Why Japan – a blue journey through US, Europe and Japan
written by Stefano Aldighieri.
If you were to ask a number of people from the jeans industry “what is the best denim?”, the most likely reply – at least in the last three decades – would be “Japanese denim, of course!”.
While of course any “best” attribution can be highly subjective, it is undeniable that the common perception is that the best denims and jeans in the world come from Japan. How did this happen?
I was recently honoured to be invited by Denimsandjeans to participate in the #denimsandjeansjapan show that took place in Tokyo this November 1st and 2nd, and give a talk about the birth and evolution of denim over time and geography. My talk started from an historical perspective, going back in time several centuries to try to find out WHERE denim was created and by whom. The simple answer is that we do not know. Of course we all heard the urban legends about the city of Nimes in France or Genoa in Italy, but neither one had any strong history in weaving indigo cotton products; a more likely birthplace, in my opinion, would be some dark satanic mill in the North of England, which used to have the largest cotton spinners in the world AND access to indigo dye – which of course they were taking from India throughout their occupation.
In any case, the place where denim became what we know and love today was definitely in the USA, and more precisely in New England. What became the most important textile mill in the world was born by the Amoskeag falls, it developed over the years into a gigantic enterprise before eventually completely disappearing in 1930, one century after it was born. Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was the first and original supplier of denim (and other fabrics) to Levi Strauss and Co. in San Francisco (where what we know today as jeans were pretty much born), in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Fast forward to the 1950s/60s/70s, when denim transformed from work wear – utilitarian product – to every day fashion for the masses, thanks to the popularity of movies, TV shows and American music. The whole world was taken by the storm and eventually other Countries started to make their own jeans and their own denim. This is where we start to see a clear differentiation; for the Europeans, denim was a ‘fashion’ product, and the fabrics kept evolving, trying to offer something different and “new” every season. Incidentally, Claudio Buziol was the first Italian to use japanese fabrics (made by Kurabo) for his Replay label back in the 80s).
China and other manufacturing hubs started to make the fabrics that their US and EU clients requested, without really developing their own signature.
Japan was different. The early Japanese factories that made jeans were importing denim fabric exclusively from the USA. For them – and the Japanese customer – it was really critical to have a product as faithful as possible to the “original” American jeans made by Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler. It was inevitable that somebody would start to produce denim fabrics in Japan.
Let me first dispel another myth: there was a legend circulating for years in the industry (and some still mention it today), that some Japanese brands had purchased old looms from Levi’s to make their denim. TOTAL FAKE NEWS. Levi’s never owned a single loom nor ever produced one yard of fabric. No American looms were shipped over to Japan. ALL Japanese denim was – and is – made on Japanese looms, mostly Toyodas (part of the Toyota Corporation).
Japan of course has a very long textile tradition and had been producing and dyeing indigo for centuries. The dye was used in many traditional applications, but denim was never part of Japanese textiles, until the demand for jeans “forced” the local manufacturers to explore new options. A spinning company from the Kurashiki area had been producing cotton yarns and fabrics since 1888, the “Kurashiki Bouseki” (Kurashiki Spinning), commonly known as KURABO. After several attempts, in 1973 they were finally happy with a denim fabric that could be sold to the trade, the now legendary KD-8 (Kurabo Denim 8th trial). I believe Big John was the first local brand to produce jeans using that fabric in the 70s.
The rest is history. A number of brands proliferated in the area (in my opinion,Kojima IS the real denim capital for all aficionados, with due respect for other cities that may claim such title).
The “Osaka Five”, (Studio D’Artisan, Denime, Evisu, Fullcount and Warehouse) started, in the late 70s/early 80s, a movement that still today produces some of the finest jeans in the world. Several other brands achieved a high level of notoriety around the world with their unique product; just to name a few, 45rpm, Kapital, Evisu, Samurai, HRM, and a multitude of smaller brands from Kojima, Osaka, Tokyo, always sought after by denim lovers from allover the world.
Even one of the largest global retailers, UNIQLO, offers high quality denim products, at very affordable prices, made often with Japanese fabrics.
It also helps that Japan probably has the best selection of vintage denim pieces (mostly from the USA) in the world. For these reasons even today so many designers and product developers from all the famous western brands travel to Japan on a regular basis to find inspiration from exceptionally executed fabrics and jeanswear.
This is why we all believe Japan is so important in the blue world!