The Godfather Returns

We call him Kaneko-san, but in his atelier they call him “The Godfather”. Ahead of the launch of our new Made in Japan ready-to-wear and made-to-measure programs, our head of brand, Jonathan Lobban, sat down with the man responsible for both, Kaneko Kenichi, in Hokkaido to chat style, philosophy and culture.

JONATHAN LOBBAN: Kaneko-san, it’s such a pleasure being here in Otaru with you.

KANEKO KENICHI: I am so happy to welcome you and Matt-san and see your smiling faces and see you enjoying yourselves.

JL: We’re smiling because we’re excited to be working with you again after, what, five years? You and Matt [Jensen] go back a long way. When did you first begin working together?

KK: It was around 2007. I can’t exactly remember the first day we met. I was super nervous from beginning to end because I was having a meeting with an Australian business executive. Then, when Matt was consulting for Thom Browne in New York in 2008, he arranged for me to do Thom’s tailoring here in Japan. I remember Matt and Thom coming to Japan to see me, along with your Australian friend Josh Sparks, who was Thom’s CEO.

JL: Yes, I remember. And then Josh came back to work with M.J. Bale in 2018. He was the one who helped kickstart our carbon-neutral program and a lot of sustainability initiatives.

KK: Josh-san is a great guy. He has a vision. So, too, does Matt-san. He is always trying new things and gives many inspirations to me. When you guys started Yensen in 2009 [the brand name was changed from Yensen to M.J. Bale in February 2010], the company was small, and you started by selling made-to-measure suits to customers. Then Matt gradually expanded the business. He approached me every time he needed something, and I was happy to see M.J. Bale’s growth as if it had happened to me.

JL: You’re making ready-to-wear suits and coats again for us here in Otaru, as well as our new Made in Japan made-to-measure program. What makes this Otaru atelier so special?

KK: I think it’s the accumulation of 50 years of experience and technical ability. As the market changes, there are times when our Otaru factory has no choice but to prioritise a higher cost in manufacturing. But what is special is that we were able to maintain our philosophy of carefully making high-quality clothes.

JL: When we were walking the streets of Otaru earlier, I was speaking to your colleague, Tamami. We were talking about your unique style, and Tamami mentioned the tailors here call you “The Godfather”. Not because you are a kind of Mafia boss; Tamami said it’s because of your “style, atmosphere and feeling”. That’s a lovely compliment and very true.

KK: [Laughs] Thank you, Jonathan, but I don’t think of myself as a stylish or fashionable person.


JL: Politely disagree, Kaneko. When was the first time you remember taking a serious interest in clothes and style?

KK: It was when I was in high school in the early 1980s. At that time in Japan, the casual style of Italian designers such as Giorgio Armani was popular, as were Japanese designer brands and the traditional Ivy League and preppy student style of the USA. I liked the Ivy look, such as the combination of navy flannel blazer, grey flannel plain trousers and penny loafers. After that, I went to a fashion school and learnt pattern making and sewing, which led me to prefer a more classic British suiting style.

JL: Tamami mentioned your style inspiration was a Hollywood actor from the 1920s and 1930s called Warren Williams. Is that right?

KK: Yes, I have been watching old movies since I was a fashion school student. Whenever a movie with cool clothing style was shown on TV, I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over again. My favourite films were Lady for a Day [with Williams] Rebecca, It Happened One Night, The Third Man, Casablanca, and The Benny Goodman Story.

JL: It’s interesting that all these films were made in the 1930s and 1940s. Is that your favourite period for men’s style?

KK: Yes, I like the atmosphere of the 1930s and 1940s. I like moreso the style of that era than just the clothes themselves. It was the movies, music, arts, architecture, and culture — everything was unified as one culture. That era felt like it had a sense of unity. I have two Esquire magazines published in 1939. Looking at them now, I feel that men of that era found orthodox clothing to be beautiful and showed it. Its beauty has not faded, even now. I guess you could call it ‘classic’. I have a longing for such a world. On the other hand, if you try to bring the clothes from back then into the real life of Tokyo, it’s obviously weird, and it might end up looking like cosplay. Exactly recreating clothes from the 1930s and wearing them is nothing more than creating a replica of a person from the 1930s. I want to recreate the classical style for a new generation in a modern way because ‘old-school’ becomes out of date.

JL: Do you have any ‘rules’ of style you can share with us?

KK: No, I personally don’t have any rules regarding my style. Setting rules takes away all the fun. I believe that etiquette and manners are more important than rules when it comes to clothing. My rules may be to understand manners and emphasise etiquette. I don’t like overdoing it. Shoes that are too shiny with shoe polish is not my style. Too much is like too little. I always struggle with this delicate combination.

JL: For such a well-put-together gentleman, that sounds almost incongruous.

KK: For me, the basic principle is to take good care of my belongings, such as suits, shirts, shoes, and then consider the situation, the person I am with, and then try to harmonise my clothing and attitude.

JL: I want to ask you about a couple of other Japanese concepts that are very interesting. There was a book published a few years ago about Ikigai, which from what I understand is a kind of playbook for a fulfilled life.

KK: I didn’t know that Ikigai is now used in the English world! Hmmm — the image I have in my head of Ikigai is this: “Something that brings value to me or to my life with a time axis.”

JL: Please explain?

KK: Well, for example, Ikigai is the growth of your child. It is the effort to achieve a certain goal. These are ‘values’ that each person has. Either way, it means doing something according to your values that brings you happiness. These values often create a good state of mind and lead to good behaviours.

JL: What about Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken ceramic or pottery with gold and lacquer to make the new version more interesting and beautiful than the original?

KK: Kintsugi! [Laughs] How do you know about kintsugi? Why do you like it?

JL: I remember seeing it somewhere years ago, and it stayed with me. I like it because it reminds me of a line from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

KK: [Points to his heart]

JL: Yes, the heart. Like, life breaks us. We have all experienced it. But I like the idea that the heart, after pain or trauma, can be put back together. And be put back together more beautiful and interesting because of what happened, rather than in spite of it. Kintsugi seems like a metaphor for personal evolution and redemption.

KK: Each person suffers emotional scars during their lives. However, by overcoming that pain, you can take yourself to greater heights. Such experiences are not failures that should be hidden but are a kind of training in life that will deepen your humanity. People who train a lot are stronger! I also think the power of the concept of kintsugi is that it brings philosophical awareness. It’s this sense of valuing the joy of fixing things that we use and break down. And by intentionally leaving visible traces of use, breakage and repairs, the history and life of the item stands out and becomes even more flavorful. Practically speaking, I repair my old, damaged clothes and wear them. I feel that with this process, a beautiful new life is breathed into them.