At the base of a brutalist 1970s apartment building in a laneway just off Bourke Street is Lieutenant & Co by Davy Zhu.
“Everything is made and imported from Japan, but it’s all strongly influenced by the golden eras of American culture from the ’30s to the ’60s,” Zhu says. “In Japan, they call the style amekaji, or ‘American casual’ … It’s very identifiable over there.”
The store stocks just 12 labels – all of them Japanese – including Black Sign, a workwear label with a foot in both the Victorian era and the 1940s; Rocky Mountain Featherbed, which first launched in the US and draws inspiration from America’s wild west; and casual-industrial clothing brand, Belafonte.
While everything is rooted in the amekaji style, the range is broad, covering formal suiting, workwear and old-school sportswear. A range of handmade 1920s-inspired leather boxing boots from Tokyo custom bootmaker Clinch is crafted entirely from dead-stock materials, right down to the soles. The shoes are all made-to-order, and shaped with Clinch’s own hand-crafted wooden lasts (the shaping mould for shoe construction). One order can take up to six months to complete.
“I’ve been admiring some these brands ever since I was 15,” Zhu says. “I like the Japanese approach. It’s not about making money … it’s about creating the best products, and producing them well.”
Zhu says that every style of jeans in the Lieutenant & Co denim collection – made by a selection of traditional denim-makers in Okayama, Japan – tells a story of America’s working-class history, whether that be through the placement of a rivet or waist position.
“They’re all Levi’s copies I guess, but all interpreted in their own way,” Zhu says, laughing.
He holds up a pair of Belafonte’s Wild West-style cinch-back jeans (with an adjustable buckle at the back of the waist) with nickel hardware, exposed rivets and half-lined pockets.
“This kind of cinch-back was quite popular back in the 1920s to the 1930s, before the Great War,” Zhu says. “But after the ’40s, teenagers started to cut them off their jeans, because they saw it as more of a grandpa thing. Now they’re back in fashion.”
Zhu’s knowledge of each item in the store is impeccable, creating a level of retail customer service that goes above and beyond. “I prefer a one-on-one kind of service. If I have too many customers in the shop, sometimes I just lock the door,” says Zhu. “I like to talk about the pieces and how they’re made.”
It’s for this reason that Zhu decided to not launch Lieutenant & Co as an online store, where he feels the wonder of the pieces would be lost and the shopping experience wouldn’t be as memorable. “You’re not paying for those jeans over there,” he says, pointing at a pair. “You’re paying for the experience of coming into the store.”
Each piece, whether it’s a knitted hunting-style T-shirt, hand-treated horse leather jacket or simple button-down shirt tells its own tale. Even the most minute details in the garments – such as a fan-shaped zipper or ball-chain appliqué – are carefully considered, and traceable back to the period the clothes were inspired by.
The design of the former comic book shop is inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its “World of Tomorrow” theme. “The whole event was about what the future could be like,” says Zhu. “We’ve got quite a lot of memorabilia from that era.”
Split over two levels, the store has an open plan design by local firm Geselle Architecture. As you make your way through the space, the decor transitions from one era to the next. The ground floor has a ’30s and ’40s feel, adorned with memorabilia from the World’s Fair, and the second is cleaner, more ’60s and ’70s inspired.
“There’s a strong focus on America’s fascination with space travel, and the optimism [and] curiosity for the future,” Zhu says of the upper level.
At the back of the shop, a large round steel grate frames the view of an internal courtyard and the Japanese ginkgo tree that sits proudly in the middle of it.
Ultimately, Zhu wants the space to encourage shoppers to come in, walk around and explore. “You might think, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that in an old war movie’, or ‘That looks familiar from some period in time’,” he says. “That’s what I want.”
Lieutenant & Co.
Shop 7/50 Bourke Street, Melbourne
(03) 9191 4108
Mon to Wed 11am–7pm
Thu to Sat 11am–8pm