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japanese denim article ....


Distinguished Member
Jan 27, 2003
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Old-school jeans are hip again, with Japanese denim irresistible to young buyers
Laura Compton, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007



Why would Kiya Babzani import a DJ from New York to spin at the grand opening of his old-school denim store? It's not as if there aren't DJs here. For that matter, there's plenty of denim.

San Francisco was, after all, the birthplace of Levi Strauss' heavy-duty denim work-wear pants in 1873. It's also the home of the Gap, another casual brand known the world over.

But Babzani is very particular about his music -- and even more so about his jeans. The artisan Japanese denim he sells at his small Mission District store, Self Edge, is like your dad's 501s, or maybe even your granddad's -- which means probably not much like yours. To the guys, most in their 20s, wearing silk-screened T's, hoodies and low-slung jeans while nodding to Queens emcee and hip-hop producer J-Zone, it's clearly a look worth spending almost a week's paycheck on.

Equal parts throwback and future cool, Japanese selvedge denim is drastically different than the prewashed, artificially distressed fabric most people wear. But in a way, it's come full circle. The raw, unwashed denim replicates what Levi's Jeans, Lee, Wrangler and other U.S. companies produced until the late 1960s. The imitation goes all the way back to the old looms it's produced on, and may include the pocket stitching, rivets and dead-stock zippers.

Selvedge refers to the clean "self edge" the fabric forms as it's woven on a narrow shuttle loom. It's also heavier -- anywhere from 13 to 15 ounces in weight per square yard, and higher in some cases, while most commercial denim is 12 ounces or less.

Think Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," or cowboys who wore the same pair of jeans for months on end. Or Levi's famous shrink-to-fit 501s, which required buying a size or two up, but without the bathtub.

Some brands, like Samurai, which is exclusive to Self Edge, are "known for how stiff they are, like sandpaper," Babzani says. "They're not meant to be comfortable." For best results, you shouldn't even wash them for the first month or two -- if ever -- as you break them in.

Such is the allure of raw Japanese denim. It bends to the owner's whims and life. Self Edge employee Jan Galang was riding his bike and wearing his 15-ounce Sugar Cane Okinawas when he was hit by a car recently. He's OK, but the jeans sustained some damage. Still, it's all good: "With denim right now, it's all about how they fade," he says.

Everything that makes these jeans stand out in the $13 billion denim industry -- the history, integrity of the fabric and the way they're made, the fit and hidden details -- is also what makes them irresistible to early adopters.

Japanese selvedge denim has been a phenomenon in Japan since the 1980s, with quests to both reproduce and acquire the ultimate pair of jeans bordering on obsessive. Some devotees have even traveled thousands of miles to Japan expressly to buy these limited-run jeans. But they've largely remained a cult item in the United States, tracked daily on blogs and Superfuture.com's Superdenim board. To actually try on a pair of true Japanese denim in a store before buying them hasn't been possible, outside of a few stores in New York or Los Angeles, until very recently.

Now, Samurai, Sugar Cane, Iron Heart, Flat Head and other Japanese denim brands are available here for the first time at Self Edge, which has been open for two months.

Babzani was expecting "50 to 100 of the biggest denim geeks in the world" for a special Superdenim gathering Saturday night, and was requiring RSVPs.

"Denim heads see these in person and freak out," says Babzani, who's had customers from Austin, Texas, and Vancouver, B.C., among other places, make the trek to his storefront, formerly the longtime home of Leather Tongue, an alternative video store. "They've spent the past six years of their life looking at these online -- they're going to buy at least one pair."

Mark Sterne of San Francisco, who works in video and computer imaging, visited as soon as he heard about the store. "He's very selective," Sterne says of Babzani. "He handpicks the brands he likes. There might be one or two other places in the United States that have the stuff he has."

Sterne started collecting Japanese denim about a year and a half ago after finding out about the jeans on Superdenim. He was drawn to classic denim's colorful history and admires the obsessive, painstaking detail that goes into replicating those styles. He now owns 12 pairs.

A favorite are his Eternal 811s; he hunted them down after seeing a "holy grail" pair that had gained online fame ever since their Japanese owner posted them. Really, Sterne conceded, they looked just like "a beat-up pair of jeans," reflecting a year of wear. But like many Japanese artisan brands, they paid homage to the stiff Levi's styles for which the Gold Rush-era San Francisco company is famous.

He was amazed when a fashionista co-worker complimented him on his "nice Levi's."

"Not only were they not Levi's, there were mutated reproductions, where they had toyed with the fit," he says. "I loved that."

The button-fly 501 from 1966 is particularly fetishized, Babzani says. It's one of Sugar Cane's best-sellers, and Iron Heart has a version, too. Other frequently copied styles include the button-fly 1947 and zip-front 1955.

"All the designers will tell you that Levi's created the gold standard," says James Sullivan, author of "Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon."

"I imagine that Levi's understands that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but you can only take that so far."

One of the first Japanese vintage denim brands to establish itself in the early '90s, Evis, resembled Levi's a little too closely. It's evolved to Evisu, and now has a signature seagull swoosh on the back pocket, Sullivan says.

Japanese denim traces its lineage back to the 1950s and '60s, when U.S. manufacturers, such as Levi's and Lee, were upgrading from shuttle looms to projectile looms to keep up with an emerging youth culture that demanded jeans.

When Japanese interest in vintage denim exploded in the 1980s, manufacturer Cone Mills, who produced selvedge denim for Levi's, Lee and other companies and others, was "only too happy to get (the old looms) off their hands," Sullivan says. Japanese vintage fans snapped them up.

The older looms produced a narrower but more durable fabric that was noted for its completed "self edge," stitched with a colored thread. Levi's edge was red, Lady Levi's pink; a turned-up cuff reveals this telltale detail that modern jeans lack.

"Denim produced on shuttle looms is naturally irregular and these irregularities come out as the jeans fade, making every pair develop into a unique and beautiful pattern as it fades," reads Evisu's MySpace page.

This personal patina is also known as wabi-sabi, "the old Japanese notion that the natural world weathers things just right. There's an inherent beauty in the natural breakdown of things, whether it's a building or a forest an item of clothing," Sullivan says.

But most consumers don't want to spends months or years waiting for that to happen.

Scott Morrison, the founder of Paper Denim & Cloth jeans and now the well-regarded Earnest Sewn, "speeds up the natural aging process -- sanding the jeans, washing them numerous times," Sullivan says.

In other words, the work is done for you.

It's a sign of the industry's fierce competition that premium denim companies such as Earnest Sewn "have to create a backstory for their brand to sell the brand image," Sullivan says. Most boast hand-done details, special rinses and "craftsman" finishing touches to justify the high price tag.

But Babzani prefers to go straight to the source and import some of the special offerings and limited runs from smaller-scale producers that leave the denim's fate in the hands of its owner. He's even negotiated a special Iron Heart design, whose slim silhouette was inspired by Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane. There will be only 100 pairs of the Self Edge X Iron Heart style, and 25 black pairs.

"The denim market is so overly saturated with premium, premium, premium, but it's mediocre at best," he says. "Very few brands are actually doing 'premium.' "

Until now, the closest thing to Japanese denim available in San Francisco has been France's A.P.C. and Sweden's Nudie, both of which draw from the Japanese denim model, either in philosophy or materials, carried at Azalea, a clothing boutique in Hayes Valley. Between the Azalea Web site (www.azaleasf.com) and the store, co-owner Catherine Chow sells about 30 pairs of A.P.C. jeans a month. Villains Vault, Rolo and A B fits have at various times carried American brands that may use some Japanese denim but are finished elsewhere.

When it comes to the artisans, Sugar Cane is the buzz brand of the moment. Self Edge's current stock even has some outlaw pairs with the trademark orange back pocket stitching.

"Nobody else in the Bay Area will ever have Sugar Cane," Babzani says. He's also stocking some of the associated Buzz Rickson line of men's work shirts and "all this outlandish street wear," he jokes.

Denim worshipers cross subcultures as well as nationalities. Babzani, who also owns Turf Shoes and Transit, stores in San Mateo that specialize in limited-edition sneakers and street wear, predicts the sneaker and denim markets will cross within the next year. "The sneaker culture is leading it," Babzani says. "A lot of these guys are getting into denim."

All the elements converged at Self Edge's November grand opening, where cold cans of Budweiser and bottles of Rolling Rock were snapped up as quickly as they were set out on a silver tray and J-Zone spun his "ignant" rap for the occasion. Sterne, a former skateboarder, was there, though he admits he's "older than most of the people on Superfuture, and old enough to be some of their parents."

Babzani has collected Japanese denim for 10 years, some of which will be framed and displayed as a sort of mini museum at the store. He understands the collector mentality and that of the average consumer, and he knows that at $200-$300 a pair, shoppers need a range to choose from before going for the hard stuff, such as Samurai.

"We brought in Nudie as a gateway denim," he says of the Swedish brand, which sells well at Azalea. Iron Army, manufactured in Los Angeles, is "not ultra-premium, but it's easier to wear, with a more modern cut," Babzani says. He's also carrying Sling & Stones, a premium women's line designed in Seattle but made in Japan using Japanese denim. Asked if his co-owner, fiance Demitra Georgopoulos, requested it, Babzani says she actually wears Sugar Cane's Lee-inspired boot-cut style for women.

"With the Japanese brands, it's hard to predict what's going to sell," Babzani says. "This is such an unknown market."

Sullivan agrees.

"Men are a slightly tougher sell on upscale jeans than women are. To take it to that next step, where you're really creating a very exclusive selection, it'll be interesting to see how successful he can be with that."

Premium jeans make up slightly more than 3 percent of the $13 billion denim industry, says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD group, a market research firm. "The vast majority of denim is $18 to $20," he says. However, the premium category "has become a sizable thing," inspiring a collector mentality he likens to handbags.

Japanese denim isn't for everyone, particularly the figure-conscious. "They're not sexy in the way that people have come to think of jeans," says Sterne.

"It's a pretty esoteric thing. You have to take the purist approach to jeans. I think a lot of people try it out, but I don't see a lot of people who want to spend months breaking in their jeans."


Distinguished Member
Jan 6, 2007
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Great post--thanks! Very informative indeed

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