For Alec Nakashima and his company, Akashi-Kama, he’s grateful to be surviving as a business in 2020 and ready to continue to tell the Japanese American story through his designs in 2021.
By Allison Haramoto, Executive Editor
As small businesses across the U.S. struggle to stay afloat in the midst of the current pandemic and economic down-turn, Alec Nakashima is extremely grateful that his clothing company, Akashi-Kama, has been able to adapt to this “moment in time” and survive — giving him the opportunity to help his community and look toward 2021 with the anticipation of better days ahead.
Nakashima launched Akashi-Kama online in May 2019, offering designs that blend the beauty of the Japanese aesthetic with an American influence. Each piece, designed by Nakashima and featuring fabrics sourced from Japan, is inspired by Nakashima’s own Japanese and American heritage.
“I had this desire to create something that blended that concept and design — a fusion of these two distinct worlds, but I couldn’t find anything that I was picturing in my mind, so I decided to design my own,” Nakashima, 29, told the Pacific Citizen in 2019 (see July 26-Aug. 15, 2019, issue).
Flash-forward to 2020, and Akashi-Kama has certainly weathered a turbulent past few months, something Nakashima could never have foreseen happening.
“We had such an exciting start when we chatted last, and then it quickly shifted in 2020 for businesses where we were thrown into a survive-type thing,” Nakashima said. “There are very few businesses that are killing it right now, so, honestly, to be surviving and maintaining — we’ll take it.”
One major hurdle to overcome: With Covid-19 hitting Asia first before landing stateside, Akashi-Kama, which sources its fabrics in Japan, had to deal with major manufacturing delays.
“First the slowdown [in Japan] was taking double the time it would take us to source fabric, and then once it got here, all of a sudden our factory in Oakland (Calif.) was operating at 25-50 percent capacity [because of the pandemic restrictions]. … It set us back in production,” Nakashima said. “But prioritizing safety was key.”
Despite all of the production delays, Nakashima is incredibly proud that Akashi-Kama was able work around the challenges to continue to produce its signature piece, the Noragi Jacket, as well as launch its newest design in October: the Gosei Cardigan (www.akashi-kama.com/products/gosei-cardigan-black).
Paying tribute to his heritage, the Gosei Cardigan “instantly connects you to the community,” Nakashima said. “The Gosei Cardigan is an homage to the progression of generations. Fifth generation is when you get such a blending of cultures, something new entirely. This is what this is supposed to be. It’s cool to make that a part of a specific garment, weave it into our branding, that we have so much respect for our generations. … As the generations continue (Gosei, Rokusei, etc.), we want to keep the style and aesthetic inspired by tradition. … Keeping that subtle Japanese culture and the story with you and of generations who went before is a big thing in our community.”
The Gosei Cardigan utilizes a French terry fabric from Japan, knitted in Wakayama, but it has a modern American heavyweight feel to it and is designed in a longer three- quarter-length silhouette with Akashi- Kama’s signature aglet and design details — perfect for the cooler months.
“The cut and sew development work that went into that, as well as the inspiration behind the name, are really special to us. … The Gosei Cardigan represents a big offering for us because it’s another original Japanese American style, something that we made specifically for and inspired by our community,” Nakashima said.
That community spirit and helping those in his community is what also saw Nakashima through the hardships of 2020.
He acknowledges that Akashi-Kama is thriving today because of its strong online presence.
However, Nakashima knows that he’s very fortunate to be in the position that he is in and that other businesses in the Japanese American community near him are not as fortunate.
“Around April, May, we did a small T-shirt capsule to help raise money for stores in San Jose’s Japantown … because there are a lot of stores that don’t have the online expertise as part of their business (stores were forced to close by the city due to Covid-19 restrictions),” Nakashima explained. “All of the proceeds went toward helping San Jose Japantown. … We treasure Japantown and Little Tokyo and those kind of community pillars.”
Nakashima has also developed new business plans and partnerships as he adapts to today’s ever-changing reality. He recently did a collaboration with Go for Broke in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, designing T-shirts and sweatshirts for its “Evening of Aloha” gala, as well as formed a partnership with KINTO, a Japanese lifestyle product company that is starting to emerge in the U.S. Together, the two companies have produced the Kinto x Akashi-Kama Tumbler (akashi-kama.com/shop), a double-walled stainless-steel travel tumbler.
“We worked on designing this together,” Nakashima said. “It was cool for me to work with a company from Japan that is emerging in the U.S. We’re a Japanese American-founded company, and so there’s a lot of alignment there. … When it comes to these partnerships, it’s very intentionally and carefully selected. It has to fit. It’s quality above everything.”
Nakashima is also excited for additional partnerships for 2021. But for now, he’s using this time to concentrate on preparing Akashi-Kama to be ready to proceed forward at 100 percent when the pandemic finally comes to an end, as well as guide his company in the meantime until it does.
Nakashima is busy working on production, sourcing more fabric and taking a close look at his business model. Word of mouth has also been a plus, as GQ magazine placed the Noragi Jacket on its “Best New Menswear” list in July.
“There have been times where [I’ve had to think] what’s the next six months to a year really going to look like? Do we need to change the model? We’re trying to figure out the best way to figure it out since people are really not going out anymore, so our products need to revolve with that,” Nakashima said. “What’s comfortable, what looks OK on a Zoom call — the in-between.
“The overall hope is that we’re coming to the end of it and preparing for when things go back to normal,” he reflected. “Any business needs to do the work now so that when that time does come, we’re able to seize the opportunity. We don’t want to miss it when that opportunity does come.”
And Akashi-Kama will be ready, for Nakashima has a true passion for what he does.
“Natural excitement and passion is a huge drive for me,” he said. “I really love it, and that’s a big part of it. It’s something that really excites me. … Clothing is timeless. … We’ll find a way no matter what.”
To shop Akashi-Kama and for more information, visit https://www. akashi-kama.com or visit Instagram @akashi_kama.