Talking about Japan, cultural arbitrage, how culture changes, and our universal desire for social status
An interview with W. David Marx (author of Ametora) on his forthcoming book, Status and Culture
A note before the interview
Many of us are unconscious consumers. We may know the difference between being sold something that’s authentic vs. something that feels phoned-in.
But often, we’re influenced by passing trends, style movements, and vibe shifts without knowing what drove that shift in the first place.
When it comes to culture, few people understand what the word means, where it comes from, and how it changes.
W. David Marx is someone who understands.
I’ve gotten to know David recently (DMs only; if we can ever get him to leave Tokyo!). I’ve read his first book—Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style—and his understanding of the subcultures around music, fashion, entertainment, and luxury is second to none.
What’s more impressive is the way David connects cultural dots together. He takes fragments of information and synthesizes it in a that’s digestible.
This is one of my favorite interviews to date. Hope you enjoy!
Make sure you preorder David’s book here!
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Oklahoma. I spent a few years in Oxford, Mississippi, and grew up mostly in Pensacola (the very Alabama part of Florida).
Early on, I got into alternative music, indie film, and late-night comedy. I was raised on VHS SLP recordings of The Simpsons and MTV’s 120 Minutes, Dinosaur Jr. T-shirts, making songs with a four-track cassette, and printing little magazines for my friends.
I first got on the Internet in 1993, pre-world wide web, mostly to look for song lyrics and guitar chords, which at the time, was the only thing on the Internet.
And what about your love for Japanese culture? You’ve been there for many years, what’s the draw for you?
Pensacola has a sister city connection with a small town in rural Japan, and I got a chance to visit for three weeks when I was 17.
At the time I was generally interested in any kind of non-American culture, but Japan was particularly surprising because it had its own vibrant pop culture that took all the forms of Western pop culture — singers, TV commercials, magazines, rock bands — but seemed to operate on an entirely different “logic.”
When I was there, for example, the band Puffy scored a big hit with an Electric Light Orchestra pastiche, and ELO was a band still years away from enjoying critical revaluation in the U.S.
When I went to college, I studied Japanese because I wanted to understand this “logic” better.
I spent two summers in Tokyo on internship programs, and Tokyo was just legions ahead in terms of mainstreaming underground culture. In 1998 while placed as an “intern” at lifestyle magazine Hot Dog Press, I discovered the brand A Bathing Ape and ended up waiting three hours in line to buy a T-shirt. That experience drew me into a rabbit hole of trying to understand the cult-like world of Japanese fashion.
I went on to write my senior thesis about Japanese streetwear. After a further decade of researching the history of Japanese fashion, I decided to write my first book, Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style.
Ametora explores how Japan took American style, repurposed it during the wars, and ultimately saved it (and now they do it better than Americans FWIW).
Now you’re dropping a new book next month called Status and Culture.
How did Ametora relate to what you wrote with S&C? How was it different? And what’s the relationship between the two words “status and culture?”
Ametora covered a specific micro-history about how American style landed in Japan, and now Japanese brands sell their premium versions back to Americans. While I wrote the book to explain this very specific piece of history, the book also ended up outlining my general understanding of how brands, media, and consumers all work together to make “trends.”
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “culture” for almost all of my life, and if there is one thing I’ve learned, culture isn’t random: It arises, changes, and flows in common patterns. People are responsible for the creation, dissemination, and valuation of culture. We know a lot about how this process works from centuries of scholarship, but I’ve always been dissatisfied that there are no books that summarize these principles.
So when thinking about what to do next after Ametora, I decided it was time to hunker down and write a book that explains the universal principles of how culture works. While trying to think through the explanation, I realized that the key to understanding everything — from taste to identity to subcultures to fashion — was social status.
In the last year, status has become a hot topic of analysis, but when I started to write the book, there were basically no books about status. So I set out to write a book that would explain both status and culture together — which is key because you can’t really explain one without the other.
What about Japanese culture has informed or does inform parts of your book?
I hoped to lay out the universal principles of how status and culture work, which meant not over-relying on Japanese examples. Japan is useful, however, because it’s been so isolated from the rest of the world, that if you see a common pattern in Japan and the West, especially before the late 19th century, it’s very unlikely one informed the other.
For example, the wealthy merchant iki style of the Edo Period was all about detachment and reserved colors, which is very similar in aesthetics to the Old Money style seen in the UK. This suggests there are socioeconomic structural reasons for that aesthetic to manifest, as both groups have a strategic reason to de-value New Money brashness.
Another Japanese example I ended up using was the transformation of gyaru culture in the 1990s from its wealthy-rebel “kogyaru” incarnation of light tans, light brown hair, and summer-y makeup to its late 1990s working-class subcultural ganguro look of frightening tribal makeup.
It’s very clear how the class positions of gyaru changed the aesthetics of the style.
What are you hoping people walk away understanding about S&C?
The book provides clear answers to what I call the Grand Mystery of Culture — where new culture comes from and why it changes over time.
I want the book to be a toolkit.
You’ll be able to understand your own status desire and cultural choices a lot more clearly, and if you’re interested in explaining most cultural phenomenon (e.g. authenticity, retro, cultural arbitrage, fashion cycles, etc.), I show how they’re all logical byproducts of status struggle in the contemporary era.
I’ve listened to you talk about Nigo and cultural arbitrage before. What exactly is that and why is it essential to understand the reach of Nigo’s influence in the world of streetwear and hip-hop and your new book better?
Arbitrage is a term from finance to describe when people buy one asset in a market where it’s cheap and sell it in a different market where it’s expensive. If you think of cultural objects having “status value,” this makes it possible to perform “cultural arbitrage” — finding things easy to acquire in one place and brandishing them for status in another place where they’re rare.
The king of this in Japan was Hiroshi Fujiwara, who was the first person to bring back hip-hop 12”s from New York and made his early career in explaining the latest in street culture to Japanese youth.
NIGO was his protege, and he started on the same path. What is interesting about both, however, is that they eventually used their cultural capital to create such high-quality streetwear brands (Goodenough and A Bathing Ape) that it became cultural arbitrage for non-Japanese to own them.
I also remember you talking about early days of the Hundreds, Supreme and you buying a bunch of BAPE shirts in your younger years in NYC.
When you think about who’s driving culture in, say, lower Manhattan (Soho, Nolita, Lower East Side, Dimes Square, etc.), it seems like those places are an indicator of what’s coming next.
How do you explain the cultural nuances of those neighborhoods to someone?
I haven’t really been in New York since the emergence of Dimes Square so I can’t comment on that trend in particular, but I worked in the Lower East Side in 2001 when it was coming up, and it feels similar to that pattern.
A major part of people’s identity is where they hang out, and they’re unlikely to share spaces with status rivals for whom they don’t want to be confused. This is what creates demand for new places on the periphery of established locales. SoHo was once edgy, but then became commercial.
This is also why Supreme opened a bit off of SoHo. When that whole strip on Lafayette became too commercial, the next wave of streetwear brands all moved 10 mins walking to the Lower East Side (starting with Recon on Eldridge St. and then Alife on Orchard St).
I would assume the same thing will happen to Dimes Square if it just becomes the new Nolita.
These dynamics aren’t magic; they’re what happens when people use locations to establish their own identities and don’t like sharing identities with less savvy people.
When you think about consumer/fashion/luxury brands that have ushered in new eras of status and culture historically, who would you reference and why?
The most influential brands tend to provide new forms of value to pre-established styles. Ralph Lauren made American prep for literally everyone through establishing its timelessness. Thom Browne re-energized the entire vocabulary of classic American garments for the 21st century by using them within the scope of artistic “fashion.”
We’re now in an era where there are few barriers between streetwear and luxury, and this is likely to continue if the luxury conglomerates rely on young Chinese consumers as their primary market. When writing up this era, obviously Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh will be named as the most influential parties for that cultural merger, with Kanye West as the spiritual godfather.