Leo Yoshida is the Director of Porter Classic, one of Tokyo’s premier boutique fashion enterprises. He has inherited a tradition of fashion and design that is three generations deep. In our interview he shares his current ideas and reflects upon the background of factors and forces that influenced him. Many thanks to Leo for being the inaugural interview for Drift.
Tell me a story about a time in your life when you really achieved the highest quality? What happened?
It took place about October, 2007. It was when I went to the big island of Hawaii to check on the film shoot about my book. I had written a book about my experience working as a projectionist at a movie theater in a small town. During that time I met a lot of Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans. One of them was Beatrice Okamoto. She was 83 years old. I was 24, and just out of college. She took care of me. We spoke both English and Japanese together, and had wonderful communication.
I kept a diary, and years later re-read it. Then I wrote a book based on it in 2006. A few months later a media production company approached me for the movie rights, and while they were shooting it I went to see the location. I had requested a certain actress, Chieko Baisho, to play Beatrice. She’s like the Meryl Streep of Japan. She plays Tora san’s sister in the old Tora-san series. While we were casting for the film I saw her picture, and told the producers that I wanted her to play Beatrice.
When I went to the set in Hawaii, I saw that she looked exactly like Beatrice. Beatrice passed away six or seven years ago, so when I saw this lady on the set and she looked just like Beatrice, I just hugged her.
That was the best experience of quality. Better than starting a company, better than publishing a book.
To make that moment possible, there were a lot of small actions by people around me. To clarify, when I finished writing the draft of the book, I left it on my table at my house, and my father walked into my room when I was gone, and read the book without my permission. He didn’t even know I was writing. That night, he called me and said “you gotta make this happen!”
And at the exact same time there was this magazine that was covering 70 years of Yoshida luggage history, and I was photographed for the magazine. So after he read my draft he called the publisher of the magazine, and we met. I gave him the draft. He said that if the magazine becomes successful, then we could publish my draft. The magazine was the biggest selling project of the year.
“Honokaa Boy” is the title of the book and the movie. A few thousand copies came out, and by day 2 it got lost in the book shelves and didn’t really sell well.
So a friend of my father’s stocked it in a bar. First just a hundred copies, and she gradually sold it through the bar. Then she stocked a hundred more, and it went on that way.
One of the readers was from Dentsu advertising company. She give the book to a colleague who was about twenty three or twenty four years old, and the book got passed from one person to the next. Eventually Dentsu decided to make something out of the book, as they were looking for something less mainstream and different from what they were working on usually. Fuji TV and Robot also got involved.
Kuchi-komi (word of mouth) is something that my father takes seriously. He never spent much money on advertisement, and neither did my grandfather. There was always a focus on kuchi-komi.
Basically, someone passing along the book led to this experience.
How important is quality in your work? How were you taught?
Saying it in Japanese, quality is “atarimae” (of course, obvious). It has to be there. If the quality isn’t there, don’t sell it. We are interested in something that is gonna be lasting for a long time, not an immediate trend.
What we have been doing is trying to satisfy generations. That is Japanese. What my grandfather’s generation did was to make sure that he satisfied the customer, and passed it along to their children and grandchildren. That is the best business format in the long run.
My grandfather’s studio was half an hour from my house where I grew up, and every day at 3pm, which is oyatsu (snack) time in Japan, my mother had me take him hot tea and a rice cracker for a break. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to play with my friends. There was always a tension in the room. He was so into making luggage. When the tea came he would relax a bit, but seeing that every day made an impression on me, and when I grew up in high school, I would have him teach me how to make small things, like how to make a coin purse. Even later when he was old and partially paralyzed he still figured out how to sew a bag with one arm, and that focus that I saw is what made an impression on me. The luggage that he made is still there. It’s not torn apart. It even gets better as time goes by.
One more thing about my father about when we started Porter Classic. We specialize in using Kendo and Judo fabric. It’s expensive because we use sea-island cotton. It’s so expensive! But the aim is for it to be worn by generations. In every interview he says that he wants the clothing and other products to be passed along from generation to generation. We cultivate appreciation for the goods, a high level of gratification, and when it does last a long time you treat it with special care.
Also, we are not aiming for many customers. Many companies aim for volume, but we aim for a smaller number that we keep for a long time.
As a business owner, you work through people. How do you bring the respect for quality into the workspace in both the production and retail centers?
In terms of the factory side, for the luggage, we are working very closely with a factory that has been around for three generations. Their sales point is professionalism. They kind of made our crazy ideas come true, and it’s just not easy. My grandfather could use tools like a hand saw and make things by himself, but my father didn’t have that skill, so he had to find a good artisan who could make his vision come to life. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, he tried to make luggage out of flight jacket material, and he had to find people who were willing to give it a shot. It doesn’t come to life immediately. Lots of things go wrong. It’s people who don’t give up. That’s what we respect the most.
Recruiting for the shop, we let people know that it’s not like working at a department store, and we ensure that they can communicate that to customers. We don’t just place the products on the shelf. We engage with each customer about what we are all about. Our staff must be fans of the brand. The ones that stay really hang in there.
What happens if the standards are not met?
We have to look in each other’s eyes and tell the truth. When something goes wrong, we don’t sugar coat it. We yell, talk shit, and get to the core of the problem. In that kind of situation, it leads to the next possibility. When you are hiding behind something, that’s when things get screwed up. When someone is not up to the task, I just tell the truth, and I expect them to do the same for me.
Switching now to Legacy, you are the third generation in a legacy of luggage and fashion design, production and sales. How important is legacy to you?
It is a philosophy that keeps on going. It’s a strong thought that doesn’t waver. You put all your effort into the making to create something that the customer can cherish for a long time and make their life better. That legacy is passed along.
How does one create a legacy of excellence? What has worked so far in your life?
Maybe tomorrow I might answer it differently, but today what I can say is responsibility. My father felt it, and when he went through cancer and survived that is when I felt it for the first time. This was around 2005/06. He went through a cancer scare, got operation and treatment, and that is when he resigned from Yoshida company, which was started in 1935. My grandfather had passed away in 1994.
In the early eighties my father started creating these bags that weren’t really around in Japan at that time. He was making bags from denim and nylon. From the late eighties he completely took over the design department (especially in the nineties), along with his brothers. So when he went through cancer he decided that he didn’t want to be in that stressful environment, and after a year or year and a half he recovered and he got better, even emotionally. He told me that he wanted to go back to the basics and start over again, and that is when the responsibility hit me in the face. Yoshida company was too big for that, so because we were always interested in clothing, as well as luggage, and that was the turning point.
The most important point is that I never wanted to be working for Yoshida. Many of my cousins joined the company, and I was approached several times to join the company if my art efforts did not work. I do of course rely on the Porter name. My father made that a world wide name. I wanted to use the name and create something classic, and compete with Yoshida in a sense. That is the best thing for the customers quality-wise. It was too easy to just be sponsored and give us that leeway.
So Katsu (my father) and I just started out the two of us. We are in our third year and the company is growing. Some of my cousins have joined.
Katsuyuki Yoshida discusses the legacy and creativity of photography:
Does a legacy have to focus on a line of work? Or is it something else?
These two words that pop into my head is Manzoku (fulfillment/satisfaction), the other one is Gankou (stubborn/adamant). When I look at the world, and history, things that are called legacy kind of raise these two aspects.
Now let’s talk about something that often isn’t the subject of interviews on success in the fashion business: Failure, and recovery from failure. Can you tell me about a time when your design or business ideas didn’t work out? What happened?
Another philosophy I was always taught was to expect the worst case scenario, so when we come up with new projects and we want to create something we have high hopes of course, but we also know we need to improvise along the way.
Improvising is a healthy option for mistakes. My father always says, “lets say this white shirt gets stained from coffee, make that into a design. Improve on it.”
We recently introduced a project called Super Nylon. It’s our new line. We tried to dye nylon fabric. It’s actually impossible to dye nylon. That’s what we’ve been told for many years. We found a factory that is very experimental. They found a way to stabilize the dye, the color, onto nylon fabric. When we started to work on this new project, even though they succeeded in dying the nylon, it wasn’t what we wanted. It was too thin, or with spots caused by an unknown factor, but we still had to work with that, so what we did was we made the shirts and backpacks with white nylon, and then dyed it afterwards, and the outcome was always different. Two items never looked the same. We never knew what to expect. In mass production that is a failure, because the customer wants to get what they ordered.
So we had to work with what is possible. What we did was work with cotton or another fabric, and make that an essential part of the product, so the nylon was not the key part of the product. We did so much with the nylon, and eventually we still ended up using it, but in a different way than we envisioned, and we showed that it is possible to dye nylon to some extent.
What is your feeling about failure? Are you ready for more?
Absolutely, ready for more.
A company like us, a small company, we have to come up with interesting and new ideas to survive. It’s like pointing at something, and everyone says “Yeah! That’s what we want!”
What we can do is be unique.
Final question. What keeps you going?
This is another question that I might answer differently another day, but today this is what I feel. I really really love my father and my grandfather. I have a real appreciation for my grandfather. Those are the two things that keep me going.
Especially the emotion and feeling that I have for my father.
It’s like you know, if that’s what keeps me going, I wonder what happens to the brand when he passes on. I want to make sure that his message is heard.
Here’s an example that might be off the track. I always remember growing up in Shitamachi, Asakusa, with my mom as a Caucasian lady in Tokyo 30 years ago, and my dad used to wear torn jeans, and people even made fun of him. Then fifteen years later everyone in Tokyo was wearing torn jeans. I want to make sure that spirit is heard. People may not always listen now, but they will eventually.
Going back to this idea of focusing on one or two customers instead of mass market. What we are doing is not wrong, even though there are many reasons why our brand could not be supported, like the high price and sometimes radical design. It takes time, and I am willing to spend the time.
All drawings ©2013 Joan Reilly