Writer W. David Marx, who wrote the excellent book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, loves magazines and printed ephemera. He’s amassed quite a few over the years, and remains an avid collector of rare, noteworthy, and culturally significant magazines at his home, and has a small side business where he sells a few of his acquisitions on Instagram.
He explains the enduring appeal of print magazines in a recent interview with A Collected Man:
“Magazines are like textbooks and, in that way, we are guaranteed that everything in them is correct. Whereas, if you saw the same object online, there wouldn’t be any guarantee if it’s okay. The internet is democratic, but magazines are more top down, and especially Japanese magazines, which intend to educate the readers more than any other country.”
Indeed, in a pre-internet world, magazines helped dictate a monoculture around style, taste, and fashion. In the West you had the likes of GQ, Esquire, and even Playboy in its early days, where the joke “I subscribe for the articles” once had credence to the magazine known for its nude pictorials and controversial founder Hugh Hefner. Playboy once represented a progressive, liberal mindset towards sex, politics, and culture, embracing drug culture and polyamory alongside highbrow, well-reported pieces on everything from profiles on interesting figures to dispatches from the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the 1960s.
At the same time, the 1960s were transforming post-war Japan. As the country was finally rebuilding itself after World War II, a rising leisure class was ready to engage in a more middle class lifestyle. Young publishers like Magazine House met this need with fashion magazines centered around specific lifestyles like skiing and camping.
Around then, Marx says a young illustrator named Yasuhiko Kobayashi discovered the seminal Whole Earth Catalog around 1969 in a Manhattan. bookstore and used it as the inspiration for Made in the U.S.A. magazine, which for all intents and purposes, was a prescriptive catalog on what to wear and what to buy in order to emulate what “real” Americans wore.
Popeye was the spiritual successor to both Made In U.S.A. magazine and the aforementioned niche publications like Ski Life. It heralded itself as “The Magazine for City Boys,” and remains one of the most authoritative publications on modern men’s fashion and style, even as trends have become more decentralized in the digital age. Its name and bubble logo of course comes from the titular sailor man, and its first issue and 40th anniversary issue featured him on the cover, although that’s as far as the ties go. Funnily enough, Popeye has a counterpart specifically dedicated to pop culture named Brutus, after Popeye’s archenemy (also known as Bluto).
Among Popeye’s most popular issues is its annual Style Sample, a bible of street style, trends, brands, and the most popping places around cities all over the globe. Its editors and contributors somehow have the innate ability to put longtime natives onto things they didn’t even know existed in their respective towns!
Another reason Popeye continues to stay relevant is because it reflects the Japanese consumer’s rapidly changing tastes and willingness to experiment with different styles and brands. It’s hard to single out a mainstream Western publication that’s been able to keep up with that pace and relevance as consistently.
That malleability has given Popeye’s authority a reach beyond classic menswear, high fashion, and streetwear. A quick flip through its pages and you’re likely to come across Supreme, Human Made, and Golf Le Fleur alongside BEAMS+, Prada, and Amiri. There are even grail issues that come with a special gift, like a 2001 issue that came with BAPE camo insoles. To make it into Popeye doesn’t just mean something’s big in Japan, it means that something is truly world class.