These days, whenever I go to Kinokuniya, I spend nearly all my time with back issues of Free & Easy magazine. Free & Easy, as you can see, falls into the broad periodically category of "men's style," with an emphasis on the elusive concept of "ruggedness." Paragons of ruggedness, according to the editors, include Steve McQueen, Eric Clapton, dozens upon dozens of Japanese creative types I'd like to know more about, and John Malkovich. I don't know much about style magazines, but I do know this: when a style magazine puts John Malkovich on its cover, it becomes the style magazine for me.
You'll find it nearly impossible to achieve Free & Easy's particular brand of ruggedness before reaching 50 years of age. Each issue offers numerous profiles of particularly rugged men, headed by their names, occupations, and ages, e.g., "Hiroyuki Okada, graphic designer, age 51," "Simon Williams, importer, age 64," "Issei Tanizaki, architect, age 60," "John Malkovich, actor, age 57." When the time of the year comes to hand out the awards for "Mr. Rugged Impact" — the ruggedest of the rugged — the magazine actually separates the competition into age-based divisions, to ensure fairness. No matter how adeptly a man in the under-40 division has mastered ruggedness, he cannot compete with rivals in their 50s and 60s.
Alas, for yours truly, this means at least another quarter-century before I can hope for true ruggedness. In the meantime, I can just stare at Free & Easy in my uncomprehending hopefulness, uncomprehending because my Japanese hasn't quite reached the level where I can reliably decipher even style-mag copy. But at least my command of aesthetics — the only international language worth knowing — lets me appreciate both the magazine's design and the ruggedness it showcases.
I'd be lying if I claimed that, standing up at Kinokuniya's magazine racks while methodically scanning issue after issue of Free & Easy, that I couldn't possibly be caught up in a trend. Havent hundreds of men's style blogs sprung from the woodwork in the name of durable old Steve McQueeny-y Americana adapted to the free-for all of 21st-century fashion? Haven't I discussed just these topics in a Marketplace of Ideas interview with Jesse Thorn and Adam Lisagor of Put This On?
My defense follows. I submit that Free & Easy expresses two of the principles that, in my own life, have become pillars. First, however high a trend wave it might ride, the magazine champions a certain stylistic timelessness. As I've guessed before, the further into the past you could have worn a particular article of clothing, the further into the future you can wear it. The magazine takes this sensibility all the way into the accessories pages, covering road bicycles, aviator sunglasses, and 35-millimeter cameras with as much cool today as they would've had in 1962. If you want to win over a guy like me, you do it with road bikes, aviators, and 35-millimeter cameras, all presented — and here comes the critical hipster prolepsis — presented as unironically as possible.
Second, Free & Easy publishes in Japan only. On a practical level, this means that I have to pay almost $20 an issue, which means that I've never actually bought an issue. On a psychological level, it makes the magazine a sterling example of foreign Americaphilia. Now, I've got no qualms with America. I happen to live there. I grew up there. I feel no especially permanent attachment to the country, but I'm fairly down with it. Thing is, spending 26 years surrounded by America has rendered me unable to look at Americana with fresh eyes. It takes a foreign perspective to make me realize what American stuff I find useful, classy, and/or fascinating. Japanese Americaphilia works well for these purposes.
(I've long considered shooting a documentary called The Americaphiles, which would explore the nature of Americana as seen through a series of Americaphiles from other countries. If you want to give me money for that, go right ahead. Better yet, pass me the contact info of some Americaphiles. I understand the Japanese and French do Americaphilia particularly well.)
It comes down to freedom from the chains of time and place. I don't feel the need to travel back to the early sixties and enjoy its fashions, nor do I revel in the dubious "innovations" of today. I don't long to escape to Paris (or wherever), nor do I drape myself in the American flag. As I quote from Yoko Tawada more and more often every day, "The interesting lies in the in-between." If you want to see America, get the richest view of it through a Japanese lens. If you want to see old-school menswear, get the richest view of it through a modern lens. I can't guarantee that these sorts of techniques control for, moderate, or dampen the particular tics, stiffnesses, and prejudices isolated times and places tend to introduce, but if you've got any better ideas, I'd like to hear them.