The Real McCoy’s headquarters in Kobe, Japan is extraordinary.
I had been warned it would be, but it really didn’t prepare me for the scale of the operation or for the mix of craft and eccentricity.
The company owns four warehouses in the port of Kobe, down by the water. They are huge, triple-height buildings, mostly used by neighbouring companies for importing and exporting food. Apparently all the region’s school meals come through here; big white bags on trolleys come by stamped ‘tapioca’.
The main warehouse McCoy’s uses is accessed by a huge brushed-steel door. Inside this, they’ve built an artificial concrete hallway, which leads you some 15m into the building (above).
A few bits of the design, like this one, come from the fact that the space was originally intended as a combination shop/cafe, as well as an office. The walls of the first room are decorated with hundreds of Star Wars toys on one side and vintage Fire-King mugs on the other for the same reason.
These are from founder Hitoshi Tsujimoto’s personal collections, about which much more later.
This ground floor is subdivided into several open rooms (no ceilings) which are used as a design office, a vintage archive, a hardware store and a stock room (above).
Not much of the production is done here – exceptions are leather jackets and printed T-shirts – but most of the materials and hardware go through.
The racks of both vintage and McCoy’s stock are obviously absorbing as a customer. It’s hard not to start flipping through the rails of vintage references and old McCoy’s products, and some of the former are amazing (below).
But actually, the things that impressed me most were to do with the production.
The first was the fabric samples in the design room (below), which cover an entire wall – even though the company’s only been keeping a record for four years. Ninety-nine per cent of the fabrics McCoy’s uses are exclusive (even sleeve linings) so there are a lot of them.
This also means big volumes. The minimums for exclusive nylon are huge, so it all has to be stored here, awaiting use. Cotton thread is the same – the company only uses pure cotton, but that’s rare in Japan (it’s mostly used for baby clothing). So big minimums have to be ordered, and stacks of it stored away.
The second thing was the vintage hardware.
One room tucked along a wall has shelves upon shelves of the company’s hardware: zips, pullers, studs, all custom made. (Which is very rare – perhaps a handful of the manufacturers I’ve ever covered do this.)
But then in a set of shelves at the end are several crates of vintage zippers – old Talon ones. “We bought all these in the 1980s, at a cost of about $10 a bag,” says Kent (pictured above in the fringed jacket), Hitoshi’s son. “That seemed crazy then, but now they cost $5 per zipper.”
The vintage pieces are all gradually being used in McCoy’s products, and will of course eventually run out. But for all those buying today, what a great addition to something trying to be a really authentic historic product.
“You should have seen this whole area 10 years ago”, says Kent. “It was a mess, everything written by hand, no stock tracking. It took me five years to sort and codify it all.”
The Real McCoy’s as a company was founded in 1990, but has been owned by Hitoshi since 2003. He ran a chain of vintage stores at the time that also sold repro clothing, and was McCoy’s biggest stockist.
In the past few years Kent – American educated and an ex-professional baseball player – has helped modernise the business, with help from his brother. “He works in IT and created our internal software system,” Kent says. “That’s made such a difference.”
Kent is a product person, always happy talking about loopwheel knitting or the intricacies of denim. He runs the McCoy’s production, managing suppliers and the company’s factories, of which there are an increasing number following issues with suppliers during Covid.
Those pressures have also changed the way the company sells: in the early 2000s it had over 100 wholesale accounts in Japan and one store. Today it has 20 accounts and nine stores.
Returning to our tour, we’re now getting to my favourite room, on the first floor.
Climbing up a metal staircase on the outside of the warehouse, you go through a small door and enter a room that runs the length of the building. There’s a big stove at one end, with a table, a few foldable chairs, and a big vintage coffee roaster around it. It’s saturated with the smell of wood and coffee grounds.
“This is where we all congregate for lunch,” says Kent, pouring us coffee. “We spend ages sitting around here in the winter, just chatting. There’s no heating so it gets pretty cold.”
There are only 18 employees across the two warehouses that the company uses, so the place has rather a loose, open atmosphere – it’s rare to see more more than one person in a room. So this area serves as a focal point.
After a few minutes, Alex (Natt, photographer) wandered over to the other end of the building. There, in glass-fronted cages, were some very rare and expensive cameras. And some watches. And many other things.
This is where we get into Hitoshi’s hobbies/obsessions. They include, or have included, sound systems, cameras, coffee, watches, fishing, and of course every type of old clothing.
“Sometimes when he has a new hobby, the best thing is to get a shipping container in and just put it outside the building – to store it all,” says Kent.
Later he shows the one at the back that contains all of Hitoshi’s fishing equipment. You unbolt the steel door, step inside, and are surrounded by racks and racks of poles, flies, nets, and other fishing-related paraphernalia that I can barely describe, let alone name.
“It’s very efficient – you can just lift in one of these things, put in light and air conditioning, and you’re good to go,” says Kent.
Right now, we’re being led up a spiral staircase that takes us into the middle of Hitoshi’s lair (ab0ve).
Here the hobbies are on full display. At one end is a desk backed by three beautiful old Hermes bags. In front is an EMT turntable with a set of Cello amps (not something I knew – Alex filled me in) and various other models dotted around the sofas and table.
One last level up, in the roof, is a personal cinema. One sofa faces a wide screen, with the whole room clad in types of sound proofing. Even the chandelier is covered in velvet.
“My Dad patented a couple of different types of sound proofing – this one is based on a bamboo forest,” says Kent.
Charmingly, Kent also says he remembers when he was a kid spending weekends sticking foam pieces to the ceiling, under careful direction of Dad. He looks at one as we leave and presses it back into place.
Above all this is the roof, giving out panoramic views of Kobe.
The company holds barbecues and other events up here, but until recently it was all covered with attractive indigo-dyed wood. Unfortunately the local council made them take it all off recently, and it’s now sitting in stacks next to that fishing/shipping container.
Later on we see a room filled with nothing but mammoth coffee roasters; part of another warehouse being turned into a T-shirt hub; production of horsehide jackets (the only things that are entirely made at HQ); and Kent’s mother’s yoga studio.
There is also a World War II plane, partial and rusted, sitting amongst old furniture in the second warehouse. Apparently it was discovered by a friend of Hitoshi’s in the Philippines, dredged up and brought to Japan, but none of the museums wanted it. So here it sits, surrounded by wooden chairs and jeans adverts.
It says something about the experience of visiting McCoy’s that this didn’t surprise us in the least.
Many, many thanks to Kent and everyone at The Real McCoy’s for their hospitality in Japan. For more on McCoy’s products, see article here including an interview with Hitoshi.