Jeans make you think of Levi Strauss, cowboys, Rock and Roll, James Dean, Marlon Brando. Blue Denim has “America” written all over it.
James Dean wearing jeans in Giant. How more American can you get?
But the jeans that American companies like Lee, Levi’s and Wrangler make are but a shadow of the jeans that America gave birth to. Production of raw, unwashed denim was discontinued in the US in the 1960s, and now almost all you can get is pre-washed and artificial.
In Japan, however, the unadulterated spirit of blue denim is alive and kicking. True selvedge denim, produced on age-old looms and often featuring rivets and pocket stitching.
And although most commercial denim is 12 ounces or less per square yard, Japan’s selvedge denim usually weighs in at 13 to 15 ounces, and even 24 ounces. Courtesy of the old narrow looms that are used to produce it.
What makes Japanese jeans especially stand out is the centuries old aizome dyeing method, which uses the leaves of the indigo plant instead of chemicals from a factory. This color is as Japanese as kimono and sushi.
Japan’s natural indigo gives very subtle hues and shades, and a depth that no chemical color can reproduce. More importantly, it gives the garment soul. Something that author Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) recognized way back in the late 1800s: “Japan is a country filled with a mystical blue color,” he wrote.
The combination of using old and slow narrow looms and natural hand dyed colors give Japanese jeans that handcrafted look that has long been lost in the US. Each finished product is slightly different. This “imperfection” of handcrafted Japanese jeans actually makes them perfect.
It is truly ironic that Japan’s strict adherence to low-technology that elsewhere in the world no one wants to use anymore, has made the country the world’s leader in denim production.
Japan now has so many companies producing high-quality jeans that it makes your head spin. Some of the better known ones:
Back in the 1980s, Japanese tailor Hidehiko Yamane wanted to make exceptional jeans for demanding denim lovers like himself. Soon a cult product was born, Evisu jeans.
Named after Ebisu, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune and in Yamane’s hometown Osaka an important guardian of business people, Yamane’s jeans are as extravagant as the jolly god himself. They are made from pure American cotton and instead of fading, they develop a unique olive-like hue. The loosely woven Evisu jeans also shrink when washed, allowing them to adjust to the wearer.
Prices are only a bit extravagant. The Womens Soni Boyfriend Shorts pictured above sell for 225.00 US dollars.
Momotaro Jeans are named after another mythological character: Momotaro, an enormously powerful and brave boy who jumped out of a gigantic peach floating down a river. Hence the cute pink peach in the company’s logo.
The jeans are made around Momotaro’s mythical place of birth, Okayama, since hundreds of years Japan’s capital of cotton weavers. It was actually here that Japan’s first fully domestic jeans were created in 1973. Since then, Okayama, and neighboring Hiroshima, have become the world’s mecca for denim designers. Fashion designers from all over the world visit here regularly.
Momotaro Jeans’ high quality stems from several sources. An important one is the cotton used. The company only uses handpicked Zimbabwe Cotton. This cotton provides a high luster, while its well-proportioned fiber structure makes it pliable and perfect for dyeing. When Zimbabwe cotton is dyed with a traditional artisan method called Sho-Ai (True or Natural Indigo) which uses water to which lime, sugar and sake are added, it creates a unique vertical fade. This is known as Tateochi.
The company also employs rope dyeing. This is a technique that keeps the core of the denim thread white, thereby producing a bolder patina. Momotaro Jeans’ traditional way of dyeing is combined with using special looms. One of its looms is one of only two in the world! It takes at least three days to finish the denim on this original hand weaving machine, and requires adjusting the tension on the loom according to the temperature and humidity of the day. This creates a quality, clear uneven surface and color that few, if any, competitors can match.
Momotaro Jeans receive their finishing touches on special vintage sewing machines that have been replaced with modern equipment just about everywhere else.
The company’s slogan is Made by hand without compromise. Prices reflect that. Although the company offers products over a wide range of prices, the most exclusive Momotaro Jeans set you back a cool 2,000 dollars.
For more info on Momotaro Jeans, see the excellent article at Selvage & Such.
Founded only in 1997, Osaka based Samurai Jeans has already managed to establish itself as an unwashed selvage denim producer for connoisseurs. The company sells simple but stylish jeans of extremely high quality that are often sold in limited editions.
The company loves to experiment, and in the past is known to have even dyed jeans with persimmon juice.
The company’s jeans are as tough and heavy as they get, 17 to 24 ounces. I have seen photos of Samurai Jeans that stood straight up without any support. The average jeans would need a bucket full of glue to accomplish that.
Samurai Jeans fade exceedingly well, giving a contrast between the dark hand dyed indigo and bright white cotton that is impossible to achieve with mass-produced jeans.
This article would become way too long if I introduced every single high-quality jeans producer in Japan, so here is an unpreventably (alphabetical) short list of other brands. The information in parentheses shows the location of the head office and year of establishment):
• BLTOM (Okayama, 1970)
• Free Rage (Kyoto, 2007)
• Iron Heart (Tokyo, 2005)
• John Bull (Okayama, 1952)
• Oni Denim
• Pure Blue Japan (Okayama, 1997)
• R by 45rpm (Parent company is 45rpm: Tokyo, 1977)
• Studio D’Artisan & Sa (Osaka, 1979)
• Sugar Cane | UK Site (Parent company is Toyo Enterprise: Tokyo, 1965)
• Warehouse (Osaka, 1995)
WHAT DID I MISS?
• Have I missed any high quality Japanese denim brands that should absolutely positively be on this list?
• Which Japanese denim brand is your favorite? And Why?
PURCHASING JAPANESE JEANS ONLINE
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Top Photo: Edwin 505x Jeans by Kjeld Duits