Peeking around the corner at the entrance of Caban Street lies a small storefront nook, its sleek gray exterior faithfully guarded by a canine doorman. Alter Ego has been in the bag-making game since 2015, and in less than a decade the independently run boutique has gained nationwide notoriety from celebrities, public officials, and everyday fashionistas alike toting home custom-made creations. On a trip to Kinosaki Onsen and the surrounding Toyooka City, perhaps visitors will catch a glimpse of the signature "AE" Alter Ego monogram gracing the silky leather hides of ones of Japan's most exclusive and luxurious couture handbag labels.
“My bags are all leather totes.” says Naoki. “Or ‘ALT’ when you take all of the first letters of the words. I was searching ‘ALT’ online one day for name inspiration, and I came across ‘Alter Ego’ - another self.”
Toyooka-Born Couture Craftsman
"I've had a lot of jobs, so many to the point where I could never fit them all on one resume," Naoki Habuta recalls with a laugh and a nod. The owner and solo craftsman of Alter Ego ever since its opening in 2015, Naoki's exemplary passion for bags sowed its roots right in his hometown of Toyooka.
"At first, I didn't want to stay in Toyooka. I wanted to move to a big city when I was younger."
Life proposed different plans, however, as Naoki found himself accepting an offer to work at one of Toyooka's many bag ateliers. His dedication to the couture craft eventually grew beyond his job, and a passion for fine craftsmanship in every thread and seam was stitched forever in his soul.
"Once I pressed my foot on a sewing machine pedal, I could create great things.”
Although the longing for handbag design still buzzed about within, Naoki’s next venture led him to a job at a local screw factory. There a new, freshly blooming dream poked its head out into the light beyond the factory walls - Naoki wanted to, and would, open a bag label of his own. “I got a brain tumor during my time at the factory. Once I recovered, I wanted to follow my own dreams.”
And so in 2015, Naoki returned to his passion with a renewed outlook on life in the heartbeat of Toyooka’s bag industry. Plated with steely, monochrome walls and decorated with a popping rainbow of handmade bags, Alter Ego’s storefront itself can be considered symbolic for Naoki’s success in the midst of hardship. The leather creations strung along the walls border Naoki’s workspace, each bearing their own unique tucks and knicks while staying faithful to Naoki’s vision.
Visible hardware, seamless, glossy finish: Naoki’s handbags for the most part all share the same trademark characteristics. Instead of pursuing the “jack of all trades” design model which has trended among many larger corporate fashion houses, Naoki’s vision for Alter Ego is one handbag model, perfected in design and modifiable to every customer’s bespoke needs. While remaining faithful to the distinct Alter Ego image, customers dedicated to make the trip to the Caban Street boutique for a consultation with Naoki are able to choose their own type of leather from an abundant supply of stock, ranging in animal type and color. size, and inner lining.
While many first-time clients may be wary of scarring the buttery smooth leather of their bag, Naoki encourages his customers to tote their bags without worry. Alter Ego’s bags are meant to be a canvas documenting the owner’s life and memories.
“The scratches and scuffs can add to the design. It’s like a canvas - with the scratches and scuffs from everyday wear, you can look back on memories of going to school, commuting to work, however those scuffs came to be. Of course, a bag is meant to function firstly as a means of carrying your belongings, but if its purpose stops there, then why not just use a paper bag?”
The Bag Cafe - Alter Ego Matic
In 2021, Naoki expanded his bag-making expertise to mediums beyond leather and thread. With the opening of his second business, a cafe on Caban Street named Alter Ego Matic, bag-themed sweets created a new boom among both domestic and international visitors to Toyooka. Ice cream sandwiches designed in the shape of willow baskets, the original millennium-old version of the Toyooka bag, draw in curious passersby with their novelty charm and a dozen flavors. A full wall display of Alter Ego’s capacious wallet designs decorates the first floor of the cafe, providing customers with an in-house shopping experience while savoring local sweets. Other items of the menu include corn dogs, cheesecake, pasta, and coffee.
Hachibei, Caban Street’s Canine Celebrity
From his willow box bed, Alter Ego’s model and lovable mascot pokes his nose out at customers for a welcome sniff. From gracing the covers of Alter Ego’s promotional booklets to becoming a neighborhood star from his limited edition coasters (available with a purchase of 3,000 JPY at Alter Ego Matic), at eight years old at the time of writing, Hachibei has been there for it all. Be sure to give him a pat on the head when you visit!