To an outsider, the subtleties in determining a rank in denim jeans may seem equivocal. How can an industry focused on the endless replication of a single clothing article display an amount of quality variation that’s consistent with its wide range in cost? One might suspect sheer marketing genius but a true denim connoisseur can prove otherwise. In fact, the minute amplifications in material, construction, and finishings that elevate a pair of jeans from just-okay to cult-inducing are entirely valid and vast. Arguably, the Japanese have done it best. With meticulous craftsmanship, traditional dyeing techniques, and a fluid preservation in nostalgic endeavours, they’ve achieved what has come to be known as the pinnacle of quality denim. A further look into the fabrics' relatively short but rich history may encourage one to reconsider the amount spent on a pair of fresh blue jeans.
For a textile that feels inherently American, it’s surprising to learn that denim, initially known as "serge de Nîmes,” has manufacturing roots in the small French city of Nîmes (from which its name is derived). Prior to the popularization of today’s definition, “jeans” (from Italian “Genoa”) was used to describe a variety of informal trousers. It wasn’t until 1873 when the now iconic “five pocket western” jean was born. Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss, a German born US immigrant, patented the procedure of putting rivets in men’s work pants to alleviate labor workers from constant pocket ripping. When they launched the 501 style in 1890 it solidified the staying power of blue jeans in American society. By the 1950’s many stylistic elements were added. Among them, belt loops, zippers (which sometimes replaced a button fly), and chain stitching, which reinforced the back pockets with a decorative touch. Competitors emerged in the form of Lee Mercantile and Blue Bell (now, Wrangler). Then, with the help of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars, denim was propelled from being considered solely workwear to a leisure staple for men and women alike.
After WWII, the US occupation in Japan sparked the keen interest of Japanese youth in American fashion and pop culture. James Dean, unbothered in a pair of boot-cut denim jeans with a ciggraette in hand, became an idealized sex symbol representing rebellion and counterculture. In response to this craze, American GIs sold their denim jeans to Japanese markets and vintage pairs were imported from the US and then purchased at record high costs. Eventually Japan would manufacture locally and substantially raise the bar on what was considered quality denim. This sparked a subculture of denim-enthusiasts who embraced and obsessed over that tedious intricacies of the craft.
Both material and industrial factors contribute to the variations in denim production. The fabric is constructed of a cotton twill whose fibers are woven in diagonal and parallel ribs. The undyed weft thread is fed under one or more warp threads which creates the blue vs. white color variation between the interior and exterior of denim jeans. Japan’s first locally manufactured pair was produced in 1965, using foreign fabric, at Kurabo Mills (still in operation today) in the Kojima district of the Okayama Prefecture. This area has a deep history of textile production and the innovative selvage looms used in this process were designed by Toyoda Automatic (today's Toyota Motor Corporation). Because of their unpredictable nature, these looms require the artisan to possess an in-depth knowledge and skill level. This characteristic manifests in subtle variations of the finalized material. In 1973 Japan finally claimed a product pure to its home, using Japanese selvage denim on their own selvage looms. “Selvage” comes from the phrase “self-edge” referring to the end of the fabric roll, which when used, prevents unraveling of the material. Selvage looms are decidedly inefficient yet create a distinct and desirable tight weave. The best versions of selvage denim are dyed with natural indigo through a laborious drying, extracting, and hand-dipping process, preventing the pigment-rich product from over-fading. This method is extremely expensive and rare, requiring slow, manual effort.
In the ‘90s, the Japanese streetwear scene, enamoured with newfound premium denim brands, caught the attention of luxury fashion houses like Louis Vuitton, who began purchasing denim from mills based in Kojima. Once the world caught on, the premium denim market exploded creating a wave of cult-followers investing up to thousands of dollars per pair. In a circular turn of events, what had started as an obsession with American culture generated an undeniably Japanese tradition that Americans were buying into. Today, most antique selvage looms reside in Japan and for good reason. The craft of producing premium denim, so meticulous in nature, can only be upheld by a culture whose patience and attention to detail corresponds seamlessly. America certainly boasts the invention of denim jeans and the iconography attached to it but for the past 50 years Japan has quietly perfected them.
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