A collage of Free & Easy magazine covers, including one with Ralph Lauren which calls him

Free & Easy’s American Dream

How a cult Japanese shopping magazine became the world’s most passionate champion of timeless,
all-American style
Some things are best appreciated from a distance. From afar, beauty intensifies; patterns emerge; integrity comes into focus. That, anyway, is my explanation for the fact that few seem to appreciate rugged American style better than those living half a world away, in Japan. All the evidence you need for this can be found in Free & Easy, the Tokyo-based cult magazine founded in 1998 that’s now marking its 200th issue. Free & Easy celebrates the arcane, the rare and the vintage. It explores the minutest details of the products it focuses on, and its inexhaustible enthusiasm for American workwear and outdoor gear, as well as biker, military and traditional styles, has won it legions of fans throughout the world—a large percentage of whom cannot actually read it. But that mix of foreign and familiar is key to the appeal.

Like other Japanese magazines—Leon (dedicated to Italian, continental style), Popeye (the self-described “magazine for city boys”) and Eyescream (for trendier items)—Free & Easy has a discrete mission and stays true to it. That mission is to celebrate and explore a distinctly American breed of clothing, accessories and gear that has been produced using techniques that have, in many cases, all but disappeared from America itself. Since Free & Easy’s founding, some of these ideas and brands have enjoyed a resurgence Stateside, thanks, I would argue, to the market in Japan and its influence on the tastemakers here.
A triptych of Japanese magazine covers: (from left to right) Popeye, Eyescream and Leon
Three Japanese magazines dedicated to niche sartorial interests: Popeye, Eyescream and Leon
Free & Easy has a total commitment to its aesthetic and proposes a lifestyle that founder, publisher and editor in chief Minoru Onozato dubs “unfashionable fashion,” one that’s deeply rooted in Americana but practiced and perfected in Japan. “It’s interesting to investigate the details and materials that make for function as well as appreciate well-considered design,” says Onozato. “Lots of our features express the importance of understanding.” You won’t find out about the latest It bag from Free & Easy. That would run counter to the magazine’s belief that desirability is impossible until you first understand the significance of that bag, its history, its intricate details, its place in the culture.

Unlike American or European style magazines, Free & Easy doesn’t cover current events or pop culture. It formulates themes and explores them with incredible depth, getting extremely granular in dissecting the products, people and activities that it encompasses. It mixes vintage clothing with new. It has very little advertising and, where there are ads, they fit in with the content of the book to be nearly indistinguishable from editorial content. There are no off pages in an issue of Free & Easy.

Each issue is organized to explore one aspect of the Free & Easy canon. These themes repeat periodically. Three of the most popular are Dad’s Style, Rugged Style and Trad Style. Here’s how Onozato describes each: “Dad’s Style means the man who has his own style, who spends his days immersed in his interests with full intellectual curiosity. He also should do his best for his professional career. This is the style we idealize. Rugged Style is the manly man’s style. It is based on workwear, outdoors and military gear. This man likes things with simplicity and fortitude. Men like Steve McQueen, Takeshi Kaiko and Ralph Lauren are the best examples of ‘rugged’ men. We use the word frequently not only for fashion or style but also lifestyle. Trad Style is the term used often in Japanese men’s and women’s fashion magazines. That is literally from traditional style, but particularly Free & Easy goes with American Trad—or traditional East Coast—style.”

The men who populate each issue are as meticulously curated as the garments, apartments, dishes and dogs they own. Few references are made to their day jobs; instead the focus is on hobbies and aesthetic pursuits. All are honored to be a part of Free & Easy, and many are longtime readers. It’s a virtuous cycle. Those who read become the subjects, and in that way the editors do not report on trends, they create them—not in the way American and European fashion editors do, with lights, magic, casting and the latest runway looks, but by inspiring readers to go deeper. If they go deep enough, they too may find themselves named “blazer champion” or “best in Dad.”
Minoru Onozato seated in a vintage managerial desk chair wearing a suit, sunglasses and a red plaid tie
Free & Easy Editor in Chief Minoru Onozato
Free & Easy has a total commitment to its aesthetic, which founder Minoru Onozato dubs ‘unfashionable fashion.’
  • Readers obsessed with Trad Style may find themselves the winner of Free & Easy's Navy Blazer World Championship
  • "Dad’s Style means the man who has his own style, who spends his days immersed in his interests with full intellectual curiosity. He also should do his best for his professional career."

Onozato and team know what they like, and when they can’t find a product or person that exemplifies an editorial idea, they find it necessary to create one. In 2007, this led to the founding of The Rugged Museum, in partnership with the Ralph Lauren brand RRL. “It created a furor with the items made in collaboration with RRL when it was opened,” says Onozato. “Now, many items are made especially for The Rugged Museum and have our own label. The museum’s displays of valuable vintage items are changed monthly according to the issue’s theme.”

As the magazine’s physical manifestation, The Rugged Museum is really the only way for fans to interact with the editors. While they are proud to have circulation throughout the Western world (mainly through Japanese-language bookshops and fashion specialty stores), they update their website minimally and have no social media presence. The staff is small and the workload is Herculean to ensure every issue is just right. “We don’t use social media so far,” Onozato explains. “We will make it if we need it for our creation.” It’s probably better this way. Part of the appeal lies in the mystery for myself and other Americans about the inner workings of the Free & Easy world, and I think this is a two-way street. Ironically, for someone so obsessed with American style, Onozato has spent little time in the United States, perhaps for fear of diluting the purity of his aesthetic.

The America on the display in the pages of Free & Easy is a place I have never lived in—though I’d happily live there if I could. I’ve found glints of it in New York and New England, and I’ve enjoyed full days of it in Big Sky Country and on the California coast, but it is fleeting. I’m not sure if it ever fully existed, outside of moving pictures and the written word, and if it did, it was well before my time, and Onozato’s. But the dedication to the fantasy of what America should have been and could be is the true magic of the magazine. I think of it as a blueprint: It won’t give you the instructions for how to make your America a more perfect place, but it will show you all the pieces you need. Some assembly required.
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JOSH PESKOWITZ is the men’s fashion director of Bloomingdale’s and has written extensively on fashion and style for Esquire, The New York Times, At Large and other publications.