The denim industry has grown to embrace Japan as the pinnacle of denim manufacturing in Asia. Though the history of Japan’s denim industry began only in the 1960s (compared to denim’s beginnings in the West in the 1600s), the products have become prized items that denim obsessives geek out on.
Banking heavily on American culture, the basic styles of Japanese denim, categorized by decade, are representative of the socio-cultural patterns of the time with design quirks that make each style intrinsically Japanese.
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Clothing was somber and modest in the 1930s, reflecting The Great Depression. Made of lighter denim, jeans then came in standard indigo and were cut full and loose. Because belts were rarely used, each pair came with suspender buttons and a cinched back.
One of Japan’s most revered denim brands, Samurai Jeans began in 1997. The company believes that, “without a perfect match between the jeans and the maker, the jeans are worthless.” Samurai introduced heavy fabrics and inventive experimentation, pushing the limits of what a vintage-inspired company could do. With their innovative efforts, the brand has established a unique identity that combines American Casual influences with a distinctly Japanese edge.
War time caused not only a rationing of food but also a rationing of fabric, forcing men and women into wearing a similarly designed, government-issued “uniform” of sorts that was strictly utilitarian. Thus, the 1940s-style jean eschewed rivets and were made from lighter weight denim. The stitches on the back pocket were visibly imperfect, and silk screen prints were used to create the arcuates or arcs on the back pockets. The top button was also designed with a wreath, the symbol of peace.
Fullcount & Co., the company, which started producing jeans in Okayama in 1992, is considered the first “Made in Japan” denim company to use Zimbabwean cotton denim (one of the longest staple cottons on the planet and also one of the rarest). Owner and head designer Mikiharu Tsujita is a hard advocate of using raw Zimbabwean cotton in the production of the denim fabric.
At a time when James Dean and Marlon Brando stood for youthful rebellion, jeans took on an edgier feel. No longer limited to the look of basic work jeans, they were designed with heavier weight denim with a fuller top block. Higher on the waist (compared to 40s style) and worn above the navel, the jeans were used to form the lower body.
Flat Head was born out of founder Masayoshi Kobayashi’s love of 1950s American culture. The company believes that the value of a pair of jeans increases after years of wear. While it sticks to a traditional means of manufacture, Flat Head doesn’t just cater to an older nostalgic clientele. The company aims to give younger customers a taste of the fastidiousness of a bygone era, where no expense was spared in pursuing quality.
The widespread popularity of jeans in the 1960s served to accelerate the radical change in male fashion. Jeans then had high waists and tapered cuts and notably used a paper patch for branding instead of the traditional leather patch. Back pocket rivets were absent and the indigo was lighter. There was also no selvedge on the fifth pocket, which was surprising for Japan-made denim jeans.
Studio d’Artisan. Widely recognized as one of the finest and oldest producers of Japanese denim, Studio d’Artisan has been in business since 1979. The brand’s hallmark is the pig or buta found on the jean patch. However, the real secret to the manufacturing of these jeans is the vintage shuttle looms that Studio d’Artisan employs for its fine-grade cottons and specialty dye colors.
These days, fashion is all about pushing the limits and Japanese denim manufacturers did their bit by releasing 23-oz. denim jeans in order to outdo each other. When it came to design, however, the jeans remained true to the Japanese jean aesthetic of valuing comfort above all. Thus, the jeans were very straight, but had fuller cut and lower rise.
A relatively new brand in the Japanese denim industry, Iron Heart was founded in 2003 and focuses on classic American-style work wear, with particular emphasis on biker style. Construction details hark back to artisans whose skills have been honed over decades. Iron Heart thrives on pushing boundaries and has succeeded in making jeans that are heavy (as heavy as 25 oz.) and durable, yet very comfortable.
Photographs by Ian Castañares
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.