With washes of all shades and levels of distress and carefully crafted details that make each piece feel like a collectible, Japanese denim has developed a cult following among the fashion set.
The fascination with Japanese denim stems from both the imaginative designs (where pockets and proportions are reimagined in creative ways) and the raw materials. Factories in the cities of Kojima, Ibara and Fukuyama famously produce denims using dyes that can’t be reproduced anywhere else on Earth, mostly due to the special properties of the local water.
High-end Japanese denim is often made on selvedge looms, which means the final product is not produced uniformly, so the material’s color, weight and texture varies from one item to the next. These imperfections make each piece of denim clothing feel one-of-a-kind. Selvedge denim (easily identified by a stitched band on both edges of the fabric that prevents it from unraveling) is only produced on vintage looms that are no longer being manufactured, which accounts for the high price points.
On your next trip, check out this distinctly Japanese, fashion art form during your travels. Whether you decide to splurge on some of the more “high design” pieces with finely crafted details or simply window shop, here are a few labels to look for.
Kapital takes its name from the denim capital of Japan, Kojima, where the brand’s founder Toshikiyo Hirata opened his first store in 1985. Hirata was joined by his son, Kiro, in 2002, making Kapital a father-son collaboration. Today, with over 15 brick-and-mortar locations across the country, it’s one of Japan’s most respected denim labels and sought after by style lovers who flock from all over the world to purchase the brand’s iconic jackets and jeans.
Most notably, the pair designs with no regard for the rules of fashion. The pieces, often made from patchworked vintage denim, are distressed and dyed with innovative techniques to make them look worn and second-hand. Asymmetrical pockets and haphazardly placed buttons are just a few signature elements that make Kapital designs so intriguing.
Designer and manufacturer Japan Blue produces selvedge denim in its Kojima factories. Crafted with variations in texture and color, each piece takes longer to produce than more conventional materials and short supply keeps prices high.
While the brand stands alone as a maker of high-quality modern cuts for men, it also owns brands Collect, Soulive, Setto and Momotaro Jeans. You can find Japan Blue jeans at its flagship stores in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood and Okayama Prefecture’s Kojima Jeans Street.
One of Japan’s newer denim brands, Red Card was founded in 2009 by Yuji Honzawa, known to people in the industry as “Dr. Denim.” Honzawa’s 40 years in the industry earned him the title; he spent the decades with Edwin and Levi’s Japan until realizing he couldn’t find jeans he liked on the market. Thus, Red Card was born.
Red Card jeans are inspired by American workwear, a modest look designed to appear worn-in while lightweight and soft to the touch. Each pair is made by highly skilled craftsmen who operate on the principles of Red Card’s “three F’s”: fabric, fit and finish. Many call the last decade of the denim industry the “Honzawa period.” Find his jeans in boutiques and department stores throughout Japan.
Big John began as a sewing factory called Maruo Clothing in 1940s Kojima. In 1965, the company produced Japan’s first pair of jeans from American fabric under the brand name Canton. Almost a decade later, in 1972, Big John developed the first Japanese denim fabric and today is known for pushing the boundaries of denim.
Offering what Vogue magazine describes as “timeless fits and perfect fades,” Big John is responsible for developing the world’s first uneven yarns (where the hue is varied, creating a vintage look). The brand also brought colored jeans to Japan, using recycled denim and implementing natural dyes in its production. If you’re more drawn to a classic fit, look out for Big John in Japan’s department stores.