Footwear brand Onitsuka Tiger goes for a sharp, minimalist look in keeping with its Japanese heritage. If only the product range wasn’t so minimal too.
You’d have to look pretty hard on UK high streets to find a more Japanese-sounding name than Onitsuka Tiger. Even names like Uniqlo, A Bathing Ape and Evisu – though they stem from the Land of the Rising Sun – don’t even come close. Couple this with the fact that the brand has its home in Kobe, home of the fantastically pampered cows, and this is a brand that ticks many of the boxes you’d expect of a product from this part of the world.
Onitsuka Tiger is positioned as a heritage brand, the reason for which is straightforward. The brand was born in 1949, founded by Kihachiro Onitsuka, to produce and sell running and basketball shoes. A couple of decades later the ‘rising sun’ stripe pattern, familiar to runners, was applied to the shoes, and the whole enterprise by the 1970s became subsumed within the Asics brand of which it remains part.
The Onitsuka Tiger stores are limited in number and sell many of the brightly coloured running shoes that Asics fans will know and love. The Newburgh Street store, just off Carnaby Street, is a small outpost and has been up and running for nearly seven years.
Key looks and merchandise mix
It is testimony to the power of the brand that while other stores, such as the Westfield London store and a branch in Liverpool, have subsequently opened, the Newburgh Street shop continues to trade in a street where brands seem to come and go almost every month.
Of the three Onitsuka Tiger stores in the UK, this one is probably the smallest. Like its bigger sisters however, there is really only one game in town when you walk into this branch: running shoes featuring the Asics stripes. These come in many colours and sizes with prices starting at £65 and rising to close to £150.
If you pay the latter price, expect to exit the store with a pair of trainers that may look similar to the others that are on offer, but which are made from a specific kind of leather (according to the member of staff who was in the store on the evening of visiting) and which, a little like high-end lithographs, are limited editions.
After this, it’s a matter of looking around, and yes, there is a small amount of clothing and some despatch rider bags made of the same brightly coloured leather. But this is a very narrow offer and if you don’t want a pair of sports shoes with some stripes on them, then in spite of the long-sleeved T-shirts, casual jackets and socks that are available, the chances are high that you may leave without a purchase.
This Onitsuka Tiger store seems aimed at the dedicated brand enthusiast, and if you like the shoes you’ll tread a path to this one. If you don’t then there are plenty of other stores in this part of central London that will provide a more extensive series of options.
When space is limited, the secret to good VM is to have one, or at most two, strong displays that will convey a message, without overloading the shop as a whole. Onitsuka Tiger seems to understand this, with a minimalist aesthetic that is embodied by the pieces of scrap wood that have been piled on top of each other to create something like a tapering pagoda on which the trainers can be displayed.
This is the major feature that can be seen from the street but which also dominates the interior.
The secondary windows showcase pairs of trainers contained within open-sided Perspex cubes and resting on perforated zinc grates – an effective way of focusing attention on the product and ensuring that the display does not overwhelm.
The stock itself is predominantly displayed on a plain wood wall that has been divided into boxes with a small shelf protruding from each. Again, your gaze alights on the footwear rather than the shelves. There is nothing tricksy about what has been done in this store, but it does work.
Newburgh Street and nearby Carnaby Street have their busiest time in the late afternoon and early evening on weekdays, and this particular evening proved no exception with most of the shops having at least a few shoppers inspecting wares. Onitsuka Tiger however was almost devoid of customers and in spite of chatting to the member of staff on duty for around 10 minutes, nobody ventured in to take a look.
There is an argument of course that this is not for the casual shopper, but it is, and the marked lack of shoppers meant that assessing the level of service was difficult. That said, on the matter of product knowledge the manager-cum-shop assistant knew things inside out.
Take a look at the Onitsuka Tiger website and there is a short film detailing the brand’s history. It takes origami as its central motif and the stripped back, plain nature of that art is reflected in the interior of this store. This store design is about simplicity and letting the product do the work. Perhaps the best examples of this are the doors, which are made of plain wood and are fashioned into a grid pattern using wooden strips – it’s the kind of Japanese aesthetic that occasionally puts form ahead of content.
Would I buy?
Perhaps. Becoming the owner of a pair of running shoes, the provenance of which will instantly be understood by brand aficionados, is what buying into the Onitsuka Tiger brand is all about. In comparison with many in this part of London, both footwear and clothing are reasonably priced. There’s a lot to be said for product depth, but a little more width wouldn’t be unwelcome either.
This is a good-looking small shop that has stood the test of time, but which probably does so by restricting the number of standalone stores to ensure both rarity and desirability.
Address 15 Newburgh Street, London W1F
Number of floors One
Opened Seven years ago and was recently refurbished
Other Onitsuka Tiger UK stores Westfield London and Liverpool
Brand founded 1949 by Kihachiro Onitsuka
Ambience Japanese minimalism