The Influential Force Of Hiroshi Fujiwara

Esquire questions the reclusive godfather of Japanese streetwear about his place in an entropic universe.

BY Wayne Cheong | Sep 26, 2017 | Fashion

Photographs by Ronald Leong, Styling by Eugene Lim


Everything begins with an idea.

Our Associate Fashion Editor, Eugene Lim and photographer, Ronald Leong, had this idea for the photo shoot with Hiroshi Fujiwara. Why not have the photo spread be a tour of Tokyo through Fujiwara’s eyes; to shoot him in his favourite haunts, the unseen spaces in his neck of the woods?

Then, the head office at Louis Vuitton said Fujiwara will be flying to Singapore instead. Fine, we’ll shoot him on the streets of Singapore. “Fujiwara would prefer the shoot to be in the studio. Also, he has a lunch appointment at 1PM.” No problem. Another brainstorming session, and Lim and Leong conceptualise a photo shoot based on “fragmentation”, a play on Fujiwara’s fragment design label. Something old-school, something analogue. Images will be taken by a Polaroid camera.

There’s a saying: preparation is the key to success. So, Lim and Leong are at the studio early, making sure that the lights are okay, that the outfits and the accessories from the Louis x Vuitton x fragment design collection are ready. Even make-up artist, Sha Shamsi, waits in the wings. When Fujiwara arrives, his curtain of hair parts to reveal sunglasses and the ghost of a smirk. He’s decked out in, what looked like, the varsity jacket and the jeans from the collection. He looks guarded, like he’d rather be somewhere else. It could be that the early call time is a factor for his mood.

Lim greets Fujiwara warmly and shows him the rack of outfits for the shoot. Fujiwara stops him midway. “I want to wear this jacket,” he says. And no wonder, seeing as the piece he’s wearing is specially made for him; it’s the only piece in the world with black sleeves. There will be no outfit changes for photo shoot. Something in Lim’s eyes dies. There’s another saying that describes this perfectly.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men…”

Cotton vasity jacket, cotton denim jeans and canvas bag, all by Louis Vuitton x fragment design

As you read this, some of you might be swayed to purchase a piece from the Louis Vuitton x fragment design collection. Alas, it was launched in Singapore back in April and it’s sold out, with some of the items appearing on resale sites like Carousell and Grailed. This Louis Vuitton x fragment design collection will go the way of relics. Evidence of it ever existing will adorn the bodies of deep-pocketed fashionistas and appear in lookbooks.

It’s not hard to see why this collection is popular. The previous Louis Vuitton x fragment design collaboration in 2016 focused solely on bags and was created only for the Japanese market. In Fujiwara’s own words, it was just “adding the logo to existing [LV] pieces”. This time, the second collection is inspired by the Ivy League, with a more extensive range that includes backpacks and the Cabas tote bag as well as ready-to-wear—a letterman jacket, a cardigan, a Boy Scout shirt and shorts.

Fujiwara cites the Cabas tote bag as his favourite from the collection. In an interview with Highsnobiety, he further elaborated: “I was very inspired by the dust bag, which is a protective covering for Louis Vuitton bags. I always wondered what you could do with the bag because it is quite quirky and useful.”

Caught in the perfect storm where streetwear is now mentioned in the same breath as high fashion, the Louis Vuitton x fragment design collab was a project fostered by a mutual friendship. Kim Jones, Artistic Director of Men’s collection, got to know Fujiwara back in the ’90s when the former worked at a London distribution company called Gimme5. “I remember Kim,” Fujiwara says, “as a boy who liked fashion. He liked GOODENOUGH, then left to work for dunhill and Umbro.” Fujiwara witnessed the trajectory of Jones’ career until his move to Louis Vuitton.

Jones wanted to do something unexpected for the fashion house’s next collection. He opted for something more youthful and thought Fujiwara would be a good fit. (Jones would later collaborate with Supreme for a collection).

“We had three or four meetings about this. I know what Kim wanted to do [for the collection] and, for my part, I think I understand what you can and cannot do with a Louis Vuitton product.”

Sitting across from me, Fujiwara takes a swig from bottled water. He is hard to read; the way he hugs himself makes him look vulnerable, and yet, I know he’s anything but. He tucks his flat-ironed hair behind his ears and looks at me warily. I sound more serious than I should when I ask the next question:

Would you prefer more freedom with the collection? “I prefer if there were rules that I can work with.”

For a man who has done so much in his 50-odd years on this earth, it might come as a surprise to learn it’s all due to working with other people. His partnerships with brands include Nike, Starbucks and Porter. “I really enjoy collaborations,” Fujiwara says. “It has to be my favourite brand or product though. People always ask me to collaborate with them and, sometimes, I can do it, but other times, I don’t want to.”

His preference for a shared responsibility for projects means that he won’t put all his eggs in one basket. Unlike his contemporaries who have launched other businesses, Fujiwara has no intention of doing so himself. “I don’t want to do anything like that because I don’t want to take a risk.”

Why don’t you want to take a risk? I ask.
“Why do you want to take a risk?” Fujiwara shoots back.
Because if I don’t, I will forever be thinking, “what if...”

He seems to consider that. “If you want to make big business, you’ll need to take a risk,” Fujiwara continues. “But I’m not interested in that. If someone needs my help, I’ll do it. If a restaurant owner wants me to design something or needs me to provide some ideas, I’ll offer it, but I don’t want to own a restaurant. I don’t want a big company. I’m satisfied with my small team at fragment design. I want to do good design, to work with people. I work with Undercover, get paid; work with Louis Vuitton, get paid… that’s just the way I work.”

Fujiwara is never not working. He enjoys what he does and claims that he’s usually in bed by three or four in the morning. “But I always have a laptop with me so even when I’m in bed, I’m still connected,” Fujiwara says. He did consider retirement, but felt that he should keep doing what he’s doing. He’s afraid of the boredom that comes after retirement.

When he has free time, one of the things that he does is snowboard in the winter. It’s a hobby that started 27 years ago. It’s fun for him. As an ambassador for Burton, Fujiwara gets to test out their equipment. While he professes no preference for places to snowboard, other sources state that he often heads to Hokkaido, Hakkōda and Nagano.

When asked about his competency on the slopes, he says he can ride. An understatement. Neil Hartmann, who has documented Fujiwara’s snowboarding trips for the past 17 years says he has seen Fujiwara surf style on banks and wind lips, and pull off his best move, the “Japan grab” (one hand wraps around the front shin and grabs the toe edge between the bindings. Knees are bent, fold legs back toward the board) off any jump he hits.

He’s also a guest lecturer at Kyoto Seika University, teaching Popular Culture (British designer, Nigel Cabourn also guest lectures for the same course as well). Fujiwara prefers to “share information” with his students instead of the said method of teaching. “I don’t think I teach what I know. That’s not my style of teaching. I bring my students to a café or a room like this and talk about what we are going to do for the semester. We’ll go to an exhibition. We’ll make a ’zine and a Tumblr page.” Amazingly, Fujiwara avers that his students do not know who he is. “They are 18 years old,” he says, as though age is an excuse for ignorance.

Despite his taciturn demeanour, he’s actually approachable, but like many things, it depends on the situation. “Last week,” Fujiwara tells us, “I was in a convenience store and I was buying some food... chicken satay or something when someone came up to me with a camera. He asked if he could take a picture with me. Now, if he had waited outside and asked me when I exited the store, then yes, I would have done it. But I said, no. I’m looking at chicken now.”

Like freak lightning, Fujiwara’s response is unexpected and candid. The incredulousness of someone interrupting his mundane chicken selection draws laughter from the rest of the room. Already, it feels more freeing with the dissipating tension. Riding the crest of the moment, I lob a question at him.

What is it about interviews that you like or don’t like? 
(This gets a chuckle from Fujiwara.)

“I mean, I like them but, sometimes, they don’t work. Some interviewers already have the answers in mind and what they want is to corroborate something that they already have. And, because I’m honest, I say what I think and, sometimes, the answers don’t satisfy them.

“I prefer conversations. Conversations are better.”

Fujiwara remembers he was seven when he first heard his sister rave about pizza. At that age, he had to conceptualise the idea of pizza. There’s a tomato base. It’s smeared over flattened dough and cooked in an oven. There might be pineapples or pepperoni or green peppers for the toppings. There might not even be many toppings; it might just only be cheese.

Fujiwara hearing about pizza for the first time is like a blind man describing an elephant.

One day, she brought pizza for Fujiwara to eat. Perhaps he marvelled at the texture, or winced when he put the hot pizza into an eager mouth. “That was a new experience for me,” he says, “Those moments… I remember those kinds of moments.”

He lights up when we discuss his culinary interests. Fujiwara believes that food is the new expression of today’s youth. Food culture is the last true analogue medium where you have to make your way out to experience it.

Food features prominently on his Instagram page. There’s an image, dated April 21, of a three-by-three grid of sweets by Janice Wong, interesting swirls of colour and shapes; two of them looking like LEGO bricks, another two like 20-sided dice. There’s another of a dish of sliced spring vegetables at Tominokoji-Yamagishi. And another of a simple onigiri. While Fujiwara says that he’s more intrigued by the taste of food, Instagram makes for a poor conduit but the visuals will have to do. It’s cataloguing the ephemeral. An attempt to wrest a sliver of immortality before the dish gives way to decay and hunger.

“I think, maybe about three, four years ago, [my interest in food started],” Fujiwara says. “If I’m scheduled to go overseas, and if there’s a restaurant in that country that I want to go to, I make a reservation at that restaurant first before getting the plane tickets.”

He’s dined at Noma, Osteria Francescana, NARISAWA in Tokyo; after the interview, he’ll head off to Odette for lunch. He wants to go to South America and try the local cuisine. He had his share of terrible dishes, but he’s always chasing that “new taste”, chasing that moment like when he first tasted pizza.

Everything ends.

But before it does, it would be fitting to see the start of entropy.

Fujiwara grew up in Ise, Mie. Other than it being known for its Ise Grand Shrine, there was nothing in Ise that interested him. His sister was a window to the outside world. Having introduced him to the Beatles, and fashion and lifestyle magazines like POPEYE, Fujiwara’s interest was piqued and he knew that staying in Ise would not give him what he wanted. His parents wanted him to be a pilot or a doctor. All Fujiwara wanted was to get out.

At 18, he moved to Tokyo. He visited London for two months, hung out with Malcolm McLaren, flew over to New York and was exposed to the DJ culture over there. When he returned to Tokyo, Fujiwara started to DJ and was among the rare few to play his own record collection instead of the ones a club or a disco owned. He freelanced—remixing, producing, spinning music from his own record collection—but left the scene because he wasn’t familiar with the newer songs that were released.

And, of course, he gravitated towards fashion and design. He created his own T-shirt label, GOODENOUGH and fragment design, a design studio, and is credited with revitalising the Ura-Harajuku fashion scene. As part of the International Stüssy Tribe, Fujiwara was the only one in Tokyo repping the latest Stüssy drops. Given his connection overseas, people often deferred to his wisdom on what’s new and hip.

The years have rolled by and Fujiwara continues to be relevant to the scene, still the trendsetter, his finger ever ready on the pulse of popular culture. He jokes that “people are not supposed to know the new, cool things. Maybe I should be against new things. Me, an old guy railing at the new things coming up.”

He's older now and admits that he’s a little less creative than before but still, he keeps at it. Even after leaving the lassitude of the countryside, Fujiwara will still find him, like the rest of us, still restricted by time.

“I think it’s easier if you have a time limit, or if you’re aware there is a time limit,” Fujiwara says. “It’s easier for me, at least. I understood this concept recently.” He’s a workhorse who has lasted this long because he chose the paths of least resistance. We get a sense that he doesn’t carouse on his history, especially the period when he was living in Ise, any longer than he has to. The future is unknown and there is only the now.

Fujiwara will collaborate with the labels and the people he likes. There could be another partnership with LV. He’ll continue to dabble in music. He will take to the snow-capped peaks to snowboard. He will take pictures of the food that he eats, the images lasting long after their subject matter has been ground down by teeth and absorbed by the body. Fujiwara will maintain his usefulness as a university professor. He will converse with his students, he will be bothered in public when he least expects it. He will maintain a policy of telling the truth in all that he speaks. He will amass things, not collect them. He still will not touch a turntable. Fujiwara will appreciate the days that he’s alive for; he will take comfort in a moment most transitory. He does not care about your opinion about the things he makes or leave behind. He will live out his days as Hiroshi Fujiwara.

“I’m just an ordinary man,” Fujiwara concludes. “who did what he wanted to do. I’ve never begged for opportunities, I didn’t ask for it. It just happened.”

And after that, the end.

From left to right: First row - Cotton shirt; polymide vest; wool cardigan. Second row - Viscose shirt; cotton varsity jacket; cotton T-shirt. Third row - Canvas and leather backpack; sneaker; canvas and leather weekender bag. All by Louis Vuitton x fragment design.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, September 2017.