Kiya Babzani of Self Edge on Japanese denim, the perils of the internet, and much more - my rambling conversation with a pioneer who brought new old stuff to the American market. Interview by Fok-Yan Leung, pictures by Sidney Lo. Styleforum: So, first things first - Self Edge is sort of a relative newcomer to your little empire of stores, right? You had Turfism before that. Kiya Babzani: Actually it's called Turf. Styleforum: Oh, whoops. right. Kiya: But yes, i opened Turf six years ago, which is still open. And I had a store called Transit for a 2-year period which was essentially a women's clothing store, and a Turf Annex that was less than a block away from Turf. Styleforum: How many years has it been? I remember your big launch on Superfuture. What was that, 2006? Kiya: We opened Self Edge almost four years ago in 2006. Seems like ages now considering what's happened with the store. Styleforum: I remember the first time I was there. The bottom part was denim, and there was some crazy streetwear stuff up top. And then it seems like you experimented a bit, with men's contemporary. Kiya: That was a temporary fill because we opened in between seasons. And because everything is cut to order from Japan, we had very little when we opened outside of jeans. That lasted about 6 weeks until shirts and more started to pour in. Styleforum: I remember the shirts too. They were sorta jarring sitting next to graphic (and really graphic) hoodies. Just wanted to clear the air. Kiya: Yeah. Styleforum: Early on, there was talk that you were opportunistic, and that you essentially built the store off of stuff you learned on Superfuture. How much truth is there to that? Kiya: Almost none--considering I was into this stuff before Superdenim existed. I traveled to Asia when i was very young, around 18 years old, with a love for rockabilly, and searched out vintage clothing (that was originally bought from America). That was 15 years ago. In Hong Kong I discovered that there are these Japanese companies reproducing what I was looking for but for a fraction of the price because finding a deadstock jean from 1945 would have cost many times more what a new one would cost had I actually found one. I was buying Japanese and Chinese magazines and bringing them back home to San Francisco. I couldn't read them but i pored over the photographs and went back to Hong Kong to buy what i would later know was to be very early versions of the Japanese repro scene. So to answer your question--no, Superfuture is not what spawned my knowledge base or interest; rockabilly 15 years ago was. Styleforum: When did that scene really take off? Kiya: In Japan it was huge in the 90s, and in the late 90s it hit big in Hong Kong too. Which is why most of the brands we think of when we think of "Japanese repro" were mostly founded in the early 90s in one way or another. And the presidents (Japanese for founder) of all the companies got their start ALL doing the same thing, buying American vintage in the states and taking it back to Japan to resell for more. Styleforum: So, about 5-10 years earlier than it started catching on in North America. Because, pre-2000 or so... Kiya: Depends on when you think it started to take off in America. I'd say it started to really take off in 2008, because outside of a VERY small number of people on message boards, who really had heard of any of these brands? In Japan these brands were big there from 1995 on. Styleforum: Two-part question for you. You obviously work with some very small companies, and you do a of collaborations with them. How much do you think Self Edge has done for the growth of those companies by exposing them to the North American and European markets? Second, how vital was/is internet forums to this growth, both of the brands and of Self Edge? And I guess that brings up a third part--do you ever worry that internet hype will come back to bite you in the ass? Kiya: I wish the answer wasn't as sad as it sounds. But the reality of it is that these companies were hot in Asia for about 10 years, and that period ended in the mid to late 90s, so when we came along and said "we want to sell your products to the rest of the world," we didn't increase their overall production, we just prevented it from going down. I've said this before, but many of these companies (and not just the ones carried at Self Edge) are on the brink of closing up shop for good due to financial troubles. I know for a fact that if it weren't for the numbers we move, a couple of companies we deal with would no longer exist today, and that's also true for labels we don't carry which were picked up by other stores outside of Japan. I won't deny that message boards had a lot to do with the brand growth, because in the end having a thread dedicated to one brand and having consumers go back and forth about the brand is a great way to get the name and product out there, this isn't a secret. Styleforum: And the ass question? Kiya: I don't worry about internet hype as much as some people, especially those that frequent message boards all day and feed into it. I still believe that a well-made product that is simple and classic will sell regardless of hype or not, especially if there aren't 100 stores selling the same product. Styleforum: Okay, so, a related note, and then we'll get on to some questions about the product. You know that the Americana trend is not going to last forever. And I think that while there will always be a market for repro-styled jeans, it's not always going to be as hot as it is right now. What is your hedge against that? What do you see for Self Edge even, say, 5 years down the road? Kiya: Is it possible for a retail store as small as Self Edge to be around for 10 years? I'm not sure, but we're hitting the four year mark and we just opened in New York last year and are opening in Hollywood later this year. It's not really a huge concern of mine, where the trend goes; we're not a workwear store and we don't sell "hard goods," "American goods," "American made," only workwear, or construction boots. Those are precisely the things that are hot right now, none of which we sell or market ourselves as. We sell the Japanese interpretation of America, whether it be rockabilly-style shirts and jeans, or brogue boots, or Navy-inspired repro shirts, or loopwheeled sweatshirts, or sturdy simple classic belts. It's all got a common theme, but it's not a uniform. You can shop at Self Edge and actually put together a load of completely different outfits. Might be hard for some of our customers to believe that only because of what gets so much attention is only a few styles, but if you come into one of the stores you'll see that there's a good variety of both jeans and shirts to choose from. Have you ever gotten answers this long from anybody? Styleforum: Ken from Krane gave me some very long answers, and Joel (KZO) and I went on and on. The common thread is that all three answered the questions without reverting to (too many) fashion cliches. But I gotta keep on this one, because you sorta dodged the question. OK, Self Edge is not about the "Made in America" Americana, but it certainly evokes Americana. And like you said, trends have a life expectancy... Kiya: Definitely. Definitely. Styleforum: and a lot of the brands you worked with were nearly done when you picked them up. With a diminished market, I can certainly see Self Edge surviving, but at its current strength? Kiya: The way i figure is that we're still growing, and we've shown no signs of slowing down as of yet, so we're going to continue moving forward. My only wish is that we could take more chances, because honestly there are so many amazing items that these brands we deal with produce that never see the light of day here in the states because the style isn't something that's popular in any way. Styleforum: Yeah. On that note, Flathead bracelets are awesome, and everyone should own at least two. My family has... six, I think. Kiya: Many people do own two, we move quite a few of those. It's a very simple and elegant style and the silver S makes it. Styleforum: Yeah, have gotten tons of compliments on it, including some rather uncomfortable ones. Anyway, I wanted to ask you how you chose the brands you are working with. I know that some of them do everything, from denim weaving and dyeing to sewing to washing. But there are other brands too (Studio D'Artisan and JohnBull come to mind) that do similar things... I gotta tell you that Styleforum often wants to work with A,B, and C, and A says yes, so that's how the decision is made. Kiya: I chose the brands myself based on their image and what they represent. I think a brand that bases itself on just the manufacturing and heritage can get old, because they don't have their personality that's important to me. A brand has to be personal, there has to be a connection, it's amazing if they do their own weaving and hand dyed yarns and all, but if that's where the brand stops in terms of marketing itself or building it's own image then it gets a bit stale. There's got to be a brand image and personality that both I myself and my customers can relate to. This isn't all about denim weight and thread counts--the brand has to be something that hits a personal chord with its consumers. Styleforum: Well, there is going to be a multiple-forum (including Styleforum) contest jean made by Dry Bones, right? That's a relatively new line for you. How did you choose them to work with? Kiya: Dry Bones is one the oldest companies to be doing reproductions in Japan, and they ARE the oldest one in Japan to be reproducing nondenim garments from vintage American styles. They're a brand I had always wanted because they do a style that's very much their own-it's equal parts Teddyboy, 40s rebel, and 60s Vespa style. If you look through their catalog, you'll notice they do almost nothing that's really hot style in America, which makes it difficult for us to bring much of their product in. The guys behind the company are also completely nuts, they never seem like they're working that hard but their line is huge and they're in almost 100 stores in Japan. Styleforum: I actually did check that out. Some of the stuff, even a pretty sophisticated American customer would be like "eh?" Actually, goes for a lot of brands. I was looking at some of the stuff from Needles, and... wow. Kiya: Yeah, my biggest pet peeve is that the American consumer looks at any rayon open pressed collar shirt and thinks "bowling shirt," which is so completely wrong. Styleforum: Like a Johnny collar shirt? So, what should he be thinking? Kiya: Those shirts are amazing and an easy way to dress up jeans without putting on a blazer (which makes me want to puke). Styleforum: Ditto, hate that look 99 percent of the time. Kiya: Also, many come in short sleeve versions which is great for wearing a nice shirt during the warmer months. Styleforum: A very veteran retailer tells me all the time that educating your customer is really important, and I imagine that this goes extra for Self Edge. Do you think that you could sell a Johnny collar rayon shirt? Oh, and then we'll get to "denim myths," which should be fun. Kiya: We have some open collar shirts in rayon in both stores. It's a really hard sell; we have them there because it makes me feel good. We move them at both stores, but it's not something that people search out. Everybody is so chambray- and flannel-blind that anything that doesn't look either workwear or flannel won't go. Styleforum: Someone on Styleforum wrote that flannel is the new stripey shirt... OK, as you must know, there are a huge number of myths going around forum-world about jeans. Kiya: SIZE DOWN FOUR AND NEVER WASH THEM. Things like that? Styleforum: Or "I sized down four, never washed them, and wore them for a year. The crotch blew out. The quality sucks." Kiya: You can blame Nudie and message boards for almost all of that. Styleforum: But let's address that. Quality and durability, what is the relationship? I mean, if I were talking about a beautiful silk chiffon, you might say, "none." But, we are talking about jeans, which are supposed to be tough as nails. What do you think? And then your comments on modern construction and materials (like cotton coated poly thread, which is indestructible) vs. vintage methods. Kiya: Oh god, i can talk for days about this... There's this idea that when garments are produced in smaller quantities are of a higher quality. This is false. There is also the idea that garment production done in vintage methods yields a sturdier longer lasting garment. This is also false. Styleforum: I have a GAP sweatshirt that rocks. (No I don't, but just to put it out there.) Kiya: The reasons are found deeper within what some of these companies from Japan are trying to do, their intention is not to make a pair of jeans that lasts you a lifetime, their intention is to produce a jean that is exactly how it was produced 100 years ago. (The exception is Iron Heart.) Modern mass production in China and India yields a product which might last quite a while due to very expensive, high-level quality management and modern machines, which are more reliable than vintage ones. What you have in exchange is a lifeless piece of cloth stitched in a very perfect robotic way which looks like it was made in outer space by aliens and ages like crap. The intention for mass production is to produce a garment that looks great new with no attention as to how the sweater or denim will look after six months of wear. Styleforum: So, I should be looking at what a garment will look like 6 months from now, rather than what it looks like new? Kiya: When i look over my own answer it very obviously will make no sense to a lot of people. Garments were produced years ago age in such a way where a very well worn shirt or pair of jeans or boots look amazing after years of wear, this is hardly the case any more. This is not to say that everybody wants to wear something for so long than it ages and starts to show wear. But even when new, you can tell when a garment has life to it or not. The fabric is human and the construction is human. Styleforum: Makes sense. I live in a house built in 1938--original hardwood, etc. It was obviously made with care, although it was probably not an expensive house at that time. But the upstairs bathroom is a piece of shit clumsily put together in the early 90s, I'd say. So, let's backtrack. There are trendoids that are going to buy a pair of jeans from Self Edge because, well, they are trendoids. Kiya: Right. Styleforum: But say a guy who is a suit and tie guy, who understands suits and ties and Edward Greens (so, many Styleforum readers) walks into your store. How are you going to explain a $300 pair of jeans that aren't going to last longer than a pair of $100 pair from Lucky to him? Kiya: Does that same guy buy an expensive suit because it lasts longer than a cheap one from Macy's? Styleforum: Yeah, truth. Kiya: That guy already understands why what we sell costs what it does. Styleforum: So, the followup - is this a better long term customer? Kiya: Depends if the guy actually gets it. A lot of the guys that come into the store in suits don't actually get what we do, mostly because they've spent so much time in a suit they've forgotten what it's like to dress the way we dress at the store. What we sell is the anti-suit. Think about who was wearing this stuff 60 years ago. And i'm not talking about the workwear stuff. Styleforum: Um, guys who are old now? Kiya: I'm talking about people wearing what we sell as fashion clothing, they're guys that were into rock'n'roll, guys that rode motorcycles, they weren't the straight guys. That lifestyle doesn't translate well into a guy that wears a suit or blazer every day, even on his days off. We have a load of customers that wear suits and wear a lot of what we sell, but those guys (and they tell us) don't LIKE the suit, they HAVE to wear it. There's a difference between a guy that loves wearing his suits and blazers every day and the guy that wears it because he has to. Styleforum: On the flip side, bikers didn't/don't worry about fades too much. Some guys get really angry because their jeans don't fade the way they'd like... Advice to these guys? Kiya: Just wear the fucking jeans or get something that ages exactly how you want it to (which isn't difficult considering the number of Japanese companies producing different types of denim that age completely differently). It's no surprise how your jeans are going to look after a year if you're any message board, or even go into a decent shop to buy your jeans. We show customers in-store what certain denim types will look like after some wear, we either have samples of worn jeans at the store or have photos to show. Styleforum: Okay, one more product question, and then I'm going to switch back over to business-y stuff for a bit. Two-part question--What is your favorite product in store right now? What is your favorite product/piece that you do not carry, and why don't you carry it? Kiya: My favorite product at the shop right now is a Harrington-style zip-up jacket with a brushed kasuri material lining. It's made by Real Japan Blues, which also makes my favorite jeans of the past year (actually more than a year now). The only jeans ever which i've loved the fit of so much i've worn them for almost a year and a half because i can't find another jean i like this much. For part two, about a hundred different rayon, johnny-collared shirts from almost every company we carry product from. People freak out when they see the shirts, they think "bowling shirt!" or "retro!" Or I've heard "disco shirts!" because it reminds them of the late 70s, which these have very little in common with. Styleforum: Honestly, I like bowling shirts. I developed my "style" in the 90s, and bowling shirts were big. You are actually designing some stuff yourself now, yeah? I mean, own line, not collaborative stuff. How is that being received? Kiya: Really well, we can barely keep any of it in stock, we've been doing the line for about 3 years now. Shirts, jackets, hats, and jewelry. Styleforum: So, why design your own stuff? Is there just stuff that you can't find, even with all the brand you work with? Kiya: I design my own stuff under the Self Edge name mainly because i want to do something things in small numbers and my minimums are very low, where as when dealing with any of the Japanese companies they need for you to make quite a few if it's a completely new design. Styleforum: I saw it at Patrick's Re:Change NYC showroom. Kiya: Oh right, yup, that's most of the collection minus jewelry. Styleforum: Do you foresee wholesale being a big part, or important small part, of the Self Edge brand? Kiya: I hope not! I dislike handling production myself and i also dislike wholesale to a certain extent. I enjoy design and dealing with the end user. I do contract design work for some Japanese denim companies, some product which is never even carried at Self Edge. That's rewarding, even if it doesn't have the Self Edge name on it. Styleforum: What other stores in the USA could you see carrying Self Edge branded products and representing it properly? Kiya: High end vintage clothing stores. Styleforum: Okay, I want to take this opportunity to let you get anything else out there that you would like to tell our readers. Kiya: I hope that this market grows and instead of spawning a quick trend in one direction it goes into multiple directions of many different styles all based on a vintage style of dress. For me, I'm not excited about seeing one particular type of shirt become the hot thing of the year then the next year another style. I don't understand the current trends, people are wearing Red Wing construction boots with oxford shirts and khakis and bow ties. That's a freakshow, not an outfit. In the end, an outfit tells a story, it's got to be a somewhat cohesive story, so as much as everybody wants to be an individual at one point you have to ask yourself what the garments on your body mean to you.