To most people Kurabo, Nisshinbo, Kuroki and Kaihara are exotic-sounding but largely meaningless words. To these same people, a pair of jeans is probably an everyday product, requiring little thought – even this year, the 140th anniversary of the founding of Levi’s, the granddaddy of all jeans labels. But to those with a passion for the blue stuff – denim-heads – these names represent hallowed ground: they are the four main mills producing denim in Japan, arguably home to the world’s best denim.
This, of course, might sound counter-intuitive. After all, the earliest form of denim as a fabric came from France; it was called serge de Nîmes and was worn by sailors and other hard workers from the 18th century onwards. Yet jeans’ most fundamental form, the five-pocket western style, arguably the single most important and ubiquitous garment in 20th-century fashion, is quintessentially American.
But much as the US industry created a garment that conquered the world, so it also created a widely copied commodity; of all of its pioneering mills, only Cone remains. Not so in Japan, however. In the 1940s, a youth cult for all things American that included a fascination with denim led, a few decades later, to a fledgling Japanese fashion industry seeking to recreate American raw blue jeans better than the Americans.
‘And the trouble they go through to make jeans now as then is insane,’ says Nick Coe, founder of the Rawrdenim.com webzine. ‘Of course, there is a romance to denim out of Japan. But it’s really in the manufacture that it’s unparalleled, at least until recently. Japanese denim might not be reinventing the wheel, but by bringing back in every detail what the makers thought was perfect in jeans many decades ago, but which hadn’t been available for many years, they created a connoisseur market.’
One brand in particular, Evisu, bought up Levi’s shuttle looms – long since abandoned as too expensive and labour-intensive to run – reinstated equally laborious, hand-dyed, loop-dyeing techniques and sometimes the use of natural indigo dyes, and in 1988 began making jeans the way they were made until the 1960s. Tailor-turned-jeans-maker Hidehiko Yamane, Evisu’s founder, found himself driving a demand for a more artisanal version of the style staple long before artisanal versions of basic products became commonplace.
‘I only made 300 pairs of jeans to start with, just for friends,’ says Yamane. ‘When people started asking for them, I was amazed. It was like finding money in the street. But I did it because I love denim. And it seems that a lot of people share that love.’
Certainly, while Evisu can lay claim to bringing international attention to Japanese-made denim, other companies had quietly been making it for decades before. One such company, Big John, had been a textiles and uniform manufacturer and turned its attention to creating the first domestic denim brand in 1965. Edwin has a similarly long history. And they have since been joined by a plethora of ever more esoteric makers, the likes of Sugar Cane and the Real McCoy’s, Fullcount, 45rpm and Samurai, Iron Heart, Eternal, Denime, Flat Head, Pure Blue Japan, Studio D’Artisan, Momotaro: the names go on and one, including many yet to sell outside Japan (which, of course, only adds to their cachet).
Each claims its own specialism, be that the precision with which it re-makes Levi’s classic styles of the 1930s to 1950s (the 1947 and 1955 versions of the 501 are the benchmarks), or the use of natural indigo dyes, or the emphasis on heavy and super-heavyweight denims – perhaps 21oz or 25oz as opposed a more typical 12oz or 14oz – or the manner in which the jeans fade, producing over time the kinds of personalised patterns that are little short of artworks to diehard jeans fanatics. All are expensive compared to commodity denim, but superb value if measured in wears per yen.
‘You discover Japanese denim and its whole world sucks you in,’ suggests Daniel Cizmek, managing director of the Berlin-based DC4, one of the leading retailers of Japanese denim outside of Japan. ‘The quality is amazing, and not just because of the effects possible by using old looms and tailoring machines. It’s because the makers tend to have this deep fascination with American culture and typically have huge, and hugely valuable, vintage denim collections. They know their subject and that shows in the product. Believe me, it’s addictive.’