Mastermind Japan or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Soil the Legacy

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There have always been certain brands which carry a certain air of superiority. Often it’s the ones that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience in person. A bit like that story about John Peel never meeting the bands he loved out of fear it would spoil the magic image he’d created of them, sometimes your favourite label is one you’ve only ever encountered on the pages of a magazine or through a screen.

The other thing that creates this effect, obviously, is price. It’s basically what luxury brands trade on; we’re the most expensive and hardest to acquire, ergo we are the best. It’s this which informs Chanel’s policy of never holding sales or discounting its products in duty-free, for example; our product is this price for a reason, and if you want it, you will pay that much. Likewise with Hiroki Nakamura’s visvim. Certainly the brand’s mythology of pursuing the apex of quality and traditional production is part of the reason Nakamura’s label is so coveted in both the streetwear and menswear worlds, but if you don’t think its hype also comes down to the fact that it’s straight-up fucking expensive, then I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask you to sit down, Nigel, because you’re smoking rocks.

The list goes on; Hermes Birkin bags and the notorious waiting list just to buy one; Goyard, whose product can only bought in person at one of their handful of global stores; Goro’s silver jewellery, each piece of which was hand-crafted by Goro Takahashi and would only be sold if a particular piece matched the customer’s personality. Though it probably can’t be correlated on a graph, there’s something to be said for the effect that price, mystique and availability (or lack thereof) have on consumer behaviour, and when you start your consumer life in the hyped up world of limited editions and instant sell-outs that is streetwear, getting hold of one of these coveted pieces can be better than any drug.

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And it’s probably this which made Masaaki Honma’s luxury label Mastermind Japan one of the most respected labels in both the streetwear and high fashion spheres. Using little more than the colour black and a skull logo, between 1999 and 2013 Honma created a label synonymous with opulence, class and unparalleled streetwear cool. At the heart of the brand’s edge was a water-tight operation that never leaked any information, absolute silence that let the clothes speak for themselves and intricate approaches to even the simplest garments resulting in truly breathtaking pieces. Oh yeah, and it was all expensive as shit, as well. Like, really fucking expensive.

That expense can probably be broken down into three segments. Firstly, Honma had a penchant for cashmere, silk, luxury leathers and things like Swarovski crystal details. Supposedly this started out in the early years when the brand was struggling so he just went all-in thinking it would be his last collection, and then stores started buying. Then there were technical aspects of the manufacture that required skilled construction. For example, t-shirts with Swarovski details would often utilise several layers of fabric to prevent them from scratching against the wearer’s skin and or becoming detached, if I’m reliably informed. This sort of attention to detail was consistent across all Mastermind product, and complex work requires skilled labour, pushing prices up. Then there’s the third reason, which is basically, “We’re expensive, fuck you.” Literally. Mastermind was the expensive streetwear brand and did it fantastically. If you saw somebody wearing Mastermind they were the streetwear equivalent of Harry Enfield’s ‘considerably richer than you’ character. Glorious, glorious bastards.

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This approach acquired the brand a considerable number of celebrity and industry endorsements as well. An obscenely expensive brand producing exclusively black clothing with some healthy servings of ostentation and completely stone-faced demeanour? Of course Karl Lagerfeld fucking loved it. With friends like that, you don’t really need to go seeking approval of people that are lucky if they can afford to buy one of your t-shirts.

Part of what I liked about Mastermind was the minimalism of it all; that Honma created such a signature aesthetic with little more than a skull logo and the colour black. I wouldn’t necessarily have worn every single piece, but a bit like when you see somebody really pulling off a Rick Owens outfit, there’s something about a 100% Mastermind ensemble that looks incredible.

Then again, I can admit that what also made Mastermind so intriguing to me probably was the extravagance. I’ve got a tendency to fall for Japanese brands above my price bracket — Visvim, White Mountaineering and Junya Watanabe to name just three — but the thing with those brands is that I could head into central London and find them in Dover Street Market, and pick them up, and feel them, and get some sort of understanding of what the product was. It breaks that first rule of mystery. I’m sure if I’d travelled to Tokyo during the brand’s operations this would have been torn down in seconds, but I didn’t, and I never got to see Mastermind product up close.

Damien Hirst, there, looking expensive as shit

Damien Hirst, there, looking expensive as shit

When Honma announced the brand’s closure in 2013, it was the icing on the cake to the whole story. Think of a fashion label that did nothing except make the most prohibitively-expensive, mysterious clothing with seemingly no regard for external forces whatsoever just shutting shop and moving on. Retiring undefeated is a rarity in fashion. Even the historic fashion houses fall in and out of favour with the trends. Mastermind had a 12-year run of success, declared they had achieved everything they wanted to do and literally disappeared. No encore, no curtain call, gone.

So why, why, why, why, why, why, over the past eighteen months or so, has the brand returned as an absolute bastardization of everything they originally seemed to represent?

It started out benign enough, the odd shoe collaboration here and there. The question didn’t go unasked even back then — ‘I thought Mastermind closed down?’ — but the releases had the air of a one-off, so nobody kicked up too much of a fuss. Then suddenly apparel collections started showing up on webstores, but not the classic Mastermind stuff. Just black tees and hoodies with big fucking skulls on it. And yeh, you might even be sitting there now going, ‘But that’s all Mastermind was anyway.’ But it really wasn’t.

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A WILD TRASH APPEARED!

Onwards it went, collab after collab, hoodies and t-shirts and jackets and sneakers, luggage and watches and fluorescent beakers (allow me, I’m feeling Seussy). And yet nobody seems to be asking the question.

So can somebody please just confirm the fact that Mastermind post-2013 is just a massive, cynical licensing deal already? Normally I’d be inclined to give props to Honma for transitioning from legitimate fashion label to a Walt Disney “can we put Mickey Mouse ears on this?” operation without any word getting out, but it’s so transparent and grotesque that it’s insulting.

EXTRA EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT, THIS IS HOT TRASH.

EXTRA EXTRA READ ALL ABOUT IT, THIS IS HOT TRASH.

Mastermind did its share of collabs back in the day, but there was some semblance of rhyme and reason; which footwear brand is Mastermind going to collaborate with? The most expensive one, duh, boom, visvim x Mastermind, that’ll be $1200 please, fuck you. Fantastic. Even collaborations with less “upper-echelon” brands like Timberland produced something in keeping with a broader aesthetic created by Mastermind’s collections.

Reassuringly expensive.

Reassuringly expensive.

But none of that exists anymore. There is no elaborate, larger-than-life hypergothic streetwear-meets-high-fashion monolith; just crap hoodies and t-shirts and brain haemorrhage-inducing collaborations, one after the other. It’s tasteless in all senses of the word.

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This is a brand that created custom Goyard products, embroidering their skull & bones logo onto iconic pieces using even more Goyard fabric. This is the obnoxious, humiliating extravagance that Mastermind represented, whether I was invited to partake in that or not. The current form that Mastermind has taken is basically another Fragment Design or Uniform Experiment, placing their emblem onto the product of other brands. The thing is, there’s something about the way Fragment Design does it which works, and in a way that you’d never want it to for Mastermind. Fragment Design is a celebration of classic design. Mastermind Japan should only ever be a celebration of one thing; Mastermind Japan.

Mastermind JAPAN was a brand of mystique, intrigue and impenetrable cool. Mastermind 2.0 is a hot dumpster fire. The product will sell out, the kids will line up, the hype for a simple skull & crossbones will endure, but it will be nothing more than a hollow imitation of the original thing. Frankly, it’s tragic.

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