What's Behind The Cult Following Of Japanese Denim? Really Good Jeans.
It turns out, there's a reason for obsession.
Between songs about them, contests to see whose fade the best, and half-hour long videos dedicated to them, it’s safe to say that Japanese denim is a fashion phenomenon. For a long time, I didn’t understand the perpetual internet debates on how you should wash your jeans, how often you should wash your jeans, or if you should even wash them at all. With things such as the clickbait headline claiming the CEO of Levi’s said jeans should never be washed, it was clear to me that there was a world of denim that existed far from reality. After all, they’re just jeans. You buy them at American Eagle or Levi’s or your local thrift store and they get the job done. It’s not like they’re magical traveling pants. Right?
Wrong. Anyone who begins to look beyond the lyocell and elastane filled jeans that continue to dominate the market will be met with terms such as raw, selvedge, sanforized, and unsanforized. These terms may also be familiar to people who are old enough to remember when US denim manufacturing was a thing. These terms can be confusing and aren’t really part of the American fashion lexicon, especially since the rise of stretch denim over the past few decades. As the speed and volume of American consumerism increases, knowledge of and care for where our clothes come from and how and from what they are constructed decreases. Denim is no exception.
As part of larger efforts to be more intentional about the clothes that I own, I started looking into denim and quickly learned that Japanese denim was where it’s at. I had heard of brands such as Evisu, Visvim, and Kapital, which are coveted amongst streetwear communities, but I didn’t have a sense of what made Japanese denim so special behind the allure of exoticism. It turns out that that exoticism hits closer to home than you’d think. Japanese denim falls under the Americana umbrella. Inspired by US denim culture, people in Japan spent years trying to replicate American denim, taking their favorite features and making it their own.
Part of the draw of Japanese denim is that it is often made on old shuttle looms, something the US ditched along with domestic manufacturing long ago. Shuttle looms are less precise and much slower than modern projectile looms. This makes for an inefficient process from a capitalist perspective, but from a denim enthusiast’s perspective, it adds much character. Furthermore, shuttle looms are needed to create selvedge denim. The intention behind Japanese denim is that it has a classic American look and is of high quality.
Now for a little terminology: Selvedge (or selvage) denim is made from a roll of fabric that is self-finishing which prevents fraying. Raw denim is denim that hasn’t been washed. Sanforized denim is denim that’s been treated to shrink in efforts to reduce the amount of shrinkage the consumer experiences once they wash it; this is sometimes referred to as “pre-shrunk” denim. Unsanforized denim is that which hasn’t been treated meaning that it will shrink once you wash it. When people talk about Japanese denim, they are referring to garments made in Japan, though the cotton can be sourced from anywhere.
I got a pair of Momotaro 0905SPs earlier this year from Hinoya, a denim specialty shop in Tokyo. Over the course of a week, I tried on seven styles of jeans from a range of brands and ended up with the Momotaros. So far, it’s been one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. The jeans are sanforized selvedge denim in a classic wide fit in indigo with a button fly and––this is my favorite part––pink stitching. I’ve worn them a ton since I got them, not every day (they weigh nearly 16 ounces and there was no way I was wearing them during NYC Summer heat), but enough that they’re essentially my daily driver. I’ve put in tens of thousands of steps in the; I’ve worn them on three continents; hell, I’ve even vogued in them. Not only do they look fantastic, but they’re also very comfortable and I know that they will last a long time.
The Japanese denim life isn’t always peachy keen, though. While buying clothes made by skilled artisans tends to lend itself to more ethical and transparent production, there have been discussions (specifically on online forums) about the ethics of cotton production and sourcing. While there doesn’t seem to be any current cause for concern regarding Japanese denim supply chains, the fact that denim lovers promote being mindful of where their clothes come from and what it takes for it to get to them speaks volumes about the kind of community they have fostered. It’s refreshing, especially as large corporations encourage us to buy more things while increasing their exploitation of garment workers and the environment for the sake of profit.
I washed them for the first time recently. Washing raw denim is a controversial topic online, as I’ve mentioned, but I just put them inside out in the washing machine with a little bit of detergent on the gentle cycle then let them air dry. I was really hesitant to wash them. I loved the look of the deep blue denim and I wasn’t sure if I’d feel the same once they fade.
Of course, one wash isn’t going to make a difference, but with more wear and washes the dye will start to come off and reveal how I’ve been wearing my jeans. Knowing that my jeans will fade to reveal how I move throughout the world: how I sit, how my knees bend when I walk, which pocket I keep my phone in. Ultimately, I think that’s what affirms the hype of Japanese denim. If you take care of them, the garments will become part of your journey, and if you keep them long enough, they will reflect the story of your life.
I guess it’s not really about the denim itself. Maybe the real treasure was the fades we made along the way.