Never Lost In Translation: Kobayashi-san of The Flat Head Talks
Masayoshi Kobayashi, Founder of The Flat Head Is As Well Known For His Jeans As He Is For Not Giving Interviews; Until Now
Masayoshi Kobayashi is the product of his native land, Japan. Distinguished, hard-working, consequent and polite. The epitome of the Japanese culture. As we find so often in the raw denim business, behind an exceptional brand sits a humble and intelligent man. There are no airs and graces; those surrounding him have a special sense of this man, like a rock star without the pomposity, his feet firmly on the ground.
Apart from managing The Flat Head and Real Japan Blues (R.J.B.), he also turns his attention to a wide variety of events: Miss Universe Japan and the vintage car show Super Weekend to name but a few.
Being a Japanese denim enthusiast, the opportunity to interview Masayoshi Kobayashi, the founder of The Flat Head, was a dream come true. He takes us inside one of the world’s most recognised and respected denim brands. He rarely gives interviews to western publications; we are truly honoured and grateful to have this opportunity.
Please tell us about yourself, your background, and how you started The Flat Head?
“In 1993, I opened my first clothing store in the Nagano prefecture selling used and imported; it was just 36 square metres. I travelled to the United States to buy my stock. I then cleaned and repair it if necessary, and sold it at my store. That process alone was time consuming, but it paid off. Eventually, my hard work spread via word of mouth and customers came from all over Japan.
As time went by, and I started asking myself if I could sell stock from some other Japanese denim labels? I went ahead. The more I got involved, the better I recognised that the real denim was very different in terms of quality. I saw the opportunity to create my own unique denim. Since then, I have continued producing my own denim and have been lucky to have many followers. In 1996, the brand name was finally established as THE FLAT HEAD.”
What is the meaning of raw denim to you?
“To me, raw denim means denim with starch. As you may recognise, we purposely produce our denim with that condition. Having said that, our philosophy is that our denim will only be complete when you finally wear it out. That means, when our jeans are still at the store, they are only 50% finished. On purchase you achieve another 20%. The final 30% is realised as you break them in.
In todays culture of fast fashion, we understand that this approach is not that common. We have done an obvious experiment with the 3005 denim line. We gave three pairs to three people with very different lifestyles, including myself. I work in various conditions. A co-worker of mine works at the warehouse and the last participant works as a shop keeper.
In the end, the three different jeans demonstrated vastly different fades. It proved the theory that an individual’s lifestyle informs their fades. That’s the meaning of raw denim for me; you can appreciate and created your own pair. But only from raw.”
We see strong influences from rockabilly reflected in TFH products. Where do you get your inspiration aside from the 40s and 50s rock ‘n’ roll style?
“I love American vintage and the culture from the 50s, such as rockabilly. I also like some contemporary design and architecture.
I live and work in Nagano, which is known for its nature and landscape. Because I run a fashion business, many people insist that we should be in Tokyo. To me, working in a city can be too demanding as I may be biased by trends. This could influence me and derail the focus on my individual creativity.
Thus, I am very content at where I work and live. Having substantial creative origins, that’s what matters to me the most.”
Talking about styles, how would you categorise the TFH jeans?
“In the Japanese market, The Flat Head is categorized as American Casual (in Japan we use the short term AMEKAJI).
Not only are we creating clothing, but also fun lifestyle. As part of that we regularly organise large events such as SUPER WEEKEND (a big Americana-festival full of custom cars and bikes). SUPER WEEKEND is sponsored by TFH, but the best Japanese denim brands are also present. There’s even an American style dinner too so everyone has all the more reason to dress up and enjoy themselves.”
How is a regular work day in Kobayashi-san’s life?
“My regular work day is filled up with various responsibilities. As I organise many events, planning and attending meetings is pretty usual for me. It keeps me busy and up to date. To give a few local media interviews is also common throughout the day and is essential to my job.
I may be a director, but I am also aware of the importance to demonstrate appreciation to all work done in my company. Communication with my employees and clients is essential for me. I can definitely say that a regular day for me is one of multi-tasking.”
The TFH is becoming more and more popular every year in the western market. Where are your bigger costumers based, the USA or Europe?
“We have great partners and retailers in the US, Europe, and Asia. To me, US is my second home as I’ve been there so many times. However, the Asian market and especially Thailand, is where I appreciate to be the most now.
We frequently organise marketing events there; sometimes more than 500 TFH fans ask me for an autograph; that is still a pleasant shock. Despite the high price, they are willing to share and appreciate the value of our products. I am determined to keep working hard, for a long time to come, if nothing else, simply to not let them down.”
We often find that language is a main drawback when exploring new markets. Is that something you have experienced as well?
“Yes, that’s true. To build and nurture our western markets, we often attend international trade shows. Also, as a company, we have established the overseas division for ten years with people who have global communication skills.
Thus, when it comes to the westerns market and its business, our specialist can deal with the demand punctually and rapidly. Due to a growing demand from overseas, we now also produce an exclusive line that market.”
Taking in consideration the increased demand of raw denim in the last 5 years, from markets like the US and Europe, is the TFH planning to build an online offering directed to the western market?
“We believe direct communication with our clients is the most sufficient way to grow our market. We don’t have an online platform in the pipeline. Knowing that our foreign distributor has been the source of our market expansion, we will continue to work closely to each of them.”
Real Japan Blues is still a difficult brand to find overseas. What was the criteria behind when you started R.J.B.?
“R.J.B. was conceived by asking ‘what can’t The Flat Head do?’ I found myself wanted to produce a button-down shirt that wouldn’t fit under the TFH umbrella. The shirts were an outstanding quality, but I couldn’t justify the time and energy on something that was out of step with the already established brand. So I decided to start another label that could encompass these items. That was the beginning of the R.J.B. brand.
We also run a label called GAUZE that focuses on quality men’s suits, just for the sake to have a suit to dress properly. This is something you also wouldn’t find from TFH. Therefore, all the expansion was necessary.”
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
“I spend my spare time driving my favorite car and riding motorcycles. I own a few vintage cars so my spare time is usually spent maintaining them. Alongside this I enjoy taking care of my film camera. The lens and body also need regular care and maintenance. I also play guitar and my love for this instrument has led me to produce one special model, also is named Flathead. I would love to talk about more guitars, but I will leave it for next time.”
Epilogue of the Interview
Kobayashi-san’s priority was to first settle his brand and then start the hype, not the other way around. Words can’t really describe how much he likes what he does; his passion for all things Americana and hard work keeps him motivated.
To stay afloat in the actual raw denim market is a feat, to set a path to the people who come behind you is a conquest. The Flat Head is a relatively young brand, but Kobayashi-san’s tireless efforts have positioned the brand in a very respectful podium, achieving what many newcomers are dreaming of; to become an iconic denim brand.
Photography credits: Darahkubiru, Pronto, and Planet of Doom. A special thank you goes out to Masaki Horiuchi for translating the questions to Japanese and then translating Kobayashi-san’s answers back to English.