Customers don't just show up at Goro's. For the chance to enter the small, first-floor Tokyo jewelry and accessories store, there's a queue for a lottery first. The early birds arrive around 10am at the appointed spot in the Harajuku fashion district of the Japanese capital. Only after the lottery an hour later can the fortunate few winners join a new queue to go inside the shop – once it opens at 1pm. The wait on the pavement below can drag on for hours. And because Goro's always seems short of inventory, the staff impose limits on purchases. Rarely are customers allowed to go home with more than one piece of jewelry per visit.
And yet Goro's most loyal customers wouldn't have it any other way. ‘When you come again and again and the staff finally sell you an item that you've been asking for, it feels special,’ says Tomoyuki Tasaka, a 39-year-old who was a teenager when he first read about the brand in a fashion magazine. Since moving to Tokyo six years ago, he's visited the store more than 100 times. ‘I use all of my vacation days to come to Goro's. That's how big of a fan I am.’
Named after its founder Goro Takahashi, the shop sells original Native American-inspired silver-and-gold feather necklace pendants and rings, deerskin bags and other accessories. Prices typically range from ¥70,000 (£420) for a belt with a plain buckle to ¥149,500 (£896) for a silver chain. Everything is designed in-house, handcrafted in Japan and only sold at the Tokyo shop.
Since moving into the neighborhood in 1972, Goro's has been a place of pilgrimage for rock stars, fashion designers and bikers. Musicians John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and the Doobie Brothers have all visited. Early on, fashion designers Takeo Kikuchi and Junko Koshino were regulars at the shop. More recently, Japanese DJ and fashion icon Hiroshi Fujiwara and former member of boy band SMAP Takuya Kimura have introduced the brand to younger Japanese consumers. The shop has retained its aura of prestige even as dozens of luxury brands from Burberry and Hermès to Louis Vuitton and Loewe have opened down the street.
Despite the global fan base, Goro and the family members who took over following his death in 2013 have never considered expanding, selling online or boosting production to keep up with runaway demand. Preserving the founder's legacy and his uncompromising standards ranks above everything else, especially when so many others now mimic Goro's feather pieces.
With the market of counterfeits and imitators growing by the day, authentication service Fake Busters recently announced it had added Goro's to its professional listings. Fake Busters – which started out authenticating sneakers – has acknowledged the ‘proliferation’ of fake Goro's pieces being sold online and, in turn, the ‘ample requests’ for it to develop a verification system and team of specialists to combat the problem and maintain the jewelry brand's hyper exclusivity. Prices for the authentication service start at ¥6,600, approximately $58.
‘We do things the way Goro-san did them,’ says Mito, Goro's daughter-in-law and the shop's manager. Goro's daughters, Asahi and Erika, and granddaughter, Hitomi, also help out. ‘Goro-san was all about meeting and chatting with customers face to face. If you sell over the internet, you don't know who the customers are.’
Born in 1939, Goro was a self-taught artisan and free-spirited motorcycling enthusiast. As a 16-year-old, he was already selling elaborately carved leather belts and bags that he'd made with tools given to him by a US soldier stationed in Japan. But it was Goro's ties to the Lakota, a Native American people, that gave his products their air of authenticity. After meeting Lakota member and Hollywood actor Eddie Little Sky at an event in Los Angeles in the sixties, Goro began traveling to the tribe's reservation in South Dakota, where he immersed himself in their traditions and crafts.
By the late seventies, Goro had earned an indigenous name – Yellow Eagle – and the tribe's blessing to participate in the sacred Gazing-at-the-Sun Dance ceremony – honors rarely bestowed on outsiders. It was the fulfillment of a dream for Goro, who grew up admiring Native American characters on TV. Later, on a US trip, Goro met a silversmith who taught him the basics of the metalworking that would become his trademark.
Goro's most sought-after items are silver-and-gold necklace pendants related to his Lakota name: a bald eagle in flight, and eagle wing and breast feathers. Their popularity has spawned countless counterfeits and copycat products. In midlife, Goro – his hair and beard long and white – was often photographed astride an Indian or Harley-Davidson motorcycle, wearing necklaces with feather pendants, silver bracelets and rings, metal-studded saddle-leather belts and deerskin pouches. The images solidified his status as a style icon and the ambassador of his own brand – which explains why his family and long-time staff like to keep things as they were when Goro was around. Inside the shop, they point out the DIY decor – beams that Goro hand-painted, the wooden door with metal hinges that he made, stirrups dangling from the rafters that he hung from to stretch his back during breaks. His old work table near the windows is now off-limits to everyone. Next to it, on top of a wooden chopping block with his old tools strapped to its side, sit cigarette boxes, lighters and candles: offerings on a makeshift altar.
Above a worn leather-upholstered sofa, the wall is plastered with Goro's photographs.
In a room upstairs, Mito pulls out a silver teardrop-shaped medallion with rough-cut edges and a gold eagle-sun logo. Goro began making it in the mid-eighties after an accident left him with severe burns and the partial loss of several fingers on his favored right hand.
‘He could have died,’ says Mito. ‘He went to rehab to regain the use of his right hand. A temple priest urged him not to quit working and told him about the balance of yin and yang [the two complementary forces in Chinese philosophy that are believed to make up the balance of all things], comparing it to how silver and gold are like shade and sunlight. Goro-san hammered out this medallion after that.’
Her point: the jewelry is not merely decorative. It's this sort of story told by people who knew him that keeps Goro's spirit alive – and the brand's fortunes soaring.