The old ways are the best

The old ways are the best

In pockets of craftsmanship across the globe, one man bands are leading a new wave of interest in jeans made the way they used to be. Josh Sims reports on the rise of elite, artisan denim
To most people Kurabo, Nisshinbo, Kuroki and Kaihara are exotic-sounding but largely meaningless words. To these same people, a pair of jeans is likely to be a non-descript, commodity product, something to do the gardening in, or to wear down the pub - ordinary even in this, the 140th anniversary of the creation of the granddaddy of all jeans, Levi’s 501. But then there are other people - those who might recognise the names of the four main mills producing denim in Japan, arguably home to the world’s best denim.

And these mills certainly are busy - as unlikely as the idea would have sounded just 15 years ago, denim is now an artisan fabric, with top-spec jeans hand-made by lone makers at their work-bench. And that is no romantic exaggeration. Among the new wave of elite denim are literal one-man-band makers the likes of those behind American labels Roy and White Horse Trading Co, and British label Tender, using homegrown denim from Cone Mills, the last of the US’s pioneering mills, or, more likely, one of the many varieties of Japanese denim - woven on  old-fashioned shuttle looms, repeatedly hand-dyed using laborious loop-dyeing techniques, all to create the subtle irregularities of texture and certain properties of fading in the colour that denim-heads so love. The result? Jeans that will set you back anywhere between £300 and £500 a pair.

That Japan should be the source of the best take on a quintessentially American fabric may seem unlikely. But here comes a strange tale of American occupation after World War Two giving rise not to some desire to embrace a more homegrown style, but that of the occupying forces, which saw a youth cult for all things Americana and, a few decades later, a fledgling Japanese fashion industry seeking to recreate American raw blue jeans better than the Americans.

“And the trouble they go through to make jeans now as then is insane,” says Nick Coe, founder of the webzine. “Of course, there is a romance to denim out of Japan. But it’s really in the manufacture that it’s unparalleled, at least until recently. Japanese denim might not be re-inventing the wheel, but by bringing back in every detail what the makers thought was perfect in jeans many decades ago, but which hadn’t been available for many years, they created a connoisseur market.”

It was a company called Big John, which had been a textiles and uniform manufacturer,
that became the first domestic denim brand in 1965. Edwin has a similarly long history. And they have since been joined by a growing plethora of ever more esoteric makers, the likes of Sugar Cane and Real McCoys, Full Count, 45RPM and Samurai, Iron Heart, Flat Head, Studio D’Artisan, Momotaro, the list goes on, including many yet to sell outside of Japan (which, of course, adds to their cachet).

Each claims their own specialism, be that the precision with which they re-make Levi’s classic styles of the 1930s to 1950s, or the use of natural indigo dyes, or the emphasis on heavy and super-heavyweight denims - perhaps 21 or 25oz as opposed to a more typical 12 or 14oz, this itself being sturdy stuff against the positively flimsy 8 or 9oz mass-market denim.

“You discover Japanese denim and its whole world sucks you in,” suggests Daniel Cizmek, managing director of the Berlin-based DC4, one of the leading retailers of Japanese denim outside of Japan. “The quality is amazing and not just because of the effects possible by using old looms and tailoring machines - it’s because the makers tend to have this deep fascination with American culture and typically have huge, and hugely valuable, vintage denim collections. They know their subject and that shows in the product. Believe me, it’s addictive.”

But while the Japanese mills and makers may dominate the artisan denim market, they are not alone. There are the aforementioned American makers - joined by the likes of 3x1, 3Sixteen, Stronghold, Imogene & Willie and others. And then, perhaps more unexpectedly still, there are the Swedes.

”What we do well here is dark, clean denim, because that suits the dark winter climate - it’s less expressive of itself and more about your relationship with a pair of jeans and how they age. It’s fashion, but a slower kind of fashion,” argues Maria Erixon, ex of Lee jeans and co-founder/owner of Nudie Jeans, one of the biggest of the new premium denim brands out of Sweden in the last ten years.

“I’m not all that surprised by the development of Swedish denim now - we’re a very denim-oriented people.”

Indeed, recent years have seen a spate of new Swedish denim companies launch perhaps because of the strength of demand here for denim with a difference: it was Nudie, for example, who might well lay claim to having introduced the skinny fit that cut against the straight fit classic to became a staple fashion denim choice; which last year became the industry’s first fully organic denim brand and this year its first fully transparent one,  conducting published audits of its suppliers’ working conditions and environmental standards.

Nor is Nudie alone in this spate of new names. There are the likes of Denim Demon, Dr. Denim, Neuw and Pace. But a fact little known outside of the country is that Sweden has a denim culture dating back half a century. It was then, in 1966, that the pioneering brand Gul & Bla was formed by Lars and Maria Knutsson, sparking a jeans explosion for a youth market unable to buy Levi’s or Lee, then still a rarity outside of the US. Their first Stockholm shop not only sometimes sold 1,000 pairs a day - notably of their signature wide-legged ‘v-jeans’ - while the company was at the forefront of development of the techniques to allow aged washes and other treatments. The company is bouncing back too: dormant for some 15 years, this spring/summer has seen the relaunch of Gul & Bla, complete with jeans production in Sweden.

“Sweden actually has a very early denim culture, relative to other European countries, which most people outside of Sweden don’t know about,” explains Mattias Hallencreutz, who works on design for Gul & Bla. “It comes from the fact that Sweden has always looked to the US for inspiration - in fashion, cars, music - perhaps because we have this long story of emigration to the US, so feel this strong link. And the Vikings discovered the US, after all.”

Indeed, according to Peter Lindt, design director of jeans brand Crocker, the national attachment to denim is a reflection of the Swedish democratic approach too.

“Swedes have never looked down on jeans - they were something you could wear anywhere,” says Lindt. “Perhaps that is because jeans have never been considered workers’ clothing here either - jeans have always been a fashion item for us. And with artisan denim undergoing something of a reappraisal now, they look set to be entering a whole new phase of appreciation.”