In the early 1980s, six designers from the renowned fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, would go on to change fashion forever. Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Walter Van Beirendonck, each in their own way, contributed to and radicalized an industry that had seen Paris as the center of its universe for decades upon decades. Alongside the legendary Japanese triumvirate of Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, the Antwerp Six, as they were later labeled, shifted the focus away from Paris and in the process made fashion more accessible, more democratic and perhaps — dare I say it — even more playfully intellectual.

For Japanese designer Taro Horiuchi, himself a graduate of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the Antwerp Six has been a huge influence, although, in a recent interview with TW conducted at his bustling atelier in Yoyogi, he laughs when he recalls that the six Belgians themselves were hugely inspired by Japanese designers. 

“At the academy building’s ground floor, they had a huge Yohji Yamamoto store, and inside the academy, they had many exhibitions about subjects like Yohji and Comme des Garçons,” Horiuchi recalls. “I saw that Japanese designs had so much influence. When I talked with Walter (Van Beirendonck) or Marina Yee from the Antwerp Six, they all talked about the experience of graduating from the academy in the early ’80s and coming to Japan for a summer trip. This was the beginning of the big Japanese designers, of course. The (seminal) black collection from Comme des Garçons was in the early ’80s. They saw these Japanese designers when they came to Japan at that time, and they were so inspired, they said.” 

Independent Streak

Horiuchi, who spent time in London, Antwerp and Paris as a youngster before returning to Japan around 2010, eschewed the orthodox route that most young designers take when they graduate, which is to work for big brands and designers to gain experience and prove their worth. Instead, he opened his own brand that has developed into two lines — Th Products (stylized as th products), which focuses on menswear and unisex garments, and Taro Horiuchi, which has become a leading womenswear line in Tokyo. 

When I ask him why he decided to, ostensibly, go it alone, he says, “I think it was because of the Antwerp designers. They had so many independent small labels, like Bernhard Willhelm, Jurgi Persoons, Haider Ackermann, Kris Van Assche, Raf Simons; they all started their own brands after graduating. I didn’t think much about working for bigger brands first. I had offers from some maisons because I won a prize while I was there — the Diesel Award. But because of friends around me like Demna (Gvasalia, designer of Balenciaga and the co-founder of Vetements), Mikio Sakabe and Akira Naka — everyone started on their own. I never really had the idea of going to work for somebody first.” 

With the Th Products and Taro Horiuchi brands both requiring two collections a year, it seems apparent that Horiuchi is always busy. However, the distinction between the two lines simplifies the process somewhat, with Th Products being based around menswear archives and functional staples that are upgraded each season and his eponymous label veering towards a more artistic aesthetic. 

“For womenswear, it is different,” he says. “It is more like art or what’s going on in this world. What’s changing — that inspires me. It is a balance that I have both (brands), and that interests me. So, I do four collections a year. Two for menswear and two for womenswear. Th Products is more about upgrading, so if I make something this season then next season it may just be about making the buttons better.” 

When asked why he decided to pursue design and the role of fashion in today’s society, Horiuchi explains that his relationship with fashion is a very straightforward one. “In the case of Th Products, clothes are not only a product to bring convenience to daily life, but also a message,” he says. “I feel that by wearing simple, uniform clothing on a daily basis, we are able to focus on various aspects of society. Showing my work means that I am proposing my thoughts, my life and my way of living. That’s all. Showing my idea of beauty.”

Team Work

Although Horiuchi took the more unorthodox road when he started out alone, he has, in addition to running his own two brands, landed some high-profile positions with Muji and Zipair, a new Japanese airline. Both opportunities have seen Horiuchi use his experience in the industry and take on roles with vastly different results and expectations. Alongside celebrated N. Hoolywood designer Daisuke Obana, Horiuchi helmed the experimental Muji Labo label from 2016 to 2018 before joining the Japanese retail giant’s main line. 

“I did Muji Labo for two years then I moved to Muji,” says Horiuchi. “Not the whole collection, just part of it. So, I’ve worked with Muji for almost eight years now. The amount of clothing it produces is completely different from my own brands. The number of people you reach working with Muji is totally different from my own brands. Muji Labo is different from Muji main line because it is a laboratory. We have done experiments that could work in the future for Muji. And working with Obana-san from N. Hoolywood — it was nice working with him.” 

For Zipair, it was an opportunity to work within the confines of “uniform,” which appeared to suit him as he already views his work for Th Products as a lifestyle uniform of sorts. The days of distinct gender roles when outfitting cabin attendants seem to be waning even within Japanese airlines, so Horiuchi relished the concept of creating more fluid and gender-neutral designs suitable for the modern age and the future. 

“I went to Narita Airport so many times,” he comments. “There is a place there where they have a full sample of a plane where they do the training, so I asked the staff to do their movements so many times, and I filmed it and did this kind of process over and over. It’s more or less a unisex design. Japanese airlines always use high heels, but after seeing the way they work, it’s actually really tough. So, I asked Yusuke Koishi (of Kleinstein and Novesta) to make trainers for them. So, all the staff wear Novesta trainers. Usually cabin attendants wear the same uniform, but I made a few different silhouettes so they can choose.” 

And now, starting from fall/winter 2023, Horiuchi is also involved in the design direction of Japanese sports brand Descente Allterrain. He comments on his interest in and excitement about the field of sports, which has been of such importance to the lives of so many people especially since the pandemic. “I consider it a pleasure to be involved in a variety of areas and to be of service in any way I can,” says Horiuchi. 

Onward, Upward and Outward

With Th Products, Taro Horiuchi and work with Muji, Zipair and Descente Allterrain, the mild-mannered and affable designer has had his hands full. The contrast between his two own labels is subtle yet delineated. Black consumes his collections for Th Products while the more feminine Taro Horiuchi label offers pops of color and the occasional use of text, such as the slogan “extraordinary moments” for the spring/summer 2023 collection. Japanese brands’ love for black has been well documented, with Yohji Yamamoto and Julius spearheading that particular aesthetic. Horiuchi’s use of black, however, seems more delicate and refined, with occasional prints and classical silhouettes, especially for Th Products. 

With stockists all over the country and overseas and a store in the sophisticated Sendagaya area of the capital, Horiuchi is one of the artists leading a new generation of designers who combine a respect and passion for Western art and design with Japanese aesthetics and inspiration. He is, in fact, a designer who encapsulates the modern creative. Cosmopolitan due to his Europe-based education and Japanese heritage, he looks out into the world while remaining true to his roots, and this, in a world where more and more people retreat into the interior, is an inspiration, a way forward and a deliberate push towards the future.

Shop Th Products online via the brand’s official website.