Okayama and Japanese Denim

Words by Mitch Goldstein

Okayama, located towards the southern tip of Japan in the Chūgoku region of Honshu (the largest island of Japan), is a largely rural area but has also long been a center for textile trade and production. During the Edo period (1683–1868), cotton became the primary crop of the region, proving more resilient than rice in an area both prone to flooding and lacking sufficient rainfall. However, even with this local cotton crop, the workforce in Okayama focused more on crafts and production as opposed to farming and agriculture. The region became known in Japan for producing sanada-himo cords, the thick woven cotton used to wrap sword handles, as well as cotton sandals and mats. Traditional Japanese indigo dyeing practices, known as aizome (​​藍染め), can be traced in the Okayama region back to the 1600’s, when the natural dying process was prized for its ability to make a fabric more durable as well as having antimicrobial and insect repelling properties.


Throughout industrialization, Okayama maintained its status as a center for clothing production, known for producing school uniforms and heavy duty work clothes. Following World War II western clothing styles started becoming more common in Japan and some brands, such as Maruo Clothing, pivoted to producing more westernized products. Maruo, changing its name to Big John, is largely credited with creating the first “true” Japanese denim in 1960, creating styles catering to domestic customers rather than just importing American denim. Following this foray into Japanese denim, Big John worked with local mills and spinning companies to begin producing a superior quality denim to meet the high expectations for the Japanese craftsmen producing this new elevated style of jeans. 


As the area continued to modernize, the Kojima district of Okayama became a centralized hub for denim manufacturing and production. After Big John’s collaboration led to the availability of locally produced denim, fully made-in-Japan jeans began gaining popularity across the country, outselling the imported American denim brands. The craftsmen and manufacturers already had a wealth of knowledge working on school uniforms and heavy duty clothing and the machinery required to work with denim, as such it was only natural for more businesses to adapt to the growing demand for the styles now rising in popularity. As American manufacturers transitioned to newer, faster looms and milling machines, upstart Japanese manufacturers offered to buy the American industrial equipment required to weave and work with heavier gauge cotton, and began using them to refine the art of denim manufacturing. 


Since the 1970’s, Japanese craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail has helped cement Japanese denim as some of the best in the world, creating more durable and higher quality denim goods than other regions which shifted focus to favor large scale at the lowest cost. Today, centered around the aptly named Jeans Street in Kojima, Okayama still produces denim for many of the top luxury brands in the world. Okayama is now home to over 100 traditional shuttle loom mills, dye houses, finishing studios, and other denim production companies.


One of the things that make Japanese denim so unique is that within Okayama, the denim production process is divided among multiple companies, with each individual craftsman or company specializing in a specific step of the process and varying in size and capacity. No one company handles the entire workflow of going from raw cotton to finish denim products. This collaborative community approach, allowing what would otherwise be competing companies to work on parts of the same order and share in the growing business, has led to a superior end product. While some companies may specialize in one form of washing or dying, they may rely on other companies in their same specialization to help take on a large order, loan access to a specific piece of equipment, or perfect a technique. Stone washing, the practice of using pumice stone to fade denim, originated here, but now you may find a range of inventive ways of practicing stone washing among varying companies. By exchanging knowledge and techniques among each other, the craftsmen of Kojima know that they can further the reputation and elevate the level of craft possible among their trade.


All of the denim in our capsule collection was produced in Kojima. Not only seeking the mastery of the denim craftsmen there, but because some of the unique techniques and different finishing machinery centralized in the district made it a natural choice. From unique tumble stone washing machines to selvedge shuttle looms maintained for decades, working with the denim craftsmen of Kojima has resulted in truly unique materials and finishes. With this level of expertise the denim masters of Kojima reach almost couture levels of made-by-hand craftsmanship, with unmatched attention to detail across every step of the process, resulting in a finished product that we believe would not be replicable if we were to try and make our denim anywhere else.


“It's like an ecosystem that you see when you're there for a day or two, checking out all the facilities. I guess that itself is a craft–a social craft–and you can't really copy that, because it just comes from generations of trusting each other. When you have established that really good, strong trust, you can make really good products. It shows in the quality of work and their respect towards the work.” – Yuki Yagi


For the denim pieces in our capsule collection, we looked to both archival and contemporary pieces, studying what elements contributed to not only the best fit, but also feel, look, and aging over time.


“We strategized and researched a lot for the fit of our denim by comparing a lot of competitor brands. From higher brands to lower tier brands, we looked at as many as possible to see who really has the best generic fit. I would say we try to make the best denim possible.” – Yuki Yagi


Denim has a long history in both Japanese and American fashion, and is now seen as a daily essential almost everywhere in the world. As we set to work on our first capsule collection, we wanted to see denim not just as a wardrobe staple, but create pieces like a chore coat or jeans, that you can look good in, and feel comfortable in, year-round.


Photos by Takashi Homma




Okayama, the Birthplace of Domestic Jeans, Is the World’s Largest Producer of Domestic Denim - Okayama Prefecture Official Tourism Guide

Kojima Jeans Street - Okayama Prefecture Official Tourism Guide

Okayama - eHRAF World Cultures

Why Okayama? How the Japanese Region Became the Denim Capital - Heddels

Kurashiki’s Cotton Story - JapanTravel

Kojima, Okayama: Japan’s Denim Capital - Nippon

‘Made in Japan’ jeans from Okayama still evolving, 50 years on - The Japan Times

Okayama: The land of sunshine and great denim - Japan Today


Model wearing Chore Jacket in Bleached Indigo