The story of denim is about as American as it gets. A Bavarian immigrant found a way to make pants strong enough to withstand the rigors of mining in California’s Gold Rush. Then, one thing lead to another. And another. Eventually, the blue jeans that were once sold to fortune sneakers morphed into an American icon. So how, exactly, has it come to be that some of the best denim in the world is now made in Japan?
In part, the proliferation of Japanese denim was the result of the country’s post-WWII obsession with American culture. Anything American made or representative of American culture was highly sought after – especially blue jeans. In the 1960s, Kurabo Mills in Kojima, Japan started producing their own jeans using fabric sourced from the U.S. Not long after that, however, Kurabo managed to make their very own denim fabric, dubbing it KD-8, a reference to the 8 tries to get it right, and the mill (Kurabo) where it was made. More than just the fact that these were being built in Japan, what made this fabric (and Japanese denim more generally) special was the fact that it was made on old looms and used natural dye.
A lot has changed since that first pair of jeans were made with Japanese denim in 1973. More and more brands have cropped up, and the market has shifted in part from Japanese youth obsessed with American culture to American kids trying to get their hands on either classically made denim, or high-end street wear. To help serve as a guide to this interesting niche in men’s fashion, we pulled together what we think are 12 of the best Japanese denim brands.
What makes 45 RPM unique is in large part their commitment to dying garments. They use two methods; Ai-dying and Indigo-dying. Both of the dying processes used by 45RPM are used on Japanese loomed denim, and end up developing a totally distinct look and feel to them thanks to their lower capacity to cling to a garment.
Being first means something. And not only was Big John first to create a pair of 100-percent Japanese made jeans, they were also the first to create Japanese selvedge in the 1980s. While they may not have the cool-kid cache of some of the other brands on this list, without Big John, it is hard to say for sure if any of these brands would even exist.
Blue Blue Japan
The type of indigo dye used on Japanese denim is in part what makes it special. Rather than using synthetic dyes that don’t run as easily, brands like Blue Blue Japan use older, traditional methods. As a result, each piece of their clothing takes on a unique look after extended wear. You can find them in online men’s stores like Unionmade.
It wasn’t until Evisu came around in the early 1990s that Japanese denim cracked the $100 price tag. Designer Hidlhiko Yamane started out producing just 14 pairs a day off of the vintage looms he bought – and added what is now the iconic hand-painted seagull on the back pocket. The brand ended up becoming a bit of a flashier one, worn by rappers and me-too street wear kids, but it was responsible for bringing more attention to the broader Japanese Denim Market.
Iron Heart doesn’t loom their own denim, but they do source plenty of their fabrics from some of the best Japanese mills out there — among many quality mills in their production arsenal. As a result, their store is full of clothing made from a broad spectrum of products varying from sanfordized to raw denim. This, combined with their helpful sizing sheet and set of definitions make them a great brand for neophytes and longtime denim-heads alike.
When Christophe Loiron, a French expatriate living in Los Angeles, wanted to make top tier classic American clothing, he turned to Japanese mills to source his fabric. In a lot of ways Mister Freedom is more of an American brand than a Japanese one – but the fact that they source so much of the fabric (and get much of it made to their specs) is yet another indication of Japanese primacy in the world of denim.
Founded in 2006 in the same town that pioneered Japanese denim, Momotaro Jeans have set themselves apart by building some of the most coveted fabrics and using a unique natural dying process. They use a natural process that utilizes the inigofera tictoraia plant. This type of dying is rare in that it doesn’t fade with age – and in fact gets a little darker because the dye penetrates into the center of the jeans rather than just resting on the surface waiting to be rubbed off.
Pure Blue Japan
Pure Blue has made a name for itself primarily because of their use of lower tension shuttle looms used to create a more irregular fabric. This, combined with classic indigo dye makes it so the type of fade developed on their denim is much more textured and unique than on others.
Started in 1997, Samurai Jeans grew from a common maker of denim to one that pushed limits and got people to re-think what a vintage company could do. The Osaka-based company has done things like producing a line of jeans themselves – from cotton plant to cutting and sewing it all themselves, and even using special dyes made from pomegranate.
Stevenson Overall Co
Originally an American brand based out of Portland, Indiana and operational in the 1920s and ‘30s, Stevenson Overall Co. was bought up and re-launched a Japanese workwear brand in 2005. This re-birth of the brand by Japanese owners is fitting in part because much of the expertise when it comes to making classic workwear has been better preserved in Japan than in the U.S.
A denim stalwart, Studio D’Artisan has been making their own fabric and sewing their own jeans since the late 1970s. When the west rediscovered selvedge denim in the late nineties and mid-aughts, this Osaka-based brand was among the most popular. Yet, despite being one of the more sought-after brands, they’re hard to come by.
Sugar Cane Brand
Sugar Cane has always placed a lot of value in doing vintage denim right. These purists broke down every step of the denim process and learned it; from the dying, to the fit, hardware, and yarns – and it all shows through. Sugar Cane turns out predictably top quality vintage-style work wear. Unfortunately, they can be a bit hard to find here in the states other than in stores like Self Edge.
Best American Made Jeans
Japan makes some really top quality denim products – but the U.S. isn’t too far behind. Take a look at our list of the best American made jeans for men.