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Island Hopping: J. Sabatino Finds His New York in the Middle of Tokyo

Photographer Mae Ryan
December 17, 2010

The Big Apple’s haphazard bluster is easier to impart with loose jazz than stiff cotton, but J. Sabatino’s designs feel like a combination of both—cuts and cloth seemingly more riffed than sewn. Sabatino, who spent much of his youth in Manhattan in the late ’70s and early ’80s when frumpy dandies like Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie lounged around the LES, conjures the cracked pavement poetry of that disheveled era with boldly patterned suits and slouchy mohair jackets. And he does it all 7,000 miles from New York City.

Sabatino first honed his chops as a window dresser and vintage buyer in New York boutiques, but his skills eventually brought him to Tokyo where his eye for detail was rewarded in the niche-obsessed capital. He ended up settling there, absorbing the locals’ dizzyingly accurate and specific fashion appropriations. “You walk down the street in Tokyo and see history,” Sabatino says. “You’ll see a cowboy guy walking next to ’80s hip hop guy next to an Ivy League prep.” With his line, Sabatino funnels his New York through a Japanese filter, like fever dreams of movie scenes and old photos.

The shabby sophistication of Sabatino speaks to the person frustrated by thrift store finds that inspire but don’t always fit. He also encourages the thrifter’s spirit of not being too precious with your clothes. “I want to do suits that are washable and wearable, almost like denim jackets,” he says, “suits that have a slept-in elegance.” The eccentricity of a wide, short pant or a sulking jacket makes them pleasant urban foils to the buttoned-up Americana that’s been overwhelming menswear of late. “It’s more about the attitude of the guy and less about designing a uniform or costume,” Sabatino says. “You’ve got to be your own stylist, and all I do is try to design some of the tools to do that.”

Island Hopping: J. Sabatino Finds His New York in the Middle of Tokyo