Satoru Tanaka

A lone wolf in Japanese designer fashion
21 August 2008
An interview with Japanese designer Satoru Tanaka
Satoru Tanaka is a lone wolf in the world of modern Japanese fashion. The 38 year-old designer has been able to quickly emerge as a talent to watch, without the help of fashion school credentials, formal design experience, elite patronage, or a “scene” of like-minded creators. His success can only be attributed to a pure excitement for his minimalist and futurist menswear collections each season, which after wowing Tokyo for five years are finally moving out to the rest of the world.

Tanaka's creative vision comes directly from his life story — a youth was spent playing guitar in punk bands, traveling around the United States to find vintage clothes, and working up the ladder from shop staff to Harajuku street-wear label owner. Although many have made the leap from "low fashion" to high fashion, Tanaka is one of the few members of Tokyo’s street fashion movement to truly bring its grassroots energy and defiant stance into high-end designer apparel.

Tanaka currently produces two lines: a sleek, challenging men’s collection line Satoru Tanaka and a new luxurious line called Politely Satoru Tanaka. The latter is sold exclusively at Tanaka’s appointment-only VIP salon in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood. In addition to these collection lines, Tanaka also acts as the Creative Director of apparel giant World’s popular young men’s brand Boycott.  

We sat down with Tanaka at his boutique to get a sense of where he has been and where he is going.

(Click on the Photo Gallery button at left to view the AW2008 collection of Politely Satoru Tanaka.)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Niigata prefecture. But at age 15, I left home and went to Tokyo. I’m 38 now, and until recently, I had never once gone back to Niigata. When I went back for the first time in 20 years, I found the scenery and nature really soothing. I realized how important it was to go back. So I travel there quite a bit now.

Did you leave Niigata because you found it un-stimulating?

Yes. When I graduated from middle school, I didn’t want to go to high school. I had a fight with my parents and left the house. I did lots of various jobs and then went to Tokyo. In Tokyo, played guitar in a punk band while working part-time jobs.

How did you get involved with fashion?

While doing music, one of my part-time jobs was at a clothing store in Koenji, and I got a lot of fashion know-how from that.

By around age 23, I finally had some money, so I went to America, and I started to sell things in Japan that I bought overseas. I would go around Los Angeles, Arizona, Utah, Denver in a van and buy used clothing.

Did you live in America for a long stretch of time or just go back and forth?

At first, I went back and forth, but that got annoying, so I rented a house and lived there for a while.

At the time, Japan was in the midst of a “vintage boom.” You could buy things for $1 in America and sell things back in Japan for ¥100,000 or ¥200,000. This was a Japan-only phenomenon for a while, but soon America caught on. When I went back the next, all the vintage stuff became way more expensive.

How did that your vintage clothing business turn into a brand?

At age 25, I was able to start my own store in Harajuku. And when I was selecting clothing for the store, I started to want to make my own clothing. So around age 27, I started my first brand S.T.A.F.

Did you have a moment when you thought, “I want to be a designer?”

Not really “I want to be a designer,” but I did want to express myself. I had been making music and writing poems for years. I liked that, and as another means of expression, I wanted to make clothes. And by chance, my involvement in fashion became a real business. I was able to ride the wave of my career. But I never especially wanted to be a “designer.”

Did you feel that you reached a limit with expression in music?

They say that rock musicians have to die by 27. I started to feel that my ideal “beautiful image” of rock musicians had come to an end around then.

Where did you get those tattoos?

In Japan, around age 19. I was really into rockabilly and psychobilly, Stray Cats and Brian Setzer. So I got a bunch of tattoos. That culture really got to me.

I don’t really listen to rockabilly anymore. Once in a while I will put records on and reminisce.  

I do think it’s interesting though that I have embraced lots of different culture. I have these tattoos, but what I do now is totally different. Back when I got them, I had a regent haircut and thought I would always be rockabilly — even when I was older. People change.
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