For Masafumi "Bebetan" Watanabe, surfing has always held a special meaning. The designer behind Bedwin & The Heartbreakers, a Japanese-manufactured line inspired in equal parts by nomadic lifestyles, rebellious subcultures, and durable workwear, looked to surf culture's preppy past as the inspiration for his new collaboration with Reef. Bebetan's capsule collection is a first for the beach-associated footwear brand, which is now probably known more for its strapped-up sandals and beer-opening flip-flops. But this collaboration with Bebetan is just a first step in what both parties hope is a long journey towards combining Bebetan's pragmatic-yet-aesthetically pleasing design sense into Reef's brand DNA.
The resulting collection—titled M.W for Reef—consists of four footwear styles for men and women, a bucket hat, two pants, two shorts, two T-shirts, and a lightweight oxford shirt available with long or short sleeves. The footwear features a low-top corduroy oxford and a mid-top denim chukka, and two unique pairs of flip-flops. One pair of rubber flip-flops feature an Edo-period wave print, while the show stealers have to be the tanned leather flip-flops set on a chunky Vibram sole—it's actually Bebetan's favorite in the collaboration.
We sat down with Bebetan before the launch party for the M.W for Reef collection at Brooklyn's Kinfolk store. He also styled four exclusive editorial looks featuring pieces from the collaboration, modeled by world-class surfer Luke Davis. Check it out as Bebetan talks about the inspiration behind the collaboration, his love of surf culture, and the challenges he faced when designing for a large-scale manufacturer like Reef.
How did this collaboration come about?
Me and Tom [Cooke, Reef's Vice President of Footwear] are old friends. We were always talking about doing something together for a long time. Maybe a year or a year and a half a go, he brought the idea for this project.
How did you and Tom meet?
I think 12 years ago. He came to Tokyo with his friend Berto Liechty and that time he had just started a Syndicate project, which was like a club of hardcore skaters. It was a very successful project.I was in Tokyo and a mutual friend of ours introduced everybody. And that’s how we started to hang around together. Every time they came to Tokyo to get inspiration after China, we always hung around together, skated together, and traveled together. Anyway, so they brought these ideas a year and a half ago, and that’s how this started.
This collaboration is very surf-inspired. Do you surf?
I’m not a surfer, but I’m always dreaming about a surfer lifestyle. So at first, I thought: "Hmm, I cannot do [this collaboration] because I’m not surfing. How can I get inspiration?"
I'm always like reading books, checking out photography books, and always dreaming about surfing, but there's no water in the city. Surfers have the style; they have the culture; they live the culture. They’re always in the water, they've got suntans—very masculine. When they wear anything, they look cool anyway.
So the inspiration came from that laid-back approach to dressing?
Yeah, so I made simple clothes. Not to make it look fashionable or anything, but to make it look like the guy who has been in the city— just trying to connect the city and the ocean. Combined together. That’s how we started thinking about the project.
What was the main inspiration from the clothing first?
The clothing I got inspiration from the '50s. '50s surfers, that kind of era. It was like a soft, preppy style: various shorts, board shorts, polo shirts with collars.
Like Endless Summer, wearing suits on the plane?
Yeah, and there’s kind of an inspiration by Beatniks, 'cause people were having short haircuts. And Miki Dora, the surfers back then. That’s what I was inspired from. I’ve always like American traditional preppy wear and stuff, so why don’t surfers wear it as cool shirts on the beach? Also when they come to the city, they look cool too.
This is the conversation me and Thomas had: I just gave him two different options. One was like the '70s hippy styles, like tie-dye or exotic clothing, but the other one was this clean look. Like modernized Tokyo inspired by the '50s, but it looks clean-cut. Then we choose the clean cut one, that’s how we picked inspiration from all the eras and styles.
There’s also the heavy wave pattern, that’s on the wall in Kinfolk right now but it’s also on the flip-flops. What was the origin of that?
Oh the wave pattern, it's from the Edo era which was like a couple hundred years ago. Japan has a traditional like drawing style which we call Seigaiha. It’s all the patterns of the waves, a very individual look. We were searching online and there was an vintage book from like the 1930s that was about wood-block printing. It’s like stamping. We found it and I remember I said, to Tom: “That’s the one.” And then we modified slightly and made a new piece. I always look at American direction, but then they look back to the Japanese direction.
You’re known from implementing a lot of subtle details into your clothes, like the oxford shirt in the collaboration, it has a the tab collar and a contrast locker loop on the back. Is that also a nod to the '50s?
Yeah, and it’s also combined with workwear. Surfers travel a lot, but the beaches are all over the world to find the good waves, so they need something to bring, functional stuff. It’s just like inspiration from their lifestyle, then maybe we can put in more workwear style or outdoor stuff onto the preppy style. That’s how I get all the details.
And what about the pants? What did the inspiration for those come from.
It’s the same, from '50s, surfers. They're kind of like heavy duty but comfortable, not very heavy, it's easy to walk in them.
What’s the material?
The material is a cotton chino.
The front pockets are unique too, you don't see that kind of pocket often.
Yeah, the front pocket is inspired from like a Ben Davis pant, workwear from America. When I was in L,A. I saw so many working class people wearing Ben Davis or Dickies. Especially skaters, because the workwear pants are very cheap, but also very unbreakable.
Bedwin is making clothes in Japan with costly materials, and "Paramount Quality" is the slogan. When working with a company like Reef and making clothing on a larger scale, you have to meet a lower price point and can't oversee production as much. How do you as a designer problem solve between expecting a certain pedigree of durability and fit but also being realistic about the process?
That’s a great question. I started to think about it when I got the offer from him. It’s a good challenge. But at the same time I just like to keep my ideas, like design details. It’s not as high quality as my brand, but it's still very friendly with an affordable price point to a larger audience of consumers.
Bedwin and The Heartbreakers is a very niche brand. People with a knowledge of fashion, they find us and like what the value of the brand is. If I talk about my brands to any other people, they don’t know. But Reef is a brand is a mega brand—everybody knows about it; everyone probably wears it once in a lifetime. So this is a really great opportunity to deliver my message to the people. That’s what I really appreciate this offer. But there are definitely challenges, like usually my production in in Japan—99% of it is made in Japan. This is not made in Japan, but the idea is coming from Tokyo. It’s a very interesting collaboration, good chemistry. I enjoy the price points because we can deliver the message to so many people. I think it’s just the beginning of the journey.
The most unexpected thing about the footwear is that there isn't a strapped sandal. In terms of menswear you see that coming back, whether it’s a luxury brand or brands like Reef. Guys are wearing it now in a non ironic way. Was that a an intentional decision?
They asked me what type of shoes I wanted to design. I didn’t know so much about the shoe industry, especially the soft shoe industry, but they just give us a good example and it looked interesting, like the Rover. It’s kind of like a folky analog with a high deck bottom and comfortable soles.
All those things are fresh concepts to me, because I wear adidas, Nike, and Vans—all the big sport brand type shoes. But then they have their own vision. It’s probably also because I'm like I’m the fashion and clothing guy, so the shoes are inspired by my clothing. They combine denim, canvas, corduroy—all the fabrics in the clothes that I usually wear. I don’t want to be a shoe designer, because they have knowledge more than I do. I just give my ideas with the fabric, coloring, and detailing, but this is not designed by me, this is all together. I can’t do this without their help.
What about the flip-flops? They look awesome in the leather with a chunky Vibram sole.
Tom and I, we’ve known each other for a long time, he knows what I like already. So then he knew: "You must like this." He showed me one with a big leather sole. I love this stuff, you know? A Vibram sole with a leather flip-flop, it was already a fresh idea to me.
For the longest time in cities like New York and Tokyo, skate has been the predominant subculture, mainly because with surfing you need the ocean to do that. Do you think it’s possible for the styles and the lifestyle of surf culture to transcend that?
Yes, definitely. I was born and raised in Tokyo—I’m pretty much a city guy, but I’m always dreaming about the lifestyles by the ocean, what they're living their life live. Always waking up in the morning, going to the ocean, surf a couple waves, all that stuff, coming back and having breakfast. I was always like: "Oh, that would be nice to have a life like that." It’s very fancy what they do: traveling the world, finding good waves in Mexico, Costa Rica, the south of France, all those places. What a dream lifestyle.
It’s like a different kind of luxury.
Yeah, then like in Tokyo, there’s so many people I think who love the surfer lifestyle. So we always pick up what they wear. People like me, they love skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, or BMX—all those types of cultures inspire me a lot. They definitely like to put it in their part of their lifestyle. That’s why Saturdays Surf is good in Tokyo too. They still love the lifestyle of surf.
One more surf-related question, have you seen Point Break?
What do you think of the trailer for the upcoming remake?
I didn’t watch it. Who's going to be in it?
Not Patrick Swayze, Gary Busey, nor Keanu Reeves—and that’s all that matters.
Bad idea; leave it alone.
The M.W for Reef collection drops June 3 at select boutiques like Kinfolk.