Yusaku Maezawa: the punk embarking on a space oddity

Yusaku Maezawa

Japanese fashion tycoon and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has bagged a seat on Elon Musk’s trip round the moon. That will crown an already impressive journey from the suburbs. Jane Lewis reports.

Until last month, the Japanese fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa was best known as the man who shocked the art world by splurging $110m on a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. His latest purchase, says the New Yorker, is rather different. Maezawa, who has made a $2.9bn personal fortune building the online fashion portal Zozo, has bagged the first private trip to circumnavigate the moon aboard SpaceX’s Big Falcon rocket. It is tentatively scheduled to blast off in 2023.

“I did not want to have this fantastic experience by myself,” remarked Maezawa, who was praised for his bravery by SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “That would be a little lonely.” So he is paying an undisclosed sum to commandeer every seat on the five-day, 800,000km round trip and plans to invite “six to eight artists” to fill them. The plan, says Condé Nast Traveller, is to encourage his fellow astronauts to “create art based on their lunar experience once they’re back on earth”.

What I have, I spend

Investors aren’t keen on the idea: shares in the entrepreneur’s listed company, Start Today (in which he has a 38% holding), fell on the news. But the extravagant move is typical of Maezawa, 42 – a former drummer in a punk band who is rapidly making a name for himself internationally as “Japan’s least conventional, least hidebound billionaire”, says the Times. “I’ve never paid much attention to money. I don’t care how much I have,” he observed earlier this year. “As far back as I can recall, my bank balance has been close to zero, because whatever money I have, I spend… I don’t invest at all – only in my company.”

Visit Maezawa’s house in the understatedly wealthy district of Hiroo in Tokyo, and it’s easy to see where his cash goes. It’s so packed with modern masterpieces – Picasso portraits, Calder mobiles, De Koonings, Giacomettis – that you “literally” fall over them, noted The Times’s Richard Lloyd Parry following a painful encounter. Maezawa, who still “looks less like a businessman than a minor pop star”, exudes “an air of cheeky but benign mischief”.

But he has attracted considerable opprobrium for an “extraordinary buying spree” reminiscent of the worst excesses of Japan’s 1980s impressionist collectors. His $110m purchase of Basquiat’s Untitled last year broke the record for a work by an American artist, and catapulted the Haitian prodigy into a new commercial league. But it was “further proof”, said the British critic Waldemar Januszczak, “that the world of art has turned into something disgusting”.

Januszczak dismisses Maezawa as “a Japanese clown”. But given the speed and deftness with which he has built an empire, the insult looks wide of the mark, says Condé Nast Traveller. Born in suburban Tokyo, he left high school determined not to become one of those “salarymen…jam-packed in a rush-hour train. I wanted to derail myself”. A trip to the US got him into the punk scene, and back in Tokyo he formed a band, Switch Style, which gained a degree of underground success.

A power in fashion

Maezawa’s retail business began “on the smallest possible scale” when he began selling CDs, vinyl and T-shirts to friends – but began expanding rapidly in 2000 when he took it online, says The Times. His big breakthrough came when he added an online fashion portal, Zozotown, in 2004. Big Japanese brands were initially reluctant to sell on the web. But 14 years on, Zozo “is a power that no ambitious fashion label can afford to ignore” and still growing at breakneck speed. Last year, some seven million customers bought 6,400 brands via the platform and Zozo recently launched its own “staples” brand.

“I think there’s a chance,” Maezawa said recently, “for us to become the number one apparel company in the world.” Given his record to date, it’s by no means an absurd ambition.