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Going Independent: Clutch Cafe

Going Independent: Clutch Cafe

Sitting down with Ben Chamberlain

Photo by Charlie Thomas

Clothing emporium, bastion of Japanese subcultures, iconic magazine; Clutch is many things to many people. What connects every aspect of the brand though is quality, which is immediately evident the moment you walk through its London headquarters: Clutch Cafe.

What started as a niche Japanese style mag in the ‘70s has become part of a global movement and, arguably, the home of a very particular way of dressing. The Clutch brand, and all it represents, is a sort of ode to ‘Amikaji’, or what might be defined as Americana, as seen through a Japanese lens. That means incredibly well made denim jeans, loopwheeled sweatshirts, crisp Oxford shirts and a playful sense of nostalgia.

Opened in 2018, Clutch Cafe is the brand’s flagship store, located in the heart of London. It stocks all of the above in a perfectly curated space that’s among the more enjoyable shops you’re likely to spend time in. It embodies everything that Clutch is known to be, acting as a physical representation of the magazine’s pages with racks of fine selvedge denim, rows of Cuban collar shirts and some of the best leather jackets you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

To learn more about Clutch as well as how Japan’s fascination with Americana came to be, we spoke to store manager Ben Chamberlain on a sunny day in England’s capital.

Clutch Cafe, Photo by Charlie Thomas

Why was London chosen for the first physical Clutch store?

I think for most brands, London is an obvious first choice for location because of the diverse nature of the city and styles within. London, and the United Kingdom as a whole has always been rife with subcultures, many deeply rooted in our cultural identity. ‘Heritage’ brands specifically and Japanese ‘Amikaji’ (American Casual) stye have been popular in the UK since the late 90’s, and an interest in vintage Americana predating that to the 80s.

Clutch Magazine, and sister publication Men’s File has an international following, though the United Kingdom has always been especially receptive to what the magazines had to offer. Nick Clements of Men’s File, as well as Taka Okabe, who is the director of Clutch Cafe, are both U.K. based; so that helps to have people in situ who know the market and have a handle on the local culture when opening a new business overseas.

How was the idea for a physical store developed, was it seen as a natural extension of the magazine?

The initial concept was for a bookstore and café, which quickly developed into a clothing store to utilize the relationship between the magazine and the brands we now stock. The location (on Great Portland Street), which some might see as a little ‘off the beaten track’ has allowed us to become a bit more of a destination store, which is still easily reachable, and possibly a respite from the hustle bustle of Soho and Oxford Circus. When we first received the space back in January of 2018 it was essentially a white box, with a couple of interesting features which we leaned into to create a (hopefully) interesting and immersive space. Like all good projects, it is constantly evolving: tweaking and refining what we present and how we present it.

Takashi Okabe, Brand Director | Photo by Charlie Thomas

Why is having a physical space important in the digital age?

The past few years has drastically changed the way we shop and consume. But it has revealed the necessity for a physical representation of your business, especially in retail. It offers something tangible, which not only legitimizes it, but can act as a pilgrimage to customers who wish to get the ‘full experience’, which the ease of online shipping can never totally fulfil.

Photo by Charlie Thomas

How would you describe Clutch to someone who’s not encountered it before?

Eclectic, tactile and adventurous. Or at least we try to be. I really hope that we present a welcoming and disarming collection, which you don’t have to be into vintage, or heritage or anything specific to feel like you can shop here. I believe we have something for everyone, and are able to introduce and influence our customers through the wonderful selection of brands we are lucky enough to stock.

Could you discuss the history of ‘Americana’ in Japan? How did it come about and why do you think it’s remained so popular over the years?

Oh, this is a big question. Japanese fascination with America and Americana dates back to the end of the second world war and the American occupation. This shaped the country irrevocably, as America rebuilt, modernized and molded the country into the westernized democracy we know today.

What America brought to a country devastated by the war and an impoverished, starving population was another world, and as American power and capitalism grew post war it took Japan with it. For those in Japan who had lived through the war years, American blue denim, Coca-Cola, Rock n’ Roll and a strong singular sense of individualism which America had to offer was an intoxicatingly different zeitgeist.

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Just taking denim as an example, there is nothing more ironically American than a pair of Levis 501s; the jean is emblematic of the rebellious birth of the teenager, the free spirit of the cowboy, the rock-bed of American industry: the future. It wasn’t only Japan that became infatuated with America’s post-war prowess, so did the rest of the world; but it was Japan, in it own personal quest to constantly absorb, improve and perfect which has ended up saving denim and production methods, which would have been lost to mass-produced consumer fodder and landfill-filler. The reason it has endured? I would say it is a mix of romanticism, quality, scarcity as well as the fact that we, the West, in-turn now have a fascination with Japan, looking toward it for inspiration and a glimpse of some undefined future.

Photo by Charlie Thomas

What are some of your favourite brands at the moment and why?

We have so many brands, which all bring their own nuance and purpose to the shop, it really is hard to single out only a few, as one leads you on to another and another. Currently Anatomica and all of 35 Summers is a great new addition to our line-up, the brand itself has so much history and style which perfectly bridges the gap between workwear and at the more sartorial side of menswear.

Warehouse & Co. is a prime example of Japanese Americana and ‘Amikaji’ style. Everything they produce is as faithful as possible to original examples in their endless archive. I always say to customers that Warehouse & Co. does not try to reinvent the wheel, it just makes the best and most authentic wheel.

Coherence’s in-house production produces some very fine cloths, which heighten the more sartorial side of the clothing design they offer. Kuon, in contrast is very much more streetwear based, with loose modern cuts, though their use of traditional, Japanese techniques and cloths such as sashikoi and borro, as well as dorozome (mud dying), and aizome (indigo dying) really make their products stand out.

Photo by Charlie Thomas

What are the future plans for Clutch? New stores, further expansion etc?

Currently: evolve, improve, refine and sustain what we have built up over the past 4 years. It will be our 5 year anniversary next year, which is a small milestone which we are grateful to have hit, so we will hopefully plan a few nice things for that as well as some events. No definitive plans to expand at the moment, but never say never.

Photo by Charlie Thomas
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