If I had my way," says one denim aficionado, "I would move to Japan, set up a shop right next to my fabric mill, and sell nothing but Japanese jeans." This particular fanatic also happens to be the owner of a major U.S. artisanal jeans company, and he insists on remaining anonymous in order to avoid alienating homegrown suppliers.
Other obsessives, however, are more than willing to go on record about their mania for the Japanese version of America's work clothes. Take Rick Ayre, a former vice president at Amazon.com and the owner of several thousand pairs of jeans. Obviously, with so many to choose from, he finds it difficult to pick a favorite. "But ninety percent of what I would call my prized possessions come from Japan." Ayre keeps a few pieces in rotation at any given time and experiments with cheese graters and sandpaper to achieve the perfectly broken-in look he prefers. The ones he wears most, by the Japanese company R by 45rpm, are woven from organic cotton and dyed with handpicked organic indigo leaves. The style is called Jomon; prices start at $754 and run upwards of $1,400 if you opt for the customized seven-year wash. What makes a pair cost this much? Ayre's rhapsodic answer: "The finish and the natural dyes used by the Japanese create the most beautiful deep dark blue, which fades to a blue-green before it goes pale blue."
The secret is rooted in the culture's ancient ways with color and cloth. America may have popularized the blue jean back in 1872, but jeans made in Japan have an advantage: To this day the Japanese variety is dyed using a technique first perfected in Awa Prefecture 500 years ago. An aishi, or indigo master, oversees the process, which begins by fermenting the leaves from the indigo plant in a mixture of sake and other coloring agents. Distilled water is slowly added, then strands of unfinished cotton are dipped into the potion (up to 28 times for some types). Finally the raw material is woven on old-fashioned looms. This painstaking method, which takes more than three months, produces cloth that ranges in shade from purple and blue-black to turquoise-green.
For Ayre and other lovers of Japanese denim, the results are more than worth the time and expense. "Chemical indigo fades more easily, so jeans made this way actually break in faster," Ayre says. "But you just can't compare them with the subtle shades you get from natural dyes." Although the blue jean's true origin is difficult to trace—some sources cite early-19th-century south of France, others 16th-century Genoese sailors—there is no denying that America and Levi Strauss & Co. gave blue jeans their big break in the late 19th century, when the nation's workers adopted the pants as the unofficial uniform. Jeans have been synonymous with the U.S.A. ever since.
The Japanese saw the value in our heritage well before we did. In the late eighties, before Barneys had its Denim Bar and Sally Hershberger her line of $1,000 jeans, a craze for vintage denim swept Japan, with prices climbing to $25,000. In response, Hidehiko Yamane's company, Evis (changed to Evisu, for obvious legal reasons), developed the first reproduction vintage Levi's in 1987. By the nineties Japanese companies such as Sugar Cane, Iron Heart, and Denime were crafting limited-edition near-museum-quality replicas of classics like the 1947 Levi 501 and 1942 Lee 101B. All three labels used the ancient indigo dyes that caught on with collectors such as Ayre. They also wove the cotton into denim on a type of mechanical loom that had been sitting in factory basements in Okayama, the country's weaving capital, since the seventies. These machines produced narrow fabric (30 inches wide as opposed to the standard 70), yielding a cloth with a denser thread count, a softer feel, and a finished edge. Called selvage denim, it is now among the most hotly pursued premium jean material in the world.
These older looms run at half the speed of modern ones, and jeans made from the cloth they produce require nearly double the raw material. But, according to Rogan Gregory, who works with Japanese selvage for his own Rogan line, "it's like the difference between a drum machine and an actual drummer—they both keep time fine, but there's an organic, living quality to one that the other just doesn't have." Selvage has slubs and tiny flaws that give it the feel of a human product.
What makes the Japanese material so superior, Gregory says, goes back to the Zen aesthetic of wabi-sabi—finding beauty in an object's imperfections. "I think that elevates their denim to such a high pitch," he explains. "The Japanese have a love for the jeans' pure functionality as well as the idea of a worker's clothing, with all its fading and rips and stains, being beautiful because of the story it tells about the person who wore it."
The Ever-Rising Stock of Denim
The price of a pair of Levi's in 1872 was 22 cents. That same pair of 501s today? Levi Strauss spent $46,532 for 19th-century originals posted on eBay—not surprising in the era of $10,000 Swarovski crystal-studded Escada Couture denim and the $500 custom-made jeans stitched by Earnest Sewn in New York. Here, a look at how the unofficial uniform of the American farmer went from down-home to superluxe.
It all began, appropriately enough, during the Gold Rush.
James Dean, Marlon Brando, et al make denim the emblem of cool rebellion.
Preshrunk jeans debut and rock the country.
Calvin Klein gives denim powers of seduction.
Gloria Vanderbilt brings denim to the social set.
The label 7 For All Mankind ushers in the age of the department-store denim bar.
Dior, Gucci, and the like send jeans down the runway.
Sally Hershberger charges $400 for a haircut and a grand for her Shagg jeans.