Pieces of Self

by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans

On a tip from the Instagram stories of my friend Paul Fournier, I picked up Nishiguchi Essentials 100, a bilingual compendium of the 100 articles of clothing and accessories that totemically compose the intrepid Shuhei Nishiguchi, the photogenic men’s fashion director of Japan’s directional department store, Beams. It is the sort of thing I love, a diverse collection of objects, each with their own particular stories and their own particular uniqueness. It reminded me of my old favorite Einstein’s Watch, which juxtaposed the most interesting items put up for sale in 2009 (from Einstein’s own Swiss watch to a Barbie version of the DC comics superhero Black Canary). It also put me in mind of Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, out of whose catalog of hymen restoration clinics, corpse farms and Braille editions of Playboy rose a strange, yet familiarly offbeat, Americana.

Nishiguchi-san has been a stalwart of the hashtag-menswear scene for years, a fixture at the Pitti Uomo trade fairs  (which he attends in a professional, rather than parasocial, capacity), and a popular enough phenomenon that menswear blogger Simon Crompton marketed a previous book of his, Nishiguchi’s Closet, which purported to show readers how to use just ten articles of clothing to create a hundred different outfits.

As its title suggests, Nishiguchi Essentials 100 features ten times the pieces of clothing as that earlier book, for a very different philosophy of dress. Why, at least three different raincoats are Essentials. Rather than pretend to any minimal rigor, or to the particular multifarious use of basics, the very number of these Essentials seems to beggar the meaning of the word. At last, a clothing book that does not lie about practicality, but instead exults in an overwhelming plenty of carefully sourced vintage trenchcoats, one-off briefcases specially created for him by a firm that specializes in gun cases, patinated prototype suede blazers, 1950s French army pants and… buffalo skin cowboy boots.

As the above list suggests, Nishiguchi is a polyvalent dresser not captive to any particular menswear style. His choices of Essentials is not just diverse, it is variegated like the motley plumage of an exotic bird. While his choice of vintage Brooks Brothers button-down-collar shirts would delight a Trad, his taste for vintage Ralph Lauren (a certain 1990s trenchcoat, baggy 1990s Polo trousers, and old American-made Polo oxford-cloth shirts) would put them off. The ‘Lo-Heads who might be impressed by those would be nonplussed by Nishiguchi’s 1980s Metallica T-shirts, French berets, or Hermès silver bangle hand-beaten by Touareg tribesmen like a Paul Bowles character. And each Essential has its own story: a tale of how each item had a connection to a person from his life, or how it is special in every detail, in ways the casual reader or consumer could not have imagined.

For every item in Nishiguchi Essentials 100 is special, and not just by its significance to its owner: even the Levi’s 501s Nishiguchi includes are specifically those from the 1950s to the 1990s, when Levi’s ceased making them in the United States. His Aquascutum trenchcoat was not one of its usual English production, but a version made in Canada for the North American market with natural shoulders. His handkerchieves are no ordinary bits of limp chambray, but by the infamous Simonnot-Godard, and came not only from Florence’s hallowed haberdashery Tie Your Tie, but from Tie Your Tie back before it changed ownership and, by implication, became just a bit more… well-known? Accessible? Viable? The implication is that experiences unavailable in the current day made many Essentials more precious, more covetable.

Even in purported catalogs like the other books I list above, a certain ghostly narrative detaches itself from the pretty (or unsettling) pictures and makes its presence felt. Nishiguchi is more explicit, writing even before his table of contents that he has “carefully selected” 100 items from his wardrobe that he cherishes and that are “indispensable” to his style and way of life… indissociable, it seems, from his sense of identity. Each item and its story seem like infinitesimally thin sample slices of self, specimens for us to pore over as if through a scanning microscope, and over a hundred of them to piece together a sense of Nishiguchi-san.

The recent pandemic, NIshiguchi-san writes, triggered a meditation that led to this book, In a way, it has catalyzed a sort of behavior of which Nishiguchi Essentials 100 is only the most brilliant version: the exhibition of self through visual and temporal fillets, consumerist fillets, pieces of self that each have their own narrative in our new world of social encounters, that of the distanced virtual interaction of Instagram and its ilk where so many of us have taken to including bits and pieces of what we wish to exhibit of our stuff… our latest kops, our latest drinks, talismans and fetish objects that have latterly become proxies, in our safety-minded physical stasis, for personality and identity.

How often have I thought, in recent months, of this exercise, this attempt to assert identity to faraway acquaintances (while we go bonkers with strain in our own real abodes), as a bit of body horror straight our of a Cronenberg film, our virtual attempts to maintain some sense of identity as we feel our real lives fall apart, like Brundle-Fly carefully, obscenely, gathering and storing the human pieces of him that fall off… What we store, what we catalog, what we display sometimes no longer aligns with who we actually are, and we have less control over the latter. What a fun exercise it would be, being able to show and write about the hundred or so things that we think compose us, or how we wish to be seen. But the Nishiguchi’s Essentials are actual talismans of his life, lifestyle and daily dress. This display is indeed inherent of him, for he actually is a fashion director for a famously eclectic luxury store, and a fashion icon, unlike most of the rest of us whose Instagram displays, whether self-conscious and ironical or not, are manifestations of aspiration, even if the act of display, the construction of images of our drinks, accessories, kops, and so on, can in effort feel like we are indeed parting with a piece of ourselves. As we are not Nishiguchi-san, let us pause to think about what remains, inside us, as well.

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