Man weaving selvedge denim in Japan

Japanese Denim: A Craft Perfected

Transcending race, gender, profession, class and fashion preference, denim is possibly the most versatile type of fabric ever woven.

There’s practically nothing you can’t do with a classy denim shirt or a pair of trusty old jeans. And where the subject of denim is concerned, Japanese denim is head and shoulders above the rest.

If this is news to you, we recommend that you read on. And if you were already in the loop, here’s your chance to relive the glorious legacy of this iconic wardrobe staple. This article takes you on a journey through the incredible legacy of denim from Japan and how to wear it.

A little history of denim

Although denim has become an integral part of everyday life for people around the world, its origins are quite humble, to say the least.

The fabric known today as denim was created almost by accident in a quaint French town called Nîmes. The creators, while trying to replicate a hard-wearing cotton fabric known then as “Jeane” and named after the city of Genoa, Italy, came up with something even more unique.

The fabric, classified as a twill weave fabric, was made using a white weft (horizontal) yarn, passing under two indigo dyed warp (vertical) threads. This created an incredibly sturdy fabric with a unique distinction – it was blue on one side and off-white on the other.

It was called Serge de Nîmes, a name that was eventually whittled down to just “denim”.

But the cloth wasn’t widely used until the 1870s and we have two men to thank for that – Levi Strauss and his business partner, Jacob Davis. Levi was a German immigrant who moved to San Francisco to start a Western Branch of his family’s dry goods business. Amongst the goods he sold was a sturdy fabric known as denim.

Jacob was a tailor who had used the fabric to create rugged items such as wagon covers and tents. So, when he was commissioned by a gold mining company to create clothing that could take a literal beating, he turned to Levi and the rest, as they say, is history.

Steve McQueen wearing jeans and a denim shirt
Steve McQueen
Robert Redford wearing a denim jacket and sunglasses
Robert Redford

The new clothing line, known as Levi Strauss & Co, became a staple for people in all manner of hard jobs. Every farmer, miner and hard riding cowboy adopted the denim overalls and when the first pair of jeans were made in the 1890s, they just couldn’t get enough.

Denim overalls were reputedly so strong, one customer in 1942 relates that they used the cloth in place of a chain to pull another car out of a ditch. According to her “we really had to pull, but the pants held and out he came!”

But how did the jeans get to Japan?

From America to Japan

Due to its sturdy nature, many American GIs sported their denims during WWII duty overseas, including in Japan. In fact, the fabric was declared an essential commodity during the war and was sold to only those in defence or military work.

But the dark hue and versatility of denim started being linked more closely to leisure wear than workwear, especially due to the GIs who loved strutting in them. And when the fabric entered popular culture, fueled by the nonchalant glamour of superstars like Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and James Dean, Japan fell in love with denim.

Marlon Brando
James Dean

However, the Japanese didn’t just embrace denim clothing. They were absolutely enamored and, with time, transformed the clothing into higher art. Today, Japanese denim is the most exclusive and highly sought after in the world.

How did they start out on this trajectory? In the 1960s, demand for denim wear in Japan was quite high, but demand was usually hampered by the long import route and the fact that American brands didn’t always fit smaller Asian bodies.

Source: Kaihara Denim
Source: Kaihara Denim

Since the Japanese had already perfected the art of indigo-dyeing (which is important for denim production), it was a small leap to begin making their own jeans. Production started mostly in the town of Kojima and the first pair of Japanese jeans were made at Kurabo Mills, still going strong today.

What makes Japanese denim an exclusive product today? Two things: the use of natural indigo dye and weaving on old looms to produce selvedge fabric.

Selvedge comes from the word “self-edge” and has a distinctive close weave that prevents unraveling and a signature stripe which may be red or any other colour. On each pass of the shuttle, the yarn seals the edge of the fabric creating a “self-edge”, or Selvedge, hence Selvedge Denim.

Rumour has it that, when Levi’s had to upscale its production and moved away from using old looms, the Japanese are reported to have fanatically imported the old looms. So, today, most of the selvedge denim on the market is from Japan, making it pretty exclusive.

Kaihara denim

Due to its amazing versatility and high quality, Japanese denim is recognized all over the world. It makes some of the most comfortable and stylish denim shirts around.

Our denim shirts are woven by one of the oldest and renowned mills of Japan – Kaihara Mills, a brand associated with the best quality in process and materials. The mills, though established in 1951 have roots in the exploits of Sukejiro Kaihara, an indigo weaving expert.

They weave all their denim in-house, and patented their own rope dyeing machine, a process that creates some of the most remarkable denim fades you’ll ever see. It involves bundling dozens of cotton yarns together into a rope shape and then gradually dying from the surface in.

This process leaves a white core in the center of each rope, creating a stunning fade over time.

The choice of Kaihara denim for use in our denim shirts was a no-brainer. The high quality lightweight denim they produce is some of the best around and results in a classy, breathable material you can style for a multitude of occasions.

How to wear our denim shirts

Although denim shirts seem made out especially for casual situations, some of the best and biggest style icons – from Sean Connery to Steve McQueen – have shown that you can do much more than that with your denim.

Just like jeans, they’re pretty effortless to wear. So you’ll have to work really hard to get denim shirts wrong. That said, there are some combinations you can try that’ll leave you looking good and feeling even better.

Denim shirts are great with tailoring. For a stand-out winter look, try a brown glen plaid tweed jacket and charcoal flannel trousers with a bleach washed denim shirt. White or stone coloured chinos with a stone washed denim shirt and navy blazer will produce the same effect in summer. Top this one with brown suede penny loafers to complete a great summer look.

To style your denim with a well-tailored suit, try a navy flannel in winter or combine it with a Solaro suit for a remarkable summer look. And if you’re in the mood to do a double denim, have a go at our bleached Japanese denim button down on a pair of raw dark-toned selvedge jeans.

Final words

Although coming from humble beginnings, denim has now reached a status where it transcends race, profession, gender and fashion preference.

Combining class, elegance and style with incredible comfort and a whiff of nonchalance, there’s practically nothing you can’t do with a denim shirt or trusty pair of old jeans.

If you’d like to see some more of what you can do with denim, check out our Japanese denim shirts today.

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