Words and photos by Emma Do
The origins of the action figurines lining Fitzroy boutique, URA’s top shelf may surprise you. Ask the friendly Matsu behind the till what their story is and he’ll tell you that they’re the result of victorious toy battles and swaps with children in Japan. I first heard of URA from a friend who had fallen in love with his selection of Japanese made clothing and knick knacks, found right in the heart of Fitzroy. I was reeled in as soon as I heard he stocked UNIQLO and Muji.
I’ve exchanged no more than a handful of words with Matsu when he invites me to sit down for tea (his home is conveniently located right behind his shop front). As he brews a of barley tea, he speaks of his penchant for conducting Pokemon card style trades with kids with collectable figurines. He returns to Japan twice-yearly, making stopovers to his hometown of Osaka and nearby Kyoto to scour second-hand markets. “I get lots of weird looks when I’m at the market because I’m carrying massive bags of clothes,” he tells me.
His finds –an assortment of women and mens shirts, vintage Parisian labels, quirky t-shirts, funky sweaters and kimonos – all end up on the racks of URA. He makes sure they are all in good condition (Japanese consumers are sticklers for quality, a demand reflected in the high quality of clothing in their high-street stores) and that they definitely don’t smell like your grandma. Price points on vintage are refreshingly on point; you won’t find hundred dollar polyester garb here.
On the store’s central table is a collection of tabi shoes, or as you might know them, the humble ninja boot. Worn by construction workers and elderly folk back in Japan, they were most famously made ‘totally fashun’ by Maison Martin Margiela. Seeing my curiosity at the boots in their original form, Matsu explains the construction of the shoe. “That separation between the toe and the rest helps them to balance on bamboo scaffolding,” he says, “It’s not only about the design, it’s functional! And also the sole is really flexible. It’s like closer to being barefoot because you can feel the ground, which you can’t do with normal shoes”. Steeped in tradition, Matsu hopes the craft of tabi making continues.
The tabi he stocks are handmade in Kyoto (it’s the only remaining company in the world who handcraft them), and are his way of supporting the local industry there.”The company is trying to combine tradition with fashion so the younger generation can appreciate and continue the business. If you go to Kyoto, you might be able to see some cool young people wearing some crazy stuff and they wear tabi.” I can’t imagine Aussie tradies swapping their steel toe boots for a pair of tabi but perhaps hip young things in Melbourne will fancy them.
I’m browsing the racks when Matsu invites me to a Japanese paper clay artist’s exhibition. It later turns out to be an absolute riot (and here is the proof if you’re interested). Subsequent visits to URA always resulted in tea, generous stories and something quirky to check out. It’s stores like URA that renew the faith in bricks and mortar retail.
URA, 28 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, VIC 3065