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Denim November, 16 2012

Japanese Denim: A History of the World’s Best Denim

Denim from Japan has a reputation among denim enthusiasts as being the best in the world and for good reason. While it doesn’t have nearly as long of a history, Japanese denim is known for its premium construction and the skilled, artisanal craft required to make it. Here we’ll explore the relatively short but significant history of Japanese denim to discover how it earned the reputation it has today and debunk a few myths along the way. Take a look below for the full story.

To understand why Japanese denim is significantly better than other types of denim we must first understand how denim is constructed and what makes some denim more sought after than others. Denim is a cotton twill textile in which the weft (the transverse thread) passes under 2 or more warp threads (the longitudinal threads). Indigo denim, the type of denim people think of when they think of jeans, dyes only the warp or longitudinal threads. If you look closely at a pair of jeans you’ll notice the weft or transverse threads maintain their white color as do the inside of a pair of jeans. Most denim made today uses synthetic dye which is cheaper and contains less impurities than natural dye, while premium denim often uses natural dye.

The other important trait in denim’s quality is the cloth the denim is made from. Selvage or selvedge, from the phase “self-edge”, refers to the natural end of a roll of fabric which, when made into a pair of jeans, prevents unraveling of the material. The cost of producing selvage denim is more expensive since it can only be woven at a width of 31″, about half the width of non-selvage denim, and is woven on old looms requiring more skill and adeptness. This leads to a tighter, denser weave along with various imperfections. Selvage denim is usually woven together with a signature red stripe although green, white, brown, and yellow are not so uncommon.

The combination of these characteristics gives each pair a distinctive composition that only becomes more unique over time. True denim enthusiasts are known to go months or even years before washing their jeans for the first time as the first wash creates the characteristic fades and creases unique to each wearer.

Most fabric was woven on slow, inefficient machines until the world’s 11th biggest company, Toyota Motor Corporation, came along and set our gaze toward the future. Before Toyota was rolling out the world’s best selling cars, they were producing textile looms under the name Toyoda Automatic Loom Works (yes, with a “d”). The company’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda, introduced the Model G Automatic selvage loom featuring new innovations like the ability to change shuttles without stopping among a range of other improvements which lead to a 20-fold increase in productivity compared to other looms in use at the time. It would be a few decades before the machines were used to create denim but for now they were an impressive and significant development toward what lay ahead.

Up until World War II, jeans had been the garment of choice for the working class and American GIs when they were off duty. After the war, jeans became a symbol of youth rebellion when James Dean was filmed wearing a pair in the iconic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. American culture and vintage clothing quickly became a fascination among Japanese youth with the most entrepreneurially-minded importing classic American jeans to sell for top dollar. This high demand in combination with the culture’s obsession and search for perfection caused jean production to take off in Japan, mostly in the town of Kojima located in the Okayama Prefecture.

Kojima had always been a hotbed for textile production thus it only made sense to produce the first pair of jeans in Kojima at Kurabo Mills, one of the world’s longest operating mills now running over 110 years. These jeans were produced on those previously mentioned Toyoda machines from American-made denim in April 1965 under the Canton Brand by Maruo Clothing. In 1967, BIG JOHN jeans were produced alongside Canton jeans and were made of denim from Cone Mills, the same mill that provided Levi’s with their unmistakable denim. While the jeans were successful, the Japanese still craved a pair made from their own selvage denim.

In 1972, after 8 tries, Kurabo finally managed to produce Japan’s first ever selvage denim aptly titled the KD-8, for Kurabo Denim 8. Now, all the pieces were in place for Japan to introduce to the world what would later become a global phenomenon.

One year later, in 1973, those pieces came together.

The “M” series, produced by BIG JOHN of Kurabo KD-8 denim, became Japan’s first pair of jeans made entirely by their fellow countrymen. What followed was a revolution in jean production lead by the same people who were at the forefront of the vintage craze.

Since then, denim from Japan has become renowned for perfecting those 2 defining qualities jeans were originally made from: being woven on an old loom to produce selvage fabric and for using natural dye. Of course not all Japanese denim is created equally and there’s plenty of variation among different factories, manufacturers, and pairs of jeans. Still, denim heads in Japan already knew the true value of a perfectly made pair of jeans but it wasn’t until the explosion in luxury denim in the late 90s that the rest of the world began to take notice of this quietly growing art form.

One of the first on the premium denim scene was Hidehiko Yamane, the founder of Evisu, who, along with creating some of the world’s first premium denim, may have spread the common misconception of Japanese denim manufacturers buying the types of looms used to make Levi’s since he himself owned one. Using the methods of his predecessors, Yamane was able to create 14 pairs of selvage jeans a day on old looms along with hand-painted seagull symbols which have since become iconic. Originally done as an homage to Levi’s classic 1944 501 xx, the brand took off and gained him a cult following among those in the streetwear scene. Evisu quickly earned the reputation of being the best of the best in denim and was soon able to sell each pair for over $100 – the first denim brand to do so.

Other brands continued to experiment with selvage denim in search of the perfect pair while the global luxury denim market blew up. Japan Blue Group, based in Kojima of course, was already known for its premium denim in Japan and soon began selling to the world’s biggest luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci among many others. Soon every fashion house in the world had a line of Japanese denim jeans. In order not to stray from their own love and respect for jeans, Japan Blue created the label Momotaro Jeans.

Photography: Nordic Denim House

Momotaro’s G001-T Gold Label jeans are perhaps the pinnacle of denim artistry. Priced at roughly $2,000, the jeans are made entirely by hand and dyed using natural indigo from the indigofera tinctoria plant. This process goes against what most denim heads look for in a pair of  jeans in that the jeans don’t fade since the dye penetrates the core of the cotton. In fact, they often get darker with age.  Woven by hand on a loom that used to weave Kimono silks, the denim itself takes up to 8 hours for every 3 feet of material. The fastening button is made of silver and silk lines the back of each pair. Once finished, the jeans are washed in Seto Sea water. Each pair can take up to a year to produce and even becomes a community event with locals involved in each pair’s creation. Many would scoff at the idea of paying $2,000 for a pair of jeans while denim enthusiasts find the price reasonable considering the years of tradition, training, craft, and skill involved in creating each unique pair.

In short, Japan’s obsession in recreating the American jeans they crazed over led Japanese denim manufacturers to become the world’s best in terms of knowledge and production. From then on it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on to the craftwork behind Japanese denim. Now, the jeans market is saturated with Japanese denim leading to a dizzying amount of “Made in Japan” jeans. Although it’s often difficult to find out the exact origins of a pair of jeans, it’s best to do some research beforehand to ensure you get what you’re looking for. Classic brands are always a sure bet but there are plenty of new ones too that have the same passion and respect for jean making as those that came before them.

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