A couple of weeks ago I arranged to meet with Tom, the Owner of Alpha Shadows, a Menswear store based round the corner from me in Peckham, South East London. The shop specialises in obscure Japanese clothing, which anybody who shares his passion for it will tell you – is bloody hard to get hold of in the UK. I stopped by his store just round the corner from me in Peckham, just off Rye Lane in The Bussey Building; to talk about his obvious love for Japanese design, and to find out how it all started. It’s a long one, but here goes . . .
What led you to starting your Alpha Shadows? How did this all come about and why all these obscure Japanese brands?
To be honest, I have loved Japanese Menswear for a while, way before I had considered opening a shop. And so I — probably — spent an unhealthy amount of time on obscure Japanese clothing websites. And it used to make me really frustrated, I saw a lot of brands that were absolutely amazing, but were just impossible to get over here. I actually went to Japan before I even decided I wanted to start Alpha Shadows, and I think it was then that I truly fell in love with Japanese clothing. Now there’s four of five shops in the UK that I really really respect, but they all kind of sell similar things, and I just couldn’t understand why all these other brands weren’t available over here, why couldn’t I get them? I saw what I thought was a gap in the market, and thought that if I didn’t get on it in a couple of years somebody else would, and I would be like ‘why didn’t I do that?’ And so I thought just do it, let’s bring all of these brands over here, and make them accessible to people like me! With at least 75-80% of the brands I have here, I’m their only stockist in the UK, maybe even outside of Japan and the far east. I know that there’s a certain kind of man – or women – that likes their clothes and loves discovering new things and I just wanted to offer more, and make available some of the brands that I love and want to wear myself.
I know what you mean, I’m always stumbling across brands online or through blogs, that I fall in love with and then find out that unless you want to pay an extortionate amount on shipping, you just can’t get.
I guess it’s a bit of a weird, thing for me, because with some of these brands if they got picked up by other shops, on one hand your like that’s good for them, that’s exposure, that will bring more interest and trust to the name of that brand. But at the same time I want to stock brands that nobody else has. It’s a difficult balance.
So for you it’s all about bringing in those unique brands?
Yes, but there’s still maybe 5 or 6 brands that are available in a few shops in the UK or Europe. Not only is it because I love them, but I wanted to use them as the core brands that people may be more familiar with, by placing them alongside these other more unknown brands, it helps people – I guess trust is the wrong word – but it helps people understand the quality and level of the more obscure brands, it lets people know that they’re on par with each other. I think that’s also why the physical shop space is really important, because in terms of online, it’s the brands that the people are familiar with that sell best. But when somebody comes by the shop, even if they know what they’re after, they often pick up and try on some of the more obscure brands, the ones that they maybe hadn’t heard of before, where as online they would probably just head straight for what they are looking for and leave. You’ve just got to be able to touch and feel it sometimes, people are often more willing to spend money on something they’ve physically seen than something they’ve seen a couple of photos of on my website.
You opened the shop here in Peckham just before Christmas 2015, how did you find that process? I mean, it can’t have been easy making initial contact with all these supplier?
Yeah, well I opened both the online store and the shop 10 days before Christmas, but I had actually started contacting brands towards the end of 2014, and was hoping to have everything up and running by last August, but as with everything, there’re always unforeseen delays – but I got there in the end.
How do you choose the brands your stock, are they all brands you were familiar with before Alpha Shadows, or have you specifically sought out new brands that are unavailable to the UK and European market?
Yeah, they were all brands I was familiar with before I decided I was going to set up the shop. To be honest there are over 50 different brands I would love to stock, but I stock 24, partly because some of those 50 are already available over here and then also because of the logistics of trying to contact suppliers out in Japan. I actually had to work with a translator to approach some of them, as they don’t speak any English and I definitely can’t speak Japanese. That really was kind of the best thing I could have done, not only did it mean they could understand what I was saying, but I think it was clear to them how much I wanted to stock their products and I think they also respected the fact that I had made such an effort.
I guess this is what has enabled you to exclusively stock so many different brands, where other stores possibly would have given up, you persevered and made the effort? Obviously you love Japanese clothing, was that why you visited the Far East in the first place?
Yeah, it was for the clothes; but to be honest I probably wouldn’t have opened Alpha Shadows if I hadn’t, I loved it. They have a few of these ‘off the beaten track’ kind of places; they’re not an overpowering retail environment and I guess that is the same kind of service/experience I am trying to create here. Some customers who come in might only spend 15 minutes looking at clothes, but then we’d spend about 45 just chatting, which I really enjoy. For me building a relationship with a customer is far more important than a quick sale. I will always be honest with my clients, if they try something on and ask my opinion and I don’t think it’s quite right for them, I’ll always say. I’d rather them leave empty handed, than go away with something they’re not 100% sure of. And I think because of that people come back, because they know I’m not just after their money. The long-term relationship is more important than a quick sale I think.
I imagine this isn’t going to be an easy question, but what are your favourite couple of pieces at the moment?
Erm . . . yeah well, the hardest thing for me is not shopping for myself; I obviously only stock things I really like so it’s really hard for me to pin down any one thing in particular. I always tend to go for things that in my opinion will never go out of fashion because it hasn’t ever been ‘in’ fashion. I always go for the quality and the cut, the finer details like this — which has enamelled buttons — so things like that, really. It’s the simple things that I really like, with those small details that make it special, like custom buttons and zip fastenings. With Japanese design, its often really simple unfussy work wear, but with clean lines and beautiful detailing, creating timeless pieces. Like this corduroy shirt, your not going to look back at that in twenty years time and think it looks ridiculous. It’s a classic, but styled and cut slightly differently. So the idea is that everything here ‘in theory’ you can wear together, there may be a few pattern clashes but there’s not too many. Everything should work together, its blues, greens, greys and beiges, that’s pretty much how I dress every day.
Were there other stores in the UK that inspired you to open Alpha Shadows or was it solely your trip to Japan?
I knew you were going to ask me something like this! I think there’s 4 or 5 stores in the UK that are very good at what they do, that I would like to think that I fall alongside, but I also feel I’m trying to do something different at the same time. But I would say its more Japanese shops that I’m inspired by; it’s the mixture of clothes with ceramics and other lifestyle products. I have hundreds of tabs open on my computer of different Japanese shops, many of them don’t have online stores, but its seeing what they do and how they do it through their websites and blogs that influences me. I just like clothes that you can dress up or dress down, and with a few tweaks can wear in any kind of environment, and the Japanese do that so well.
So, did you fall in love with Japanese design when you went to Japan, or did you go to Japan because of the clothes?
I kind of went there for the clothes. I used to do stop frame animation, and due to the nature of the work it can be a bit slow and you tend to have a bit of time in between shots. And so I would spend the time in between online, looking at Japanese clothes, and it just got to the point where I was like – I have to go to Japan – and so I did. And when I got there, I realised they did retail better than anywhere else. Its like a different world for shopping, and whilst I was there I just knew I had to do something similar and bring some of these brands back over to the UK. The penny dropped there and then.
Were you always into clothes before, when you were growing up?
Yes, always; I can remember being only about 11 years old and already hunting out brands I knew none of my friends would be wearing. I would often come to London with my mum and go shopping to find something that you couldn’t just pick up in any old shopping centre. I also remember as a child my parents going on holiday to New York, and I convinced them to get me a pair of AirMax that you couldn’t get over here, just because I knew nobody at school would have them. I’ve just always liked discovering new stuff I guess.
So I guess you’ve finally found your niche?
Yeah, I mean, this is what I nerd over so much! I think I just saw an opportunity at the right time and just took it. I get customers come in to the store and say how glad they are that someone has finally started stocking a certain brand in the UK, and its so great to hear. I knew there were people like me; I knew there was an awareness for these brands out there, and maybe not everyone knows all of them, but I’m trying to appeal to a few different people. I might have somebody who is after something quite work-weary but then you might get someone who wears something in sport-tech fabrics; they’re not a million miles away from each other but for me its about providing more options for people.
I guess clothes are just a bit of an obsession for you?
Yeah, I often find myself buying the same things over and over again but with a slight differences in the detailing, stuff that I’m sure nobody else would pick up on. For example, I have two of the same North Face Purple Label jacket, from different seasons, but one with popper and one with a zip, to me that makes all the difference. It’s a bit of a joke with all my friends but I have a storage unit full of clothes, which they call the ‘Archive’. It’s just that over the years your taste does change, and I have loads of clothes in there that I wouldn’t wear any more, but I just can’t bring myself to get rid of them. So yes, I think you could call it an obsession.