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Don’t Know About These Wild Japanese Sneakers? You Should

The Asymmetric Ghillie Sneaker from cult Japanese brand Needles represents the epitome of the brand’s ethos and is, in our eyes, a modern classic.

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Big Trouble

What makes something a classic? For literature, classics are works that become significant points of reference. A work can achieve this ascription through its universality, time testing and by extension, longevity. Classics are those that not only recognize the past but also move the goal post. Some further than others. In fashion, it’s pieces like Ray-Ban Wayfarers, Gucci Loafers and the “Little Black Dress” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s designed by Givenchy.

A “modern classic” is a bit harder to define. As literary journalist Esther Lombardi put it, it’s kind of like saying “ancient baby.” Modern classics have most of the requirements that classic-classics have — they just haven’t put in the time. You can argue which garments currently stand as modern classics or “pre classics.” While time will be the last test, I’m making an argument for this one: Needles’ Asymmetric Ghillie Sneaker. Before that, a little background on the brand.

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American manufacturing was declining in the 1990s. For Japanese shop owner Keizo Shimizu, that spelled bad news for his Tokyo-based store, Nepenthes, which imported U.S.-made fashion from brands like Ralph Lauren, New Balance, L.L. Bean and Gitman Brothers. So in 1997, Shimizu launched his own brand, Needles, as a way to supplement the store. It would be made in Japan and have the Americana influence which he (and his customers) loved, but it wouldn’t be a straightforward reproduction of the clothes he was importing.

From his interview with retailer SSENSE, Shimizu speaks on the DNA of Needles, saying that he and co-founder of Nepenthes, Daiki Suzuki, “wanted things that we couldn’t get through import; something that could be made in Japan based on items we’d seen — simple but with a little twist.”

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That little twist means everything and is what separates the Needles brand from its contemporaries, many of which also look to Americana for inspiration. Needles pulls from all corners, tossing together a fashion salad using ingredients few others would think to combine. ’70s-style satin shirts can and will be paired with track pants and wooden clogs. Patterns, textures and silhouettes are played with in nonstop experimentation. It’s militaria, Ivy, workwear, rugged and avant-garde simultaneously. Somehow, it all works. “I don’t make any rules when I design or coordinate my clothes, because ignoring rules which I’ve read in Men’s Club magazine in the past sometimes creates an interesting look,” Shimizu says. “I like a style which is a bit off-balanced in color, shape, taste, etc.”

Over twenty years on and the brand has amassed a loyal following, drawing the attention of celebrities and fashion enthusiasts alike. Items like its Rebuild Flannel Shirts, H.D. Pant, Track Suits, mohair cardigans and Miles Jacket are prime examples of Shimizu’s deft eye, but he’s especially fond of shoes. One of his earliest jobs was working for a shoe importer before running his own shop, Redwood, which also imported American-made shoes like Alden, Red Wing and Cole Haan. With Nepenthes, Shimizu was one of the first to bring shoes like Reebok and Air Jordan to Japan and even introduced Tod’s driving shoes to the country. Eventually, from his love of shoes, the Asymmetric Ghillie Sneaker was born.

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At first, the shoe isn’t so strange. They look like a classic pair of white sneakers, save the odd addition of ghillie lacing, perhaps the aforementioned little twist. But, the real twist is actually everything else.

Look closer and you’ll see that the left shoe and the right shoe aren’t quite the same. Closer than that and it’s apparent they’re not really the same shoe at all. They’re essentially two totally different shoes.

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While most retailers will be quick to point out the asymmetric toe boxes, that’s only where it starts. The etching pattern of the grips, the layering of the rubber sidewalls, the stitching at the laces and the heel counter, the finishing of the tongue and the ankle — it’s all different. That’s because each shoe is emulating a classic American sneaker, the Jack Purcell on the left and the Chuck Taylor on the right. With almost one-for-one detail, the sneakers Shimizu brings together two iconic shoes and unifies them with the one consistent detail being the ghillie lacing.

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Like both icons it culls from, it’s a core style for the brand, reprised every season in new colorways, finished with surprising techniques like tie-dye or paint splatter. As far as classical tenets, it references canonized icons thereby also speaking to its universality.

At once paying homage, the Asymmetric Ghillie Sneakers also questions these so-called classics, subverting them in a postmodern fashion by using their perceived statuses to bend and break the rules, changing the forthcoming narrative in the process. Who says your shoes need to match? Shimizu employs a wabi-sabi approach here and infuses non-Western thought into these very Western designs, illuminating ideas that were not generated in America. Or, as he put it at the outset of Needles, these are the shoes he couldn’t get through import.

The Asymmetric Ghillie Sneaker is a perfect summation of Shimizu’s aesthetic. It is weird and wonderful and just one reason why Needles is adored. Though it stands on the shoulders of sneaker forebears, its longevity remains to be seen. So is it a modern classic? We think so.

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