Yusaka Maezawa: the punk rocker heading to the moon

Yusaka Maezawa made his fortune in retail before joining the billionaire space race. Now he’s sorting through a million applications to join him in his next jaunt to the stars.

When the Japanese fashion tycoon Yusaka Maezawa returned to earth in December in a Russian Soyuz space capsule – landing in a remote area of Kazakhstan – it capped a banner year for private space travel, following breakthroughs from fellow billionaires Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Maezawa, 46, who travelled with his personal assistant, spent most of the 12-day trip as “a paying guest” on the International Space Station – entertaining his social-media followers by demonstrating how to pee and make tea in zero gravity, and bemoaning his shortage of clean underwear. It was an expensive jaunt, costing $66m. But he views it as just “a practice run”, says Al-Jazeera. In 2023, he plans a “trip around the moon” on Elon Musk’s SpaceX with eight artists in tow.

A one-man national lottery

A born stuntman, who made his money founding the online fashion retailer Zozotown (which was sold to SoftBank subsidiary Yahoo Japan for $2.3bn in 2019), Maezawa is a household name in Japan, not least because of his penchant for doling out “cash giveaways” to his Twitter followers. Three years ago, he notched up a record for the most ever retweets after offering a million yen each to randomly selected people who retweeted the message and followed him – in essence becoming a one-man national lottery in exchange for four million followers.

Still, it was Maezawa’s passion for contemporary art that put him on the international stage, says the Financial Times. During one buying spree in New York in 2017, he caused a sensation by snapping up a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting for more than $110m – setting a record auction price for an American artist. Maezawa, who was once in a punk band, later observed that he felt an affinity with the late “enfant terrible” of US art who, like him, “rose up from the streets”.

Maezawa has been “rocking” the Japanese business world for decades, says The Daily Beast. Born in the Chiba prefecture in 1975, he was educated at the renowned Waseda Jitugyo High school, but rejected the conventional path to life as a white-collar “salaryman” “after seeing all those tired faces on my morning commutes”. Instead, he travelled to the US and began collecting CDs and records – a hobby that became the basis of his first business. On returning to Japan in 1995, Maezawa started a mail-order music import business, Start Today, running it in tandem with his own recording career. But the company’s rapid growth after adding an online clothes line in the early Noughties became all pre-occupying. After severing the music arm in 2007, Start Today listed in Tokyo and, by 2010, had reinvented itself as a pioneering “virtual shopping mall”, says the FT. The cash poured in. By 2017, the renamed Zozotown had expanded to 7,300 brands.

Davos in space

Maezawa made his mark as an innovator, introducing “the Zozosuit” – a spandex polka-dot bodysuit designed to gauge the wearer’s body shape to tackle the perennial online problem of how you “try before you buy”. It was a flop: in 2018 Zozo reported a 20% fall in profits amid analyst predictions of slowing growth. Some might count Maezawa fortunate that SoftBank’s ambition to take on Amazon enabled him to cash in Zozo the following year.

Now fully focused on his new role as a space pioneer, Maezawa is currently sorting through “a million” applications to select his fellow travellers for the SpaceX moon trip, says The Japan Times. He may yet ditch the artists for more lofty companions. “You begin to think about world leaders getting together in space…”

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