Both the founder and designer of Mountain Research, Setsumasa Kobayashi began his first line, General Research in 1994, later changing the name to Mountain Research in 2006. Despite having no formal education in fashion, Kobayashi approaches design with the dedicated and in-depth approach of an academic and has built a vibrant career, spanning more than 25 years in both footwear and clothing. Delving deep into the minutia of every item he creates, Kobayashi finds a way to meld disparate elements, ranging from the outdoors and military clothing to anarchism, motorcycles and literature, creating his own distinct universe. With a highly conceptual lens on fashion, it’s hard to imagine that a Phish concert in the woods was the catalyst for Mountain Research.

It is no mystery that nature is deeply woven into Kobayashi’s DNA. Splitting his time between Tokyo and his unique, custom-built retreat in the Nagano mountains, he lives the eternally balanced lifestyle. Sitting in his atelier, I look up and observe the sea of vintage and personal designs he has on display. With live recordings of Phish playing in the background, I sit down with the man of many layers as he opens up about the collaborative process behind the HAVEN / Mountain Research collection and his journey creating Mountain Research.




Can you tell us about your beginnings? What drew you to the world of design and fashion?

I started out in the footwear industry. I was born in Asakusa, where my father ran a shoe factory; our family lived on the second floor of the factory. My father would design the shoes and a team of craftsmans would make them. After graduating high school, I went to work at an Italian shoe factory in Florence for about a year and half, before returning to Tokyo. Around this time, the Tokyo fashion scene was picking up and I was very curious, but knew nothing other than footwear then. I decided to work for a small Japanese footwear company that designed footwear for several Tokyo runway shows in the 1980’s. After spending five years there, designer Takeo Kikuchi asked if I could help design the footwear for their collection. This is where, I believe, I was getting closer to my goal of creating my own clothing line. During this period, I observed the interesting movement culminating through both Jun Takahashi and his many Ura-Harajuku peers in the early 90’s. I thought, well since I’ve always taken an interest to fashion, why not try my hand at designing clothes? Through Takeo Kikukchi, I connected with a patternmaker who helped build the framework for General Research in 1993.


実家が浅草の靴屋だったんですよ。小さな靴工場の2階が住居になっている家で、1階で父親が靴のデザインや木型を手掛けて、 職人たちが靴を作っていて。高校を卒業してからイタリアに1年半ほど住んでその間、現地の靴工場で修行を積み、日本への帰国後は東コレのランウェイショーの靴を作っている小さな会社で5年ほど働きました。85年に会社を辞めたあと、菊池武夫さんがコレクションの靴デザインをやってみないかと声をかけてくれたんです。もともと自分は靴よりも服が作りたかったから、服作りとの距離が近くなったのはラッキーでした。裏原のカルチャーが始まる頃の1994年になると、当時友人たちが始めたブランドの靴も作らせてもらったりしました。そんな中、ジョニオ君たちの服作りのやり方が面白かったので、自分でもやってみようと思い立って、菊池武夫さんの仕事で知り合った洋服作りの仲間たちと一緒に作り始めたのが〈ジェネラルリサーチ〉。1993年のことで、そこからは洋服作りの世界に入っていきましたね。

After launching General Research, what drew you to further refine the name and the brand’s mission?

General Research was my first venture into clothing design. Since I only had a background in footwear, I asked myself: What’s the best way to approach this? From there, I figured, how about starting off broad and narrow it down from there? But then I came to realize that creating such a vast range of product under one brand would make things complicated. Why not separate my interests into their individual research lines, and delve deeper from there? It would allow me to sift through, for example, outdoor-wear, naval-wear, biker-wear, and more accurately pinpoint each study.

As someone with no affiliation to any tribe, collective or fashion group, I chose to approach clothing from a place of personal interest. Rather than following a trend, or collaborating with peers, I was intrigued by researching the many facets of clothing that existed. My exploration always starts from the size of a Lego block, and expands through further investigation and understanding. Without that starting interest, the research doesn’t come to fruition.



個人的に何かに興味を持って、ある対象をリサーチしているという構図はずっと変わらないんです。洋服作りに関する教育を受けたこともないから、フッテージというか、参照になる資料が目の前にないと何もできない。かつ、レゴブロックを組み立てるようにしか作れない。自分にとって服作りは、リサーチをしながら素材を組み合わせてパズルをしているようなもの。 だからリサーチの対象がないと始められないんですよ。

What are some of the design inspirations for your work with Mountain Research?

When I first started Mountain Research, 1960’s mountaineering gear interested me the most. A bit after the Korean War era, there was an excess of military wear that had been stocked up. A lot of these pieces were then dropped off at military surplus stores for people to buy. The wide array of pieces, like sailor hats and M-65 trousers worn with leather mountain boots and white button-up shirts, were really intriguing. I remember thinking how neat it was, seeing photos of the Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, wearing this clothing on the mountains. This generation of military silhouettes shaped the building blocks for Mountain Research.



Mountaineering garments have significantly influenced the brand’s identity, but music has played a large role as well. Can you share some of the musical inspirations that shaped the identity of your brand?

Well, I was born around the 1960’s, so from elementary school I was listening to the likes of The Beatles and many other English artists. My interests migrated to punk once I reached high school. After graduating high school, I went on to work in Italy at the end of the 70’s, around the disco boom. Upon returning to Tokyo, I was listening to Talking Heads, David Byrne, et cetera.

For about ten years now, I’ve been only listening to Phish [laughs]. I get a feeling similar to sitting in a nice hot bath for an extended period of time when I listen [laughs]. The moment in which I chose to start Mountain Research came during a 2004 Phish show that I went to. It was a four-day camping concert that took place in a deep woodland area of Maine. The use of oversized garments, combined with bits of nylon and cotton, I thought was so stylish and fashionable [laughs]. More so than the people of the cities, the people around the festival grounds had so much style.

I was so intrigued by the alternative aesthetic. Seeing the people by the mountains, all gathered for this Phish show in their unique styles, impacted my outlook on clothing. I figured, why not try to bring this same feeling to the mountains of Japan? This then sparked my search for a mountain location. That soon evolved into changing the name of General Research to Mountain Research; there was no turning back. Through deeper thinking, I came to realize that the 2004 Phish concert had created the shift. I wanted to find a way to bring this free, alternative way of life back home with me to Japan.




〈マウンテンリサーチ〉をはじめたきっかけも、2004年にフィッシュのライブを見たから。ボストンから車で8時間ぐらい走ったメイン州の森の中で、3日間キャンプインして参加するショーです。そこに集まっていた人々はアウトドアウェアでがっちり身を固めた人はいないし、とは言って単にヒッピーのような感じでもない。みんなすごい適当な感じがこれまた良かったんだよね。彼らが選ぶ服のサイズ感や、コットンとナイロンの組み合わせもめちゃくちゃ洒落ているなと思って。 いろんなものが混ぜこぜになっていて、みんな適当で(笑)。街中で見る人たちよりもはるかに面白かった。



You’ve touched on how fashion and music played a part in your journey. Was nature also an important theme for you?

When I was a child, I used to spend my summers visiting my grandfather in Nagoya. He would often go hunting in the Suzuka mountains, and being an only child, I would tag along with his hunting group. Each summer, I would spend up to forty days at a time with the group. I would go on these trips all the time, way up until high school. Although I didn’t know much about mountaineering and camping, I became accustomed to spending long periods in the mountains during this time.



Can you talk about your emphasis on practical, functional and utilitarian clothing?

Yes, it’s something I value highly. For Mountain Research, I test run all our samples at the mountains to see how they fare in that environment. When I make a sample, I always make my own size. I need to actually try on and see how our products function and it’s always more important that the product is comfortable and functions well for me.



All of your collaborations seem to strongly align with the Mountain Research message. What’s the most important unifier amongst your collaborations?

When it comes to collaborations, the potential partner should have something that piques my interest, and be able to make something that we would not be able to make on our own. For instance, our recent collaboration was with Columbia: I was interested in their designs and even used a lot of them in my own collections from very early on for General Research, so I felt lucky to be able to work together on a project. With HAVEN, we had both own and run retail stores, so we were very intrigued to work with them. Typically, we don’t feel a serious urge to partake in a collaboration unless there is something intriguing for both parties. There needs to be an interest in a project before committing, otherwise there’s the possibility of losing momentum while working on it.



Did you have any particular intentions going into the collaboration with HAVEN? Were there any choice pieces from the collection?

When first connecting with the HAVEN team, I was curious about what direction this collaborative project would take. After getting a clearer idea of their intended direction, it made total sense. With a similar understanding for design and aesthetic, I knew there was great potential to make something special together. To be honest, I really enjoyed all the pieces from the collection. I thought particular details, like the detachable fisherman pants, were unique and well executed. I enjoyed working on the collection and was pleased with how everything came together.



What does ‘Anarchy In The Mountain’ mean to you?

‘Anarchy In The Mountain’ holds true to how it reads. It stems from the Greek word anarcho, which translates to “a world with no governing or ruling power.” I was searching for this type of feeling in the mountains; a place where you can be left to your own devices, off the grid and without anyone to have to report to. The thought of going to a party, or clubbing on the weekends, is quite fine. But on a separate weekend, shutting off the electricity and going to the mountains is my form of an Anarcho society.



How did the ‘Platform For Living’ project materialize?

It was soon after we made the transition over to Mountain Research. We thought, if a fashion brand needed to be displayed on a runway, then what would an outdoor brand need? Since we’re not mountaineering professionals, we figured that we needed an actual location that was true to our designs and philosophy. The concept behind the brand has always been to enjoy the Japanese mountains. I want people to go out and enjoy the mountains, wearing clothes that they like. Tying into the Anarcho lifestyle, we took somewhat of a squatter mentality [laughs]. I do not want us to be mountain-y people, making mountain-y products. But I want to create our story and philosophy in the mountains and show this authentic story on the actual product. If our customers use any of our products in the mountains, then I want them to feel satisfied with them and they can say this product is very awesome. We wanted a location by the mountains to hang out. This was the fundamental idea behind Platform for Living, and we needed a site to bring it to life.




Was there a reason why you chose Nagano Prefecture for your retreat?

When starting our search, we wanted an accessible location, ideally within a two hour drive from Tokyo. However, that was short of options so we extended our range to within 2.5 – 3 hours. During our search, I was reading a lot of books and essays by Yoshio Tabuchi, an author who moved to a mountain 30 years ago and wrote an essay about his time at the village there. After reading it, I had cemented in my mind that this was the kind of environment I needed. After further research, I went to the same village and visited the land owner. We expressed our interest in the location and the need for an untouched site that we could build this project around.



Were there any guidelines that you gave Shin Ohori and the General Design team for this development?

Yes, I knew I wanted two, 2-meter dome tents to act as bedrooms on the roof of the structure. We also wanted to strictly use natural materials from the village area when building. Keeping the wooden walls and surfaces free of paint was another request of ours. In order to preserve a 100% compostable development, we avoided the use of any paint or chemicals. If any of the wood in the structure were to deteriorate, we would replace it, one piece at a time. Those were the basic guidelines that I requested.



How does the retreat contribute to your creative process?

I’m not sure if I can directly say it contributes to our creative process; maybe more so to research and development. I never go to the mountains with the aim of creating something or to develop a new idea. I mean, to be fair, I don’t really have much free time to think about future ideas. When I’m there, I am so busy with upkeep and maintaining the estate. In the summer, we need to trim all weeds on the surrounding land. In the winter, I need to chop down trees to supply wood for daily use.

I’ll say though, while doing these chores around the estate, we wear and test our products. If I notice a zipper placed in a slightly inconvenient area, or the sleeves are too tight for easy mobility, then I take mental notes. These are the types of things I could never forget, especially if it hinders the user experience. Once the day’s tasks are finished, I’m usually way too beat and pass out [laughs]. Essentially, I never really have the time to draft up new designs.



でも作業をしているときに、サッと物を取ろうとする際のポケットの位置や角度や深さ、スリーブのタイトさなどは覚えているじゃない? 特に不便だった感じは絶対に忘れない。それを覚えていて東京に戻ってきたときに直します。作業が終わると疲れてヘトヘトになって寝ちゃうことばっかりだから、山では実際に一切デザインのことは考えられない……。

Interview: Orion Johnson | Translation: Kozue Sato | Photography (Atelier, General Store): Takehiro Goto