Upon meeting Masamichi Toyama, I was immediately struck by his outrageous signature eyeglasses (which, I discovered, were '50s deadstock frames from Germany) and clothes that were unseemly for his frame - perhaps, more suited for someone with Charlie Chaplin and Pierrot as style inspirations. As it turns out, Toyama prefers clothes that are "not balanced" and "designed with a sense of humour." His style ethos also appears to be the foundation of the three unique retail environments that he conceived of, each as diverse and distinctive as his personality and style: Soup Stock Tokyo, a modern soup kitchen; the quirky neck-tie brand, Giraffe; and, one of my favourite shops, Pass the Baton.
Out of admiration of his father and grandfather as businessmen, Toyama's business career began quite predictably. After graduating from Keio University in 1985, he settled into a traditional business career at Mitsubishi Corporation. He began working in the City Development department where he helped develop sizable plots of land into viable residential and commercial neighbourhoods. After being transferred to another Mitsubishi Corporation company, Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan, Toyama was inspired to create a business model that would challenge the perception of fast-food culture.
In 1997, he presented Mitsubishi with his business proposal for a chain of soup kitchens in cosy, stylish environments offering a healthy array of high quality, additive-free soups. As a result, in 2000, Smiles Co., Ltd was established as the first entrepreneurship business within Mitsubishi Corporation of which Toyama became President and a minority shareholder. By 2008, Toyama had acquired full ownership of Smiles. Today, Soup Stock Tokyo is a highly successful business with over 50 outlets and has established itself as an iconic Japanese brand.
Never one to follow a prescribed formula, Toyama's second business, Giraffe, was derived from his personal experience as a Japanese "salaryman." Giraffe offers vibrant wardrobe additions that update the traditional business uniform. Primarily a men's neck-tie brand, it has expanded to include shirts, women's accessories and the occasional baby onesie. There have also been limited edition collaborations that have included Tokyo-based designer Alexander Lee Chang, Japanese travel and culture publication Transit Magazine and retail giant, Isetan.
Giraffe's products are always created with a cheerful and fun theme in mind; negative themes - I'm told - are strictly forbidden. Category lines are divided by varying degrees of body temperature, from 34 to 40 degrees Celsius. The lower end of the design-thermometer includes sedate and classic pieces, while the higher temperature lines play up drama, with bolder colour options and a madcap mix of textures, patterns and unconventional trims. All products are made in Japan and are available at Giraffe's shop in Daikanyama Hillside Terrace, at Toyama's recycle shop, Pass the Baton, as well as in almost 60 stores throughout Japan and online. The brand is evolving and this fall, Giraffe will debut its sister brand, My Panda; a line that expresses "kawaii" exclusively through the use of two-tone colour-blocking - like that of a panda.
The man himself, Masamichi Toyama.
Toyama's third business, Pass The Baton, is a personal favourite. The first location opened in Tokyo in 2009 at Marunouchi Brick Square; a high-end commercial district in the city's financial centre. Wanting to create a unique concept from things already owned, rather than adding to the consumption of new products, Toyama decided to open a multi-faceted recycle shop. The shop offers retail and cultural spaces, as well as an opportunity for sellers to participate in their community by optioning their proceeds to charity.
Pass The Baton's unique retail environment is often described as a "personal culture marketplace." The shop sells vintage, used, recycled and repurposed goods, including clothing, accessories, furniture, home wares and many other items that defy categorisation. The shop also stocks one-off products created from recycled and repurposed parts, originating from companies that would not have sold them otherwise. Each item for sale is accompanied by a brief profile of the seller, along with an anecdote about the item, both of which are noted either on the hang tag or online. This informational aspect is important to Toyama because it adds a personal dimension to each piece and captures the feeling of the shop: passing on the history of an item along with the culture of its seller.
In 2010, another Pass The Baton location opened in the Omotesando Hills complex, located along Tokyo's famous shopping district of Aoyama. The Omotesando location is larger than the Marunouchi shop, visited by a younger clientele and offers a wider range of fashion and accessories. A unique feature of the Omotesando location is its two gallery areas, which have hosted 34 exhibits since the shop's opening. Fashion brands Theatre Products and Toga have presented exclusive items redesigned into "new" apparel and accessories from leftover fabric of past seasons and overstock from their archives.
One of the most memorable exhibits, however, was the Hermès collaboration titled, J'aime mon carré. The project featured previously owned classic carré silk scarves that were collected from celebrities, designers and creative figures on the Tokyo scene. The scarves were then sent to Paris to be dip-dyed by maison Hermès. The series offered a new interpretation of the classic carré scarf using traditional artisanal methods while, at the same time, adding new value to the scarves.
|Hermès exhibition at Pass The Baton.
Photograph courtesy of Pass The Baton.
The smaller, back room gallery, called "Little Pavilion," is enclosed by glass walls that exude intimacy, allowing visitors to participate like voyeurs by peeking into the closets of featured collectors, whether celebrities, artists or brands. The exhibits here offer personal items for sale, limited items created for the exhibit and items from the shop. Exhibits in this intimate space have included Japanese stylist Takashi Kumagai, who created a beachy and outdoorsy space and, most recently, Maki Nomiya, lead singer of '90s Japanese pop band Pizzicato Five, whose wonderful stage costumes and personal items from her closet were offered. Pass The Baton plans to expand nationally, with the next location opening this fall in the Kansai region.
A visit to Smiles' corporate office proves that Toyama's genuine enthusiasm is contagious. His creative spirit permeates throughout the space, from the original artwork adorning conference room tabletops, to the stainless steel Soup Stock Tokyo testing kitchen, where a team of cooks happily whips up new products. Always unconventional, Toyama's small desk is located amongst others. This thoughtful approach to communication generates accessibility, immediate discussion and interaction with his loyal staff.
His distinct style, humour and authenticity highlight the creativity of a CEO who comfortably straddles the worlds of business and art, mixing both to create a unique customer experience that cannot be replicated.
Masamichi Toyoma shares his favourites spots in Tokyo in "Masamichi Toyama's Tokyo."
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