A decade ago, when Londoner Kodj Glover was a teenager, he took a trip to Japan with his mother and became obsessed with high-quality Japanese clothing. He promised that if he ever started a company himself, he would return to Japan for inspiration. On today’s show, Kodj explains how he’s made good on that dream, having recently launched his own brand, Fuji&Hakone.
DANIEL GIACOPELLI: Hey guys, Danny here, editorial director of Courier. You’re listening to the Courier Weekly, a podcast all about working better and living smarter.
This week is about making a childhood dream come true. A decade ago, when Londoner Kodj Glover was a teenager, he took a trip to Japan with his mother – and became obsessed with super-high-quality Japanese clothing. He promised that, one day, if he ever started a company himself, he would base it on a very particular and very rare type of production process called loop-wheeling.
Well, last week, after years of hustling, Kodj made good on that dream and launched his brand Fuji&Hakone.
I first heard about Kodj from our mutual friend Mills, the co-founder of Ustwo, who sent me back-to-back voice notes about just how amazing Kodj is – how he’s worked his ass off and why I just had to meet him. Here’s a taste.
MATT ‘MILLS’ MILLER: Hello mate, I'm obviously not the best person to actually talk about this, because Kodj is, but Kodj has been working at Ustwo for like five, six years. But, on the side, he's always had this passion since he was a little kid that he was going to bring this special texture, this special way of making T-shirts from Japan. He travelled out there with his mum years ago when he was younger. And since then, he's just always been obsessed by it. Two and a half years ago, he just thought, ‘Fuck it, I'm going to go for it – I'm going to start bringing this brand to life.’ He launches it tomorrow. I mean, it's like 80 pieces only.
It's unbelievable. He's such an incredible human, he really is. He’s got such a wonderful story, he's just so fucking genuine. And what he's doing is just brilliant. It's design led. It's super small. I think he's just gold. Everything about him is genuine. Everything.
DANIEL: So, how can you not be intrigued by something like that? This week I’m with Kodj for an in-depth look at how one guy with zero fashion experience followed up on his dreams and ended up making something pretty damn impressive. We really get into the weeds here, so if you get excited by things like supply chains, pricing, minimum order quantities and obscure manufacturing machines – then this show is for you. Here’s Kodj.
KODJ GLOVER: I'm the youngest of three, and my mum – I think she started with my first brother – she said, ‘When he's 16, he can go to any country in the world.’ So I kind of heard his stories of going. Then my other brother who's two years older than me, I had a closer experience of seeing his coming of age at 16. He went to Cuba and had this crazy time. And I was just like: shit, where am I going to go? I had no real intention of it. I thought maybe the Caribbean or somewhere in Africa.
Just as I was getting up to the 16 year age and cashing in on that promise, I'd fallen in love with streetwear and sneaker culture. At the time, G-Shock was the thing. And I was searching everywhere for this G-Shock. It was yellow and black. And I couldn't find it anywhere, I couldn't find it online to deliver to the UK. EBay, I was unsure because it was probably fake. And then I was like, you know what, there's only one place they're going to have this. I didn't even look into it. I said, ‘They've got it in Japan.’ And then from that moment, Japan was in my head and it just had to be Japan.
DANIEL: Was your mom like, ‘Ah shit, that's an expensive flight.’
KODJ: Yes, but it was more because it was long. She hates long flights and it was like 12 hours and she was like, ‘What are you doing? Are you sure? I don't think she really had any interest in travelling to that part of the world, either, so she wasn't really on it. But as we got there, it was such a moment for the both of us because we both experienced such a different and interesting culture, one that also had bits that we really related to. I mean, there were moments in Japan when we were searching for an African restaurant and we found this small hole in the wall restaurant. It was just the most amazing experience. So going to Japan and then being around not just an interesting culture, but a culture that was interested in me and people that look like me. Do you know what I mean? It was cool, yeah. That’s where it all started.
I said I was into streetwear and stuff like that. So there was a brand called Loopwheeler, which is still my dream collaboration. They're like the OGs in the kind of manufacturing that I'm looking to do.
So they had done a collaboration with Nike around the time. And in the press release they had the garments with no models in it, floating, and there were beads of water just sitting on top of the fabric. And I was like, ‘Whoa, wait, how is it not soaking up? Is it waterproof? How is this even happening? I was just fixated on this idea of cotton that's waterproof. And then it was Nike, which is every kid's dream. So ,when I was in Japan, in my head it was something I needed to feel, something I needed to see. I was also really interested in Ralph Lauren around that time and all of the real American heritage brands. And there was just ample in Japan as well.
DANIEL: I mean, the Japanese do it better than the Americans do these days.
KODJ: Later, my years of research really clued me up on why that was, but at the time I had no idea. So I was like, ‘What? They like Ralph Lauren, too! I love Ralph Lauren!’ It was mad.
I can't remember the department store, but I went with my mum and I was walking around. It was like a museum, man. And I found a Loopwheeler. No, actually I asked someone if they had a Loopwheeler-Nike collaboration. And he said ‘yes’. It's funny because my mum actually reminded me of this story the other day. She was like, ‘Remember when you asked the guy and he had to walk through security?’ And he went on such a long journey to get this guy – it was so guarded. And he brought it out and I was feeling it. It was like three, four hundred dollars for a hoodie. It wasn't going to happen. But I was just obsessed.
So, yeah, from that moment, I was like: if I ever make a clothing line, it's got to be this.
DANIEL: I was Instagram stalking you and I saw that you were posting about this brand in 2017 and you just launched it now. So you've been working on this for years. And, you know, you nailed the branding and the logo and the name and everything three years ago. So when you decided to actually pull the trigger and say, I'm going to do this thing, what was the first step? Did you book another flight to Japan immediately and be like, ‘Alright, let me find this machine…’
KODJ: Exactly. So that's where it started. It was last year, actually, I went back to Japan, so 2019. So thank you first of all for saying that the branding was together because the early stuff in 2017 was me spitballing, that was me on Photoshop or whatever, just coming up with ideas and just being like, ‘This would be a cool aesthetic,’ or ‘This would be a good piece of something for someone to scroll back down to.’
So it started like that, it started slow. Then it was like… your garment, the product is your USP, so you need to get as close to that garment as possible. And that was in Japan. Even prior to going in 2019, I'd started communication just over email with this manufacturer that I'd found on Alibaba initially. I don't know if you've had any experience with Alibaba, but I'm sure anyone who has, they know how inconsistent and how choppy and how much of a brain freeze it can be. So, yeah, it was almost two or three years just through emails, trying to gain some sort of rapport. I said I went to Central Saint Martins, that I was studying in my final year, that I was doing an essay on international trade and influence and stuff. And I really, at the end of it, wanted to produce this line. And they were into it!
DANIEL: And that was all bullshit, right?
KODJ: That was all bullshit!
DANIEL: So, to be clear, the vision was to make these really high-quality products using Japanese manufacturing techniques. So why were you then going through Alibaba? Were you looking for manufacturers in Japan through Alibaba?
KODJ: It was random. I didn't mean to go to Alibaba, but I was looking for a loopwheel machine or a loopwheel manufacturer, which is referred to as Tsuriami-ki in Japanese. I was kind of putting all these phrase words and just plugging them into Alibaba. And then lo and behold, one popped up and I was like: oh shit, OK, wait, I can actually put an order in. This is crazy. Like, what? So I started off just with a T-shirt and some hoodies and I got them blank. I just had them sent over blank from Japan and then did all the screen print and all the appliqué badge stuff that I wanted to do here in the UK. But, of course that process is one, quite unethical. There's a lot of miles in there, there's a lot of stuff that I wanted to cut down on...
DANIEL: What's unethical?
KODJ: Just having it shipped from Japan to here from here to ship it to the screen printers and to do all the bits to have it shipped back to me.
DANIEL: So the carbon footprint was too big?
KODJ: It was just something in the back of my head that was niggling me, like: you need to make this process a lot easier. And there was only one way I thought I could do that, was going to Japan. I just had to go and see someone. I had to go and put some faces to names.
So I get there, I'm like, cool, I'm here. What day is good? Booked in a day. They sent me the location. It took me hours to try and find it. This is in Osaka, me and my girlfriend. And then we get there and literally you'd think I was like Versace or something. They were so happy to see me that I was like you don't even understand. I'm crying inside.
DANIEL: Was this because Japanese people are just so hospitable? Or they didn't know who you were…
KODJ: No, I don't think they knew or gave a damn who I was. I just think they were impressed that I was actually here in the physical. I think a lot of people get to a point in starting a clothing company and then the price hits or reality hits and you're almost like: shit, OK, maybe let me come back to that. They were like, ‘This young boy’ – I don't know if they remembered my Central Saint Martins story or not, but they're thinking this young man from fashion school – ‘we've been speaking to him for three years and he's here.’ Like what? So they gave me the grand tour. I saw everyone. I shook everyone's hand. It was a surreal experience…
DANIEL: Red carpet…
KODJ: Do you know what I mean? It'd be great if I could say that when I came back from Japan it was smooth sailing, but it definitely wasn't. It was 18 months of getting design files in the right format. Because I'm sending them PNGs and stuff and for a while it's OK, but then you need to start sending screens and your line sheets and everything. So. yeah, it was a lot of back and forth.
Long story short, we kind of got all the files over, things were nice and smooth, but two things happened. One was by the time I was ready to order because they produced the garments on this slow machine, the loopwheel machine, which is like 10 times slower than a normal machine now to produce garments. I mean, they produce a fraction of your high-speed machines. So that meant by the time I wanted to order, they had no XLs, they had all these odd numbers of stock. And I was just like: OK, first hurdle. But I took it anyway. The second was they went forward and produced all the garments before I officially signed off, or I had cost per unit. So as you can imagine, all my estimations and my prices were just all made up. And when I did get the reality of the cost per unit… Oh shit. I had to refactor and rethink a lot of stuff because, you know, made in Japan, this process, it all starts to add up.
DANIEL: Yeah. And when you now look at your prices, obviously they're high. You're making a luxury product, right? I mean, they look incredibly high quality, but your sweatshirts are £180, right? At the time, do you think they would be anywhere near that, or were you just kind of making it up as you were going along?
KODJ: At the time, I thought I could have the potential to get there, but I was like: nah, come on, £60 to £80 pounds, that's where people want to comfortably buy their sweaters and hoodies and stuff like that. So, yeah, the reality of the pricing just kind of reaffirmed what this whole journey was about. And especially with that big part of what we've seen in fashion, with streetwear and high fashion merging over the last three or four years. I think in the midst of that, a lot of brands have just been able to sell their identity without really taking into consideration the quality. So it was a lot of blanks with a brand identity which may have a following, which now makes this T-shirt worth £60. And I'm like: says who, you know? No way, I'm not doing that. So my whole mission was to disrupt that. How do we make sick streetwear that is just as cool, sick brand, sick identity…
DANIEL: But worth the quality.
KODJ: Exactly. Something we can actually say you can keep this for life.
DANIEL: Yeah. Instead of buying a logo, you're actually buying the quality. And I guess on the pricing thing it's like, whatever you price it, you'll find a customer base for that price. So it's all about how you position your brand. If you sell it for £70, then you're going to get people who could afford £70 sweatshirts. But if you sell it for £180, you're going to get people who are obsessed with quality and understand the quality. But you'll be pricing out probably 90% of the market who couldn't afford that.
KODJ: Yeah. And that is something that I seriously considered because my community and work and giving back to the younger designers and creatives is super important to me, so I was also conscious of the fact that I'm pricing these guys out.
DANIEL: And you had the name Fuji&Hakone even before you returned to Japan last year. No? You had the name in 2017. What's the name from?
KODJ: So if you see just at the bottom of that, it says Tokyo Grand Full Day Tour, and this one says Mount Fuji&Hakone.
DANIEL: So you're holding up a patch right now for those who can’t see. So those are stickers or patches?
KODJ: These are stickers. So we went on an excursion to Mount Fuji…
DANIEL: You and your mum.
KODJ: Me and my mum. So my mum booked it. At that age, you're just like: what do I do? Wake up, go to McDonald's or whatever, check some shit out. But your mum has this whole plan. She was like, ‘OK, we're going to do this. We're going to do that.’ She's like, ‘Yeah, we're going to get on this bus for how many hours.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, cool.’ But while we were doing it, they'd given out these stickers. I've got pictures of myself wearing it, like on my chest, the whole group stuck it on themselves as badges. And the whole Ralph Lauren thing the time just kind of pinged. I was like: shit, this is it! This is it! And I was on the coach back to the hotel. I just stuck them on a bit of newspaper and I said: yeah, whenever I do make that brand, this is going to feature.
DANIEL: That's so cool man.
KODJ: Thank you bro. It was a great reference to be able to point back to. And then when I recreated some of the logo that you see there, it just said Mount Fuji and Hakone. And I was stuck on a name and I was just like… Fuji&Hakone sounds right. It sounds nice.
DANIEL: I love it. So 16-year-old you wearing a sticker over your heart on a field trip, essentially, you've recreated that as your brand logo. And on your T-shirts and sweatshirts, the logos are in the same place, right?
KODJ: Yeah they are. I've just kind of doubled them up. So you've got a double patch.
DANIEL: Do you think you're going to get some tourism company from 2006 Japan getting in touch with you being like, ‘Hey, that's our logo!’
KODJ: Maybe… but I did some due diligence – I really scoured the net and there's not a lot of trace of it. But if anyone can find it, I embrace the origins of it. I'm not running away from it. I'm not trying to say, ‘Oh, I totally made this up.’ Nah, it's part of the story. Part of what makes this so special is it starting there.
DANIEL: Yeah. And, right now, so you literally just launched this week. What's the status? How's it going?
KODJ: Bro, people are buying it, which is great. At the price point.
DANIEL: I mean, again, these are expensive items of clothing, like £180 for a sweatshirt. Again, incredibly high-quality sweatshirt. But I mean, were you surprised that: oh, shit, people are actually buying these things?
KODJ: Of course, of course. The pricing is something that's weighed heavily on me from the beginning because I can't afford it! I'm still saving up for some of my shit. I don't just put it on. I have to literally buy it like everyone else buys it. So I was thinking who's my audience? Who do I appeal to? People my age, some of them aren't even in full-time jobs. So how does this work? So, yeah, to have some interest, it's been slow and steady but perfect, to be honest. Perfect enough for me to still have a job, still be able to iterate on the website because I built the website and everything. I've got to come up with content on a daily basis.
DANIEL: So it's a one-man band right now, a solo operation.
KODJ: One-man band, yeah. Not to say that I haven't had help from lots of my peers, family and colleagues and stuff like that. But, yeah, predominantly all me, man. Inventory, backend, Mailchimp, it's all backend now. I don't even know when I'm going to be able to design again! All my stores, all my Facebook ads, all these things. It's getting interesting.
DANIEL: What have you run into that you've been surprised by?
KODJ: Just backend.
DANIEL: You focused a lot on the product and not enough on the CMS or whatever?
KODJ: Exactly. I had no idea. And it's funny because I know how to design for these kinds of infrastructures and CMS and stuff is stuff that I know about, but I thought: yeah, Shopify – when I have to I'll get it all done. I didn't know, SKUs, potentially getting barcodes, the weight of the garment, sorting out shipping. Who's your courier? Your product price, is it including your postage or do you add that at checkout? Because you know, that can deter a lot of people. So all of these things I didn't know until about 48 hours before I brought the website live. And I swear to you, I was up to like 4am on the Wednesday and Thursday before Black Friday, tweaking the website...
DANIEL: It's like: what do you mean it costs £100 to ship? Whoops.
KODJ: Literally things like that, yeah. And setting up my Mailchimp and Shopify, getting 'buy' buttons, injecting bits of code in. It was mad. But we got there in the end and it's working. I like it!
DANIEL: And that’s it for this week. As ever, get in touch with any comments or ideas – I’m firstname.lastname@example.org. The Courier Weekly’s back again next Friday. See you then.