Can you believe that it’s over four years since we first started stocking that high-class American-made outdoors garb from Battenwear? That also means that it’s over four years since we last interviewed Battenwear’s head-honcho Shinya Hasegawa.
Has anything changed since then? Has nothing changed since then? Has he just made some collaborative grocery bags with us?
We slipped into Michael Parkinson mode to find out…
First things first, what’ve you been up to today?
I woke up at 5am and drove out to Long Beach, NY for surfing. Then I went to our office in Manhattan.
We interviewed you a few years ago when we first started selling Battenwear (or Batten Sportswear, as it was known at the time). How have things changed since then (apart from the name change)?
Business and life have been pretty good. Four years ago, I started the company by myself with some help from my wife, and now we have three employees. We recently started doing a little of our own retail and added unisex sizing for the clothing, and I expanded the line in general. So, it's been busy.
It’s been busy with family too. The year our first collection was sold at stores was the same year our son was born. Now he's three, and we are going to have another baby in November.
I know it was a while ago now, but whilst we’re on the subject, why was the name changed?
We had to change it because of a trademark issue in Japan. Someone had already registered the name "Batten" for something else, which seems unfair since it's my wife's maiden name. But we had been thinking about using "Battenwear" for a while anyhow, since what we do is broader than sportswear, and had already made that the website name. I like the sound of it.
The Battenwear logo is one of the best around. What’s the story behind that?
I wanted to create a logo which expressed the outdoors theme of a brand and my two ultimate passions: hanging out in the mountains and at the ocean. So, the logo is a really simple image of mountains and ocean. At the same time, the bottom four lines also stand for battens (with the literal meaning of long pieces to secure something in place).
I know that you worked with Daiki Suzuki at Woolrich Woolen Mills, and you studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but let’s go further back… what made you want to design clothes in the first place?
To be honest, I never even dreamed I'd be a designer. My major at FIT was Marketing, which was also my major at my university in Japan. I didn't think of myself as the type of person who could do a creative job full time. I just knew I was someone who was really into clothing such as vintage sportswear and outdoor wear.
I think Daiki picked me because I knew a lot about vintage clothing and had similar tastes to him. And then he showed me how to start creating my own designs.
Your designs are full of interesting details, like the zips down the sides of those Garage shirts, or the extra panels under the arms on the Reach Up Sweatshirt. Where do you get these ideas from?
Those kind of ideas came from a lot of different things. Sometimes they come from vintage clothing details, or sometimes I'll create the idea based on my own experience and technical needs for clothing.
Which Battenwear item are you most proud of?
Honestly, I'm proud of all products we make. Sometimes, an item will have a flaw that needs to be updated for a future season, but even those items are great because they're part of the history of what we're doing. If a customer encounters a serious problem (like a faulty snap or whatever), we always do our best to fix it for them. And we take suggestions for other kinds of improvement very seriously. It's a good opportunity for us to learn more about the clothes and what details are necessary for everyday wear.
I also wear Battenwear almost daily, and learn a lot about its strengths and room for improvement. Maybe the one item that I think I've now finally perfected, at least in terms of pattern, is the Packable Anorak. Oh, and the Warm Up Fleece. But maybe now someone will read this and write some suggestions to me, and I'll keep working on them.
I know a lot of designers can tend to be hoarders, and often have massive collections hidden away in storage to take inspiration from. Are you one of these hoarders?
Yes, maybe I am a hoarder. I tend to collect things other people don't pay attention to, like hangtags, labels, and catalogs. Most people might think of those things as something to glance at and then put in the trash, but sometimes you can find unique ideas from those things. My desk is always messy, and my employees have trouble knowing whether they should throw things left around the office away or not. The same thing happens at my home — this is a source of an ongoing argument with my wife, so we've had to make a deal where I keep most stuff I hoard at the office.
What do you look at for inspiration?
It's never one thing in particular. It can be books, things I encounter in my travels, movies, and people in the street and on the subway.
You’ve made some exclusive bags for us. What’s the story with these?
A couple of seasons ago, we started making packable totes for the wholesale buyers who came to our showroom. We used fabric leftover from past seasons, and these were like give away thank yous to the people who came to see our collections. The idea was that during market, you're always picking up materials at tradeshows and showrooms, so it's nice to have an extra bag that you can pull out to store things (or pack up and put away when you don't need it).
It turned out that a lot of the buyers really liked them and kept using them. They asked us for colors they saw other buyers had received. One buyer told me that she thought this type of bag would do really well with her customers, so we made some improvements on the design and picked some new fabric and started selling them.
Your team at Oi Polloi apparently really liked them too, so we decided to make a special version for you.
I really, really like how the Oi Polloi Packable Tote turned out, actually. I had one made for me, and I've been using it a lot.
You spend a lot of time surfing. How does this affect your clothing? Have any of your designs came about specifically with surfing in mind?
Actually I not only spend a lot of time surfing, but also watching surfing movies from the 1960's onwards. Maybe I got influence from all these things. And when I am in the water, I can make my mind calm. The environment of the moment and the memory of various experiences mix all together in my mind, and finally unique ideas come to me.
Who else is involved in Battenwear? And whereabouts is the stuff made?
Basically, I design all the items and direct the brand. And there is a product development manager who makes samples, a production manager who gets everything made to our specifications in bulk, and a sales manager/operations guy who makes sure we have good customer support infrastructure in place. My wife takes care of finance, PR and HR.
Those are the basic categories of jobs, but everyone does a little bit of everything and pitches in on things that have nothing to do with their own main role but help the company. And we have interns. Compared to when we started, lots of people are involved in Battenwear. I really, really respect all of them.
Most of our items are made within a three block radius of our office in Manhattan's Garment District. This is great because it means we can keep an eye on their construction on a daily basis to make sure they're exactly how we want. We also make some accessories and knits in other US states, basically because the Garment District does not have facilities that can handle that kind of stuff.
Starting with Spring/Summer 2016, we're making a few items in Canada at a great factory I've spent a lot of time getting to know over the past year. Basically, we keep looking for places that can make really high quality items with all the details that go into Battenwear, while still trying to keep everything as close to us as possible to support local garment industry communities and to make sure we're aware of the working conditions our items are made under, etc. We also feel it's important to cut down on the transit distance for production (as much as is possible in this day and age, at least) for practical and environmental reasons.
How important is it to you that Battenwear stuff is made in the U.S.A.?
When I was high school student, I was very into ‘made in the USA’ products such as work wear and sports/outdoor clothing. It has a really unique quality — a very function before form kind of feeling that, maybe counter-intuitively, has a stronger sense of style. So I wanted to produce clothing with the same vibe that I saw when I was a teenager.
These are not technically perfect items and to be honest, you get a more ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’ feel with clothes made in great quantities in China or similar mass production places, but they are clothes with a lot of soul and character.
They're clothes that change and develop in interesting ways the more you use them, rather than starting off perfect and then getting more and more old, until you have to throw them out. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that if I make things here, I can make them in a more old-fashioned way, using hand drawings and spending a lot of time with the sewers showing them the aesthetic and quality I'm looking for.
For me, that's the most interesting reason for sticking with "made in the USA," even when it's a lot more expensive and sometimes harder to make stuff here.
I’ve never surfed before. Have you got any good tips for a novice like me?
Just be patient — at the beginning, it is not fun at all. You become like a piece of clothing thrown into a laundry machine. But if you keep doing it over and over again, you will start to see something — that is the moment you will find the reason for surfing. And then, you cannot quit.
Ha yeah I definitely don’t think I’d be too graceful. Right, I think I’ve pretty much ran out of questions here, one last one though… considering you’re based in New York, your clothes have a definite outdoors slant. Can you recommend any good ‘country retreat’ day trips from New York City?
My family goes hiking in a couple of nature preserves not too far from the city, like up north near Westchester or out on Shelter Island in Long Island, or various places in New Jersey. It depends on the time of year, which one we go to. We're planning to go apple picking soon just north of the city, once the leaves start to change.
See the Battenwear stuff here
Photo by JIMA