Jeff Yokoyama. The Gift of Sight

Yoki_shopping

“How about this flannel?” asks Jeff Yokoyama, holding up a spectacular hunter green plaid flannel at Goodwill that looks like it came off the back of Yvon Chouinard on a wilderness trip circa 1973. Underneath enough armpit-stained shirts and ugly pants to clothe a city, Yokoyama’s eagle eyes find the gems: grunge flannel shirts and faded crewneck sweaters worn down to soft perfection.

“Crazy man. Just needs a few repairs,” he says as he puts the flannel shirt into a shopping cart that’s already piled taller than his height with treasures. “Why would you throw it away?” he shakes his head.

For a story in Without Walls, I shadowed fifty-eight-year-old Yokoyama from his shop in Newport Beach, to the Goodwill distribution center in Orange County where he handpicks and buys the raw materials by the pound to make Yokishop clothing. 

Yokoyama has an uncanny instinct for seeing potential underneath the surface and a successful track record of pioneering innovative brands at the right time — iconic surf brand Maui & Sons in 1981, followed by Pirate Surf, and then Modern Amusement. True to form, Yokoyama is ahead of the mainstream consciousness and has been envisioning products differently for his latest project, Yokishop that relishes in the unhurried process of creating each piece one-by-one.

Inside the Newport Beach storefront is a workshop humming with the sound of scissors and sewing. His most famous design is a tailored hoodie sweatshirt that Yokoyama matches with a wild beach towel on the chest. The one-of-a-kind sweatshirt is so ubiquitous in the coastal community that neighbors now deliver their old towels straight to him.

“We get the beach towels, we lay our patterns on them and then we cut out the pattern of the body out of the beach towel,” explains Yokoyama. “Most of the time it’s coming from my eyes — how I see the beach towel, how its actually going to be cut. Every beach towel is different. It depends on the sweatshirt color that I might want to couple it up with.”

Every brand in Yokoyama’s history started this way — a fresh idea, personally touched and made-by-hand.

“I started Maui & Sons out of the garage, it moved into my closet and then my whole room filled with Maui & Sons stuff. All three of us that were doing Maui & Sons were in this little three-bedroom apartment. I was 24-years-old. Oh my gosh. It was great,” Yokoyama says.

“We built it up to about $18 million and then started getting speed wobbles. Speed wobbles is like riding a skateboard down a hill and you’re just out of control. I had to jump off. I did Maui & Sons because I wanted to do something that was fun, exciting and new. It was all of that. Then I got into thinking I was so great. That was a big downfall and a great life lesson. I made people feel bad and I went, ‘I’m never going to do that again…’ The moment I knew I was out of it was when I came home and I had everything. I had the right bachelor pad, the right car, the right music, everything was right. The right clothes all lined up in the closet, the right suits, everything. And I then decided that all of this didn’t mean anything. I bawled my eyes out that night. I said, ‘I don’t need any of this.’”

Reinvigorated, Yokoyama followed up with Pirate Surf clothing, named after the location of his vacation home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Pirate Surf’s one-hit wonder was acid-washed flannel shirts. When the acid accidentally burned holes through the fabric they became even more covetable. “Kurt Cobain wore our shirts. It was crazy,” he says. After selling Pirate Surf to Quiksilver, Yokoyama moved on to launch Modern Amusement, a cool men’s collection that — surprise! — was another hit. This time, he walked away with a different lesson.

“I realized we were doing the same thing [at Modern Amusement] that I didn’t want to do anymore, which is doing a lot of production outside of the United States,” Yokoyama says of why he left the label almost a decade ago. “I thought to myself, there’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be an opportunity to make things from things that are being thrown away. I didn’t necessarily have that concept of beach towel and sweatshirt at that time but I knew there was an abundance of things that were being thrown away.”

He “hid out” for a few a while and resurfaced with Generic Youth T-shirts started with his teenage daughter, Coco. The limited edition threads were made out of used clothes and fabric remnants found in downtown Los Angeles. That idea evolved to what is now Yokishop one-of-a-kind designs. Riffing on the original zip-up beach towel hoodie, Yokoyama’s imagination is limitless: flannel shirts made into backpacks and beach towel sweatshorts adorned with pockets made of fabric scraps.

Yokishop_tags

In the heart of Newport Beach, the visionary still surfs but he’s not going to call Yokishop a surf brand. “We’re more of a lifestyle brand… I should say, that we’re looking at the future of the way that we think.”

Yokoyama says that when he first tried to explain his idea to people almost a decade ago, they didn’t understand it from a traditional apparel business perspective. How can you scale a business built on handmade, one-of-a-kind products? How do you maintain consistency in a world that buyers will reject and return a product if its not delivered as expected?

“Eight years ago not too many people wanted to talk to me and I hid out for a while,” Yokoyama says. “It was good for me too, but it was also like, gosh, is anybody going to ever want any of this stuff? As time went on, our line didn’t necessarily grow, it was being accepted.”

As someone who’s often right about tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of the next big thing (see track record above), I asked him what that next big thing was. He says its what he’s doing now.

“The feeling is this hand-done thing,” says Yokoyama of his work. “It’s a personal type of styling. It’s not like anyone else’s. It’s yours. That’s what’s important in this market at this day and age. The younger kids, if I could pass this feeling onto them, if they can grab the baton and run with it, that’s what I want to happen.” 

Yoki_shoppingcart

Yokishop_towels

Towels ready for reincarnation.

Cutting each patch by hand.

Cutting each patch by hand.

Yoki at work.

Yoki at work.

The famous beach towel hoodies.

The famous beach towel hoodies.

Yoki and me during our interview. Photo courtesy of Brecht Vanthof.

Yoki and I during our interview. He dug the vintage Hawaii Marathon T-shirt I was wearing so much that he took a photo of it to keep for inspiration! Photo courtesy of Brecht Vanthof.

Ceiling of Yokishop.

Ceiling of Yokishop.

All photos (except as noted by Brecht Vanthof) by Rhea Cortado.