The Apartment, located in Tokyo’s Kichijoji, is a shop that has had a worldwide influence in the collection of vintage THE NORTH FACE, carries vintage gear of various other outdoor brands, and revive these vintage pieces. It is a shop that anyone working in the fashion industry would pay a visit if they come to Japan, which makes it a shop that cannot be ignored when we talk about archives on a global level. We want to learn further what the owner, Takayuki Ohashi, perceives from the archive trend. In this fourth instalment we look into a brand that is at once the go to brand for backpacks while also having an interesting cultural background: JANSPORT.
--- Have you always been a fan of JANSPORT?
“As far as backpacks go, the choice I had to make when I was a high school student were to either go to Nakata Shoten and buy items from ALICE PACK, go for Abercronbie&Fitch’s Onigiri (A famous backpack made from army canvas. The name comes from the fact that its reverse triangle shape looks like a rice ball) or buy a JANSPORT. Back then, there used to be this fishing goods store at the other end of Komazawa Park. I’m not sure if it still exists, but it used to be somewhere near BOWERY KITCHEN. I would always go dig around for clothes when I was in high school, and there they were selling bags there with a mountain tag. I ended up buying it, which was probably my first encounter. The general consensus was that ‘if you need a backpack, go for JANSPORT’.”
--- As far as first impressions goes, they kind of look like they would be used by American high school kids or even younger.
“I guess that’s true. For example, if you need jeans the go-to brand is of course Levi’s®, but there’s not really any deep thought going on there; in the same way, the general idea was that JANSPORT was the standard model for American backpacks. Of course, there were also people using bags from OUTDOOR at the time, but those personally felt like they were meant for even younger people, kind of childish. JANSPORT was a brand that emerged from the kind of culture I personally loved.”
--- In other words, the kind of street culture, including things like hip-hop?
“I guess you could say that. In the period I was really into hip-hop, I also really enjoyed Backpack Rap (Note: A style of rapping where the rappers perform while wearing backpacks). These people like Black Moon, Book Camp Click. People probably have different associations when they hear Backpack Rap, but in the period that Rawkus (Note: a hip-hop music label that became famous in a really short period of time in the late nineties) was founded, I feel there was a gap between the Backpack Rappers in America and the people in Japan performing carrying backpacks. In Japan they had a kind of nerdy image, something closer to the image they had bang when Kanye West started becoming popular, but in New York the people wearing backpacks were pretty involved with groups like rack culture (shoplifting culture) and graffiti culture.
I personally loved the style of those graffiti writers with The North Face Base Camp duffel bags on their backs, so I was always walking around with those. Of course, I wasn’t really part of the rack culture, but I was always aware of JANSPORT’s backpacks as an icon of that kind of street culture. The shape has basically stayed the same over the years, so I would keep on checking out the new designs.”
--- Amazing, how different people can look at an item like a backpack and view it so differently!
“I used to be a fan of the LO LIFE culture, but after becoming an adult and looking back on all the photo’s, I realized it was less about the rack and the culture, and more about playing it safe in a collector kind of way. Everyone would be wearing those expensive POLO shirts but not carrying any backpacks on those. But when I look back on photos from my youth, like the late 80’s when everything got started into the nineties, there were a lot of photo’s of backpacks all in a line. I would wonder what that was all about, is everyone just showing off their backpacks because they’re students? At first that’s where I started thinking, but when I took another look at the time everyone was wearing pants from brands like MARITHE + FRANCOIS GIRBAUD and GUESS. So why then did I carry JANSPORT bags? The reason for that was simply that I would hear a lot of stories about them which were really interesting, and it became more and more interesting the more I looked back.”
--- I see. The deeper you dig, the more you can rediscover.
“That’s right. These groups of young people hanging around in areas like Brooklyn, they had something original about them, a kind of rack skill. As a kind of first step towards the development of that culture, they would be wearing these backpacks, and they’d be good at hiding things in between their back and their backpacks. Another thing that we’d often hear is hiding tiny 40oz bottles of Old English in the sleeves of their baggy pants, like they did in the movie KIDS. Graffiti artists would also wear army pants, and hide all kinds of stuff they had stolen inside those pants. So apparently JANSPORT was among the kind of gear people in this rack culture would wear. It’s really interesting that they had this really local rule only really known to the people in this community or a really small area to use a specific kind of fashion for this. To begin with, JANSPORT isn’t even a brand that was born in New York, so students from all over America would be using these backpacks; it was only among these people in Brooklyn that JANSPORT bag straps, often called “strings” over there, became something to be ‘hunted’ after. Especially when talking about JANSPORT strings, people would call them “Janstrings”, and there were apparently also ranks in what colour was more wanted than others. If you’d left your JANSPORT lying around in the cafeteria at lunch time, someone would definitely just steal it. Or people would threaten you into giving them your straps when walking around town. And so for some reason a kind of mysterious culture evolved where the person walking around with all their straps which they had stolen was the swaggiest. This would often come up in rap lyrics these people wrote around that time as well.
--- Oh really! That makes absolutely no sense if you’re not actually part of that culture.
“Yeah, it’s really quite strange. There’s this artist duo from Queens called Timeless Truth, and in one of his solo songs one of them, Solace, raps about “My JANSPORT strings were tying it all together”, which made absolutely no sense to me the first time I heard it. But when I looked it up, the original song was by Skyzoo and was written from a kind of nostalgic perspective towards those days. The title of the song is just that, Jansport Strings, and the CD jacket cover is also a picture of all different kinds of strings.”
“These people were really popular but they were also just kind of bad people, who would just pull weak-looking students walking around town with JANSPORT backpacks into a dark street corner and stealing their strings. Apparently that was the kind of culture that existed at the start of the nineties. It’s another reason why JANSPORT is such an interesting brand.”
--- So we hear about this model which was released this fall as a collaboration between The Apartment and JANSPORT which became really popular; this was also based on a very iconic model from the JANSPORT collection, right?
“This model is an updated version of what’s called the “Super Sack”; this model was always the most expensive model in the JANSPORT collection, and is a kind of high-end item, sampling the shape from a lot of other brands as well. After we decided to do this collaboration, I went to the main office of JANSPORT, to visit vice-president Nico, who knows a lot about the situation back then, and he was friendly enough as to tell me some things about the process this model was created. Back then, there used to be this idea of finding an abandoned school bus and cutting off parts of sheets to stick to your pants, or using the seatbelts as a strap; everyone would apparently be sewing stuff together. That was back in the late seventies, and the bags that were made like that evolved into the iconic model we know today.”
“At some point, they started remaking those for events like REI’s anniversary, or JANSPORT’s 30th anniversary. If you’d ask people what is the best model by JANSPORT, they would probably answer with the standard “Right Pack”, but the “Super Sack” is still the ultimate model within the brand, it’s something they don’t make too many of at once. I don’t think they’re being made at the moment either.”
“This is the model that was made for JANSPORT’s 30th anniversary; there were only 2000 bags made, with the serial number handwritten in each of them. The company we know as JANSPORT was started with only three people, but it was bought out somewhere along the line, and this man called Skip is the only one who stayed on until the end; the other two are Jan and Murray, who are married, and all three of them signed these bags. The signs are all handwritten; I borrowed this one from JANSPORT’s personal collection.”
--- So this is the model that became the base for this collaboration. I’ve seen the standard Super Sack before, but it’s the first time I actually get to see this model.
“I personally just really love backpacks so you can see me walking around carrying one all year round; my wife has even given me a backpack for my birthday before. I got this one for my birthday about fifteen years ago actually. The design is actually really interesting; backpacks as a general rule, especially the ones specifically designed for mountaineering are very thin horizontally and long vertically, so you can easily pass other people while walking on a narrow path. Instead, this one, as it has some elements that make it wider horizontally, can be combined really well with baggy fashion.”
--- How was it, designing an updated version of a backpack like this?
“I’m actually really satisfied with the result. When you try to buy a vintage Super Sack at the second-hand store, they are actually fairly expensive. For people who are used buying vintage wear that is fairly normal, but there’s a lot of “normal” people who can’t stand the smell that comes from the deterioration of the backside of the polyurethane leather used in these bags. When these bags get worn down the leather slowly peels off, which I always have felt is a problem with these bags. If you buy a Polo shirt, even as a vintage, the value doesn’t really drop. One of the main reasons for that I think is that they don’t really deteriorate in quality to begin with. The brand I’ve spent the most time and money collecting is The North Face, but even for this brand the deterioration of old bags is pretty bad. The lining often peels off. I personally use baking soda to wash my bags, but by doing that the frame of the bag also slowly becomes less stable, so there’s a lot of minus points there as well.
When designing the bag this time, I had decided I would at least try to get rid of the smell, so I had the idea of wedging some isolation material in between both sides. If you put in the isolation material in a “W” shape, you can keep the shape of the bag sharp, while of course also protecting what is inside, and also makes sure the lining doesn’t peel off. While making these items for this kind of collaboration, I really hoped it would get rediscovered like Polo shirts found new value in the 90’s by becoming popular amongst young people; my personal wish is for this Super Sack to become like that as well, to be rediscovered by the kids being born this year when they turn twenty or something. I think I did a pretty good job in laying the base layer for it to become like that.”
--- So the goal is to not just make an item that is popular and cool today, but to also leave behind a timeless item. Then again, that was always the core of these items, so what you’re doing is basically updating the model to be able to weather many more years, right?
“That’s right. Designing items in the nineties was really an amazing thing, and there’s a lot of great items that were designed in that period, but of course there’s elements that just weren’t made to be able to weather long years of deterioration. Even normal clothes deteriorate after about twenty years, which is probably the absolute limit, so while physically you can still wear them they still reach that limit after a set period of time. I think this was a good timing to reissue these items.”
--- I guess that’s another way you can look at the value of reissuing old items.
“Right. I’m not really sure if I’ve managed to lengthen the lifespan of the Super Sack by twenty years, but I’d be really happy if I could.”
--- This is another really rare model, isn’t it?
“This one’s a present I got when leaving the JANSPORT headquarters in America, from Scott, the man who designed this model. He told me it was a special model that inspired him a lot for this collaboration, and so he gave me this bag he had made as a sample. I’m pretty sure a lot of expensive materials went into making it. I’m not sure whether they actually plan on selling it, but it’s filled to the brim with a lot of different elements.”
--- So this is a pretty recent model?
“Yes, it is. I think there’s a lot of new and interesting possibilities hidden in there. JANSPORT is generally known as a simple rucksack that students like to use, but the brand itself has branched into a lot of different directions like mountain climbing, exploring et cetera. I think they still have a lot to offer outside of the standard town bag.”
--- Are they selling items from those different branches in Japan as well?
“Yes, they are! It’s not like they are limited editions or anything, but because the prices are slightly higher some retailers may opt to not buy them. This bag already has a lot of great reviews on websites as well outside of Japan.”
--- I see! So these may be the new vintage items we’ll be buying in the future.
“As far as colours go, I’m totally into the vintage items and colours by The North Face, but I don’t really think about those things that much. But I guess I can totally see these slightly high-end models becoming really interesting vintage items in the future.”
--- How did you start gathering JANSPORT wear?
“Because I personally provide a lot of samples to different brands for my job, I get to see a lot of different mountain jackets, but JANSPORT as a brand creates a lot of surprising items. In that way, JANSPORT jackets often use different materials in one jacket which make them really interesting to show off as well. They started from backpacks and tried to use the same process of creation for normal clothes, which means that as far as function goes, there’s a lot of details like those around the snap button at the base of the throat that aren’t really necessary. They combine various materials and there’s a lot of elements that are draped which isn’t necessary in any design kind of way. They just continued on the same way as they’d always been making bags.”
“For example, you have some backpacks that have some parts that were extended to serve a different function, right? They use the same methodology as for the bags here. These days fishing vests are fairly popular; sometimes people say they’re almost like you’re walking around wearing a bag. But for JANSPORT, they’re literally creating these vests with the same mentality as making bags, which for obvious reasons works really well. The clothes are interesting as objects in themselves, but also teach us lessons in creation. JANSPORT also makes really interesting bodywear. They have items like college sweat shirts and T-shirts, which are interesting too. Something like the kind of body wear Lee used to make in the nineties. Really thick and filled in. When looking for Rep Tee items from the nineties, finding Lee body wear makes me really happy.”
--- JANSPORT items as second hand clothes aren’t that valuable yet, right?
“No, they’re practically worthless! That’s what makes them great. It’s hard to make out when exactly they were made, but looking at the colours you can tell they were made in the nineties, probably the earlier half. I bet you can find some interesting pieces if you decide to look.”
--- Finally, what do you think is so interesting about JANSPORT as a whole?
“Think for example when you buy a watch for the first time; first you’d go for a TIMEX or a G-SHOCK, at some point in time you go up one level to a ROLEX Submariner or the like, and after that you may move on to a Paul Newman. There’s several levels of watches and you can upgrade your watch to a higher price level. That by itself is fairly interesting as well, but sometimes people in America who have a certain level of income and status still decide to wear a G-SHOCK or TIMEX, which are generally seen as the “introductory level”, which I personally find really interesting. The same goes for backpacks; if you want to continue into the high-level brands or real outdoor brands, you can do that as well, the possibilities are endless. So for me it’s really interesting that, as one choice, adults with a certain social status and income can still decide to wear JANSPORT or similar backpacks. The same, of course, goes for items from VANS or CONVERSE. So if more and more people recognize JANSPORT as a valid choice, the brand will slowly become a part of Japanese fashion culture. They will lay the foundation for JANSPORT as a brand that’s not just a basic item only students buy by deciding to keep on using it all their lives. I think this brand has become iconic in that way.”
Owner of the Apartment and the Apartment SOHO in Kichijoji, that proposes the fashion and lifestyle linked closely with that of New York’s culture.