into Japan’s burgeoning fashion industry. Thanks to his experience running Tianjin’s premier men’s store, he became a cutting-edge producer for gentleman’s shops in western Japan. He eventually started his own store called Ishizu Shoten in Osaka, and as a leading expert on contemporary foreign style, Ishizu became an advisor to the post-war’s first serious men’s fashion magazine, Men’s Club.

He eventually founded his own brand VAN JACKET in 1951, with the name lifted from a left-wing tabloid of the time called Vanguard. At first the brand sold British suits and other traditional gentleman’s apparel, but in this era of nearly universal made-to-measure, VAN suffered from a lack of interest in off-the-rack suiting.

Ishizu needed a market for his ready-to-wear, and it was in this need that he made a crucial realization: Nobody made clothing for Japan’s enormous youth population. There had been a baby boom after the war, but companies had not yet tapped into the economic potential of this giant consumer segment. At the time, kids just wore their school uniforms or somewhat garish versions of their parents’ wardrobes. Moreover, there remained a delinquent stigma to the idea that youth would spend their money on clothing (Japan in the 1950s was still rebuilding its shattered economy, mind you). Ishizu became excited about this idea of outfitting the young, but the question was: What was the right style of clothing for them?

And here is where Ishizu remembered the Ivy League. Since the mid-’50s, Japanese men’s magazines had sometimes reported on American collegiate style and a few wealthy fashion leaders had adopted its tenets, but no one had ever attempted to actually manufacture Ivy items in Japan. And at this point, where the yen/dollar exchange rate was something like 360 ¥ to the dollar (it is currently around 89), importing from actual American outfitters was totally impossible.

So VAN began to produce a full line of East Coast college style in the late 1950s, meant to be worn together in total coordination. This alone was innovative, as the industry was before divided into tie-makers, shirt-makers, pants-makers, jacket-makers and socks-makers. No one had ever attempted to make all items under a single brand. After studying Gant, Brooks Brothers and other classic brands, Ishizu was able to create extremely faithful recreations: oxford button-downs, high-water khakis, duffel coats, navy blazers with emblems, high-buttoning tweed hunting jackets, striped university scarves, and tons of madras.

VAN had a slow start with its relatively expensive Ivy gear, but in 1963, Men’s Club decided to retool the magazine to reach a younger audience. Ishizu came on board to make a big push for Ivy style to the youth — which he conveniently was also selling through VAN. The combination worked wonderfully, taking the specialist tailoring-focused title into mass market territory. And by 1964, Ivy League clothing became the cutting-edge fashion for Japanese middle-class kids. Paper shopping bags with the VAN logo became the coolest possible accessory for kids, to the point where some youth who could not afford to actually buy anything in the shop would just put VAN stickers on old rice bags to fake their patronage.

When epoch-making youth culture magazine Heibon Punch came on the scene in 1964, the editors also adopted Ivy league style as their signature look. This, of course, lead also to the “social problem” of the Miyuki-zoku. Despite that PR debacle, Ivy style was now the look for young Japanese men.

Success and Failure

VAN went on to become Japan’s leading brand in the 1960s, moving from Osaka to Tokyo’s upscale Aoyama in 1964. VAN not only advertised in the leading magazines of the day, but even sponsored a music show on TV called “VAN Music Break.” In 1965, Ishizu brought his team together with Men’s Club publisher Fujingahosha to create a photo book of actual Ivy League students. Eventually entitled “Take Ivy” after the Dave Brubeck song “Take Five,” the book served as a template that would inspire years and years of Men’s Club photo spreads of East Coast collegiate style.

Ishizu essentially acted as the godfather of men’s fashion during this decade, but interestingly, he was already a graying veteran during VAN’s peak. He was more like an accomplished bishop advising recent converts to his religion than the sexy style icons hyped in glossies today. And although he had a loyal following of young ambitious men, he was generally disliked amongst his contemporaries in the media and fashion industries. The apparel industry did not like him for changing the set rules on merchandising and avoiding planned obsolescence by going for a classic style like Ivy. The newspapers constantly trashed him for encouraging “juvenile delinquency.”

In the late 1970s, these critics were pleased to see VAN run into financial troubles. After the emergence of the counterculture, Japanese fashion inspiration moved towards laid-back West Coast American and “heavy duty” functional clothing. Ivy League style fell out of fashion among kids, and the diehard fans refused to bend it to match contemporary tastes. In 1978, VAN declared bankruptcy, and Ishizu faded into obscurity. Friends of Ishizu were concerned that Ishizu would take his own life in disgrace.

These fears were unfounded, however, and Ishizu’s almost immediately staged an impressive comeback. Thanks to the early ’80s preppy trend in the US, and the Japanese publication of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” there grew a new interest in East Coast clothing among Japanese youth. To the chagrin of the courts and prior vendors, VAN returned to business in 1981, and in 1982 fashion magazine Hot Dog Press dedicated an entire issue to Ishizu as the grandfather of American style in Japan, an issue that outsold rival magazine Popeye for the first time. And even in this era of a strong yen and therefore affordable imports from Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren and Jeffrey Banks, VAN was the standard-bearer for the Japanese Ivy look.

Or maybe not. VAN went bankrupt again in 1984. In 2000, trading company Itochu licensed the brand for a series of cheap GMS merchandise. The current VAN line — a mid-priced nostalgia line for baby boomer dads who couldn’t afford it back in the day — is based on a completely different license with no connection to the Ishizu family. Ishizu’s son Shosuke, who worked with his father throughout the brand’s history, now runs a site called the Button Down Club. Tellingly, there is no link to the current VAN brand on the site.

Legacy of Ishizu

The most striking detail about Ishizu is that his individual actions alone brought Ivy league style to Japan. Almost every famous Japanese Ivy-related project — “Take Ivy,” Men’s Club, etc. — has his fingerprints on it. Perhaps Ivy fashion would have come to Japan on its own in the deep Japanese dedication to American fashions, but it was he who had the resources to actually put affordable versions in the Japanese market right in the nascent years of the consumer market. And Ishizu also had the leadership in the industry to show youth how the style was a legitimate one worth buying into, something that remains a prerequisite for success in Japan.

Although he played up his chance meeting of First Lieutenant O’Brien in Tianjin as the initial spark, Ishizu clearly had a natural sympathy to Ivy style’s central Old Money tenets. Like Haruki Murakami, Shintaro Ishihara and Haruomi Hosono, most of Japan’s post-war cultural pioneers came from elite backgrounds, and their upbringing let them arbitrage their heightened understanding of Western values in a culture obsessed with the latest in foreign products. Kensuke Ishizu was one of the few people who could have “translated” Ivy League fashion to the Japanese, as he had lived as close of an existence to upper-crust New England families as was possible in 1930s Japan.

VAN’s success also made the fashion business a serious destination for Japan’s elite youth. Once shunned as unserious, this growing field was then able to recruit top talent from the best universities. Former Seibu Department Stores president Seiichi Mizuno, an elite Keio University graduate, told me in a 2008 interview that he originally joined Seibu solely because they had a VAN store before any of the other department stores.

When Ishizu died in 2005 at the age of 94, he had no funeral and donated his body to science. With the large number of biographies and anthologies of his lifestyle philosophy, however, Ishizu needed no public memorial. His legacy lives on with every Japanese person who wears an oxford cloth button-down. — W. DAVID MARX

16 Comments on "The Man Who Brought Ivy To Japan"

  1. Great article! I really enjoy this blog.

  2. Brilliant article.

  3. Bill Stephenson | August 31, 2010 at 4:37 am |

    Wonderful article, thank you.

    It is fascinating how Japan pulled ahead of the US in Ivy interest. This article helps in trying to understand the shift.

    In looking at the changes that have taken place in JP, after having Japanese ownership, one might conclude that the new owners don’t really care much whether JP prospers, or not. Their revenue is probably a rounding error on total enterprise revenue.

    What they wanted when they bought JP, in all likelihood, was to tell their home market that they have representation in the US Ivy market.

    Much like a jeweler in say, Cleveland buys a small jeweler in Palm Beach, so that he can advertise something like …..”Locations in Cleveland, and Palm Beach.”

    We’ll probably never know for sure, but this fine article helps.

  4. J. Press in Japan would be another great topic for Marx-san.

  5. “As a teenager, he requested his mother to send him to a specific school because he liked the cut of their uniforms.”

    sold! that’s all i needed to hear.

  6. Another detail I left out is that, as a middle schooler, Ishizu actually designed his own uniform through the tailor. He figured out exactly what the parameters were and then design around them to make sure he wouldn’t get in trouble. One thing you couldn’t have was pockets, because the Japanese authorities at this point thought that having pockets meant that kids would end up masturbating in class.

  7. “The newspapers constantly trashed him for encouraging ‘juvenile delinquency.'”

    The mind boggles.

  8. Brooklyn dwayne | September 1, 2010 at 5:50 am |

    Interesting post
    Bringing the Ivy everywhere seems like a mission nowadays!!
    I was at a “black Ivy” shooting lately in brooklyn with the guys of the brooklyn circus
    Do you guys know them?
    They are the keepers of the black ivy style!!!

  9. david, i can see why you might leave that detail out, but i must say, it’s not a surprise that school officials had their minds in some collective gutter. haha

    as for designing his own uniform, he sounds like a japanese version of max fischer from the movie “rushmore.” max might not have designed his uniform, but the school attire fetish (if you will) was there.

    thank you for the in depth look!

  10. yawn…yawn………

  11. Jeffery Scott | September 13, 2010 at 4:39 pm |

    I-S always opens new doors for us readers. Wonderful article.

  12. Arthur E. Lloyd III | January 29, 2014 at 5:21 pm |

    Does anyone know where I can obtain an original copy of Take Ivy in Japanese..?
    Art Lloyd

  13. Ezra Cornell | December 10, 2017 at 8:51 am |

    Fantastic article. Thanks for this deep dive.

  14. David, Ametora was an excellent read, and it’s great to see you back on the site! Seconding Christian’s idea, I’d love to learn more about J. Press in Japan right now.

    On a side note, clicking the link to see Take Ivy in the second paragraph takes you to a Madonna book. It didn’t feel like a prayer to see that, so maybe a new link is needed there!

  15. Tetsuya Ashizaki | July 1, 2018 at 10:21 am |

    By chance I have read about the story about Kensuke Ishizu, who has influenced so much about the clothing culture of my entire life. I was a high school boy when I found VAN shop in my town, where I bought my first white oxford BD shirts. The adration toward IVY style was shared by so many young Japanese even if they don’t know about these prestegeous universities at all because the style fitted to them nicely even if they don’t have blond hairs and long legs. I well remember Haruki Murakami, the world-renowned novelist, wore his VAN Khaki Cotton Suit with cool white sneakers like Top Sider or Jack Persel when he received the Young Japanese novelists of the Year 1979. I so much apprecate Mr. David Marx’s article about Ishizu, now have been forgotten to most of Japanese, especially among the young people who have no choice but to wear black coat and black trousers and black shoes without any guidance from stylish elderly like Ishizu. Now there are so many types of fashon styles in Japan come and go. I am so lucky to be away from them and to keep my faith in IVY style, which will not fade forever.

  16. Tatsuo Kumagai | August 7, 2021 at 8:01 pm |

    I still vividly remember my first encounter with the VAN Jacket wave in 1964. I was a 6th grader about to go on to jr. high. We all wore white button down shirts and VAN made sneakers called Server or Ladder(spelling?). I went on wear KENT Brand until I moved to the U.S. in 1975. My fashion taste hasn’t changed.

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