If you’ve been into denim for any amount of time you will most certainly have dabbled in (or at least be aware of) the deep, dark world that is Japanese selvedge denim.
Known for producing most of the finest selvedge denim and jeans in the world, Japan is home to many denim brands that pride themselves on their construction and attention to detail. It seems that sooner rather than later, most serious denimheads will find themselves with a good collection of the stuff, trying and loving jeans from some of the more well-known Japanese denim stalwarts: Momotaro. Iron Heart. Samurai. Pure Blue Japan. The Osaka 5 brands. (Perhaps even some Edwins or Uniqlo for the more budget-minded enthusiasts.)
The more famous of the Japanese denim brands are regarded as such for good reason. They consistently offer incredible products with enough quality and general awesomeness that they more than justify their price tags. (In the minds of their loyal fans, anyway.)
As with any addiction however, there seems to come a point where we inexplicably want more. For some, this “more” simply means more pairs from brands they already know and love, while for other more adventurous souls it means striking out a bit further afield and trying some of the smaller and lesser-known denim brands working out of Japan (of which there are many).
Quality-wise, I wouldn’t say that this is a step up or a step down from the big boys of the Japanese denim scene, but more of a slick little step sideways that will have people raising their eyebrows (in a good way) at your next denim hang.
Which brings us to the point of this article. I have put together what I feel is a fairly good starting list of brands that, while not completely obscure, are still relatively unknown to most budding denim enthusiasts outside of Japan. Now, I know some of you more seasoned denimheads out there are already screaming that you know of all of these brands and that’s great, but this list is intended more for casual denim fan that might be looking for something a bit more unique. After all, it’s no fun showing up at the staff party and seeing someone else wearing the same pair of Momotaros as you.
With that said, let’s take a look at what we’ve got.
[Related: 7 Reasons Japanese Denim Is Worth the Cost]
1. Graph Zero
Suzuki-san, who owns and runs Graph Zero, has high-quality clothing in his blood. His father was a well-known fabric salesman in Okayama, and the Graph Zero sewing factory also does the sewing for several other well-known brands.
This Kojima-based company is, in my opinion, one of the most innovative brands out there at the moment, and seems to be constantly be coming up with new wild and crazy fabrics and designs.
“We like to have fun here”, says Suzuki-san, and this is really evident in their work and also on their Instagram account, where everyone seems to be singing or dancing half the time.
To try and sum up their ever-evolving collection in words would be a lesson in futility, so your best bet is to check out their website and we what they’ve got cooking up at the moment. From their persimmon-dyed ‘kakishibu’ jeans that look like mahogany panelling, to their crazy jacquard selvedge, Graph Zero will have you looking like nobody else.
[See Graph Zero’s website]
2. The Strike Gold
It used to be that if you wanted really heavy denim you’d be blowing your mind deciding between Iron Heart or Samurai. But as Yoda said to Obi-Wan, “There is another”.
Kojima-based Tenryo Denim produces a spectacular sub-brand called The Strike Gold which has some of the craziest textures this side of Pure Blue Japan. Rare to see even in Japan, The Strike Gold is sold mainly out of their Kojima home shop or online homepage, both called Klax-On. Founder Hamamoto-san says that,
If ten people buy the same ten items, they will eventually become ten completely different things
meaning that each will fade differently and come to represent a record of the wearer’s lifestyle.
The Strike Gold jeans produce some of the more unique fades you’ll see, and offer weights that run from 15oz all the way up to 24oz. Texture for days and available in many different cuts, these might be a good choice if you’re looking for something heavy, slubby, that is also going to produce some stellar fades.
Their flannel shirts rock pretty hard too.
Definitely not unknown to serious denim nerds, Resolute still flies under the radar in most circles. Its pedigree however is anything but humble, being founded by denim legend and ex-Denime founder, Yoshiyuki Hayashi.
Resolute is all about style and silhouette. A stickler for shape, Hayashi-san often travels and runs his own ‘fitting fairs’ where he personally fits people to their perfect pair of jeans. Resolute doesn’t do heavy fabrics and Hayashi-san isn’t interested in just trying to achieve high-contrast fades. “Just wash your damn jeans and wear them naturally”, he advises with a smile. Osaka-based Resolute take heavy cues from vintage Levis, right down to the paper patch on their 710s.
Though they technically offer only 4 different cuts, it’s worth noting that their 710 jeans alone come in 86 sizes. I’m going to say that again just so you know it’s not a typo. The 710 jeans come in eighty-six different sizes. For real.
You see, while most Japanese denim makers offer a variety of waist sizes, their jeans generally come in a fixed length (34 to 36 inches normally) that are then cut and hemmed to match the individual wearer. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like an issue, but when you factor in leg taper, it is. The more you get cut off, the further up the leg of the jean you go, shortening the tapered portion of the jean and causing the cuff opening to be larger, thus affecting the silhouette.
For style-obsessed Hayashi-san, this simply won’t do. He therefore offers his jeans in 12 different waist sizes as well as 8 different lengths. As in, any combination of the two. If you’re looking for light, comfortable pair of jeans crafted by a true master and made to fit your body perfectly, give Resolute a check.
[See Resolute’s website]
4. Kamikaze Attack
With “Mad quality clothing!” as their motto, this is a true mom-and-pop operation — Kamikaze Attack jeans are made by two people in their tiny shop in Kojima.
On their humble beginnings, owner Kanazawa-san says it best: “In 1995, we started as a clothing/tattoo shop in a rusty freight container under a girder bridge somewhere in Okayama city. It was a happy place with a lot of vagrants, musicians, would-be artists, bikers and animals, but we didn’t have any money and couldn’t even find a cool pair of jeans we’d love to wear so we started making them”.
And henceforth, Kamikaze Attack was born. Produced in very small numbers and usually with tons of awesome little details, Kamikaze Attack also manages to charge quite a bit less than other similar brands. How they manage to do this I don’t know; I’ve looked over their stuff carefully and can’t see any deficiencies in materials or construction… perhaps they’re just being shy?
Either way it’s top-notch, unique stuff at really reasonable prices. Looking for some biker-rebel-vagrant inspired jeans that nobody else on the block will have? These might be the ones.
Osaka-based UES are known for their killer flannels, but also produce some damn fine jeans. An underground cult classic in Japan, UES still has a relatively low profile overseas, which is too bad because their stuff is right up there with the best of them, with everything being constructed by hand using the most traditional methods possible.
Concerning the name, it’s pronounced like “west” but without the “t” and it is an approximation of the English word “waste”. UES says that they want wearers to wear their stuff right into the ground, not keep it in the closet or chuck it out once it gets worn in. This would be a, um…waste.
Either way, when you try on a pair of their jeans, the last thing you’ll be thinking about is leaving them in your closet. UES also adds a nice touch to their jeans that is sure to please even the most discerning denim connoisseur: they will actually date brand your jeans. Meaning that they use a hot branding iron to burn the date of purchase (or date of first wear, you can choose) into the leather back patch. A very cool touch. If you’re looking for something truly unique, check out their Bush Pants.
[See UES’ website]
Okay, okay, TCB is pretty well-known these days but I still wanted to include them because I feel they offer incredible value are still different enough from the big boys to warrant their inclusion on this list.
A relatively new company, owner Inoue-san used to work as a sewing machine technician for a mill that did the sewing for Levis, back when they still used to make their jeans in Kojima. He slowly saved his yen and began buying his own machines, first opening his own sewing factory and then his own jeans company.
TCB has two meanings: “Taking Care of Business” and “Two Cats Brand”, Inoue-san being a huge fan of felines. Having their own sewing factory means that TCB is able to produce high quality jeans at really reasonable prices. TCB is also serious about reproducing your favorite denim from yesteryear, their Lee and Wrangler iterations being particularly nice.
If you want to try something different without really breaking the bank, TCB are a great place to start. My pair of slim 50s is equally at home at a denim festival or my office job. Versatile, well-made, comfortable, not outrageously expensive. What else would you want? Shop assistant Ryo also speaks fluent English so feel free to shoot him a mail or hit him up on Instagram.
[See TCB’s website]
This list is by no means exhaustive and there are many other brands I could have included. I do hope however that it will be enough to get the average denim enthusiast looking beyond the obvious choices in Japanese denim and trying something a little different. A slippery slope indeed, but what fun ride!
See more from the Osaka-based author, Dave Stewart, at his own blog, Japanalogue.
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