Japanese selvage denim is like the holy grail of the jean world. It's made on shuttle looms from high-grade cotton and, while the wearing-in process takes real dedication (at first they feel like a suit of armor), they look great after you've lived in them for a while. What's so interesting about the whole cottage industry is that, while the blue jean was born in the U.S., it's Japan’s obsession with Americana, especially heritage workwear, and hand-worked techniques that make the country king of the most sought-after selvage jeans. Curators of denim in the states go nuts for the stuff in a way that puts their own local options to shame.
“Anything made in Japan has a certain level of artisanal quality to it,” says Sam Lobban, buying manager for MR PORTER. “The Japanese just have this unique desire to construct it in the best way possible. To some extent, they’re obsessed with re-creating things in the most authentic way, but they also take the most authentic, and take it to the next level and make it better.”
This sentiment is echoed by Wayne Gross, fashion director at the online retailer East Dane. “The cult-like following and the exceptional quality [is] due to a tighter, denser weave, and unique variations on the denim surface as a result of the old looms,” Gross says. “Selvage denim is treated as an art form in Japan, and the looms they use are virtually antiques.”
Unfortunately, because of the amount of handwork and the limited nature of the raw materials, Japanese selvage is harder to find than your average pair of jeans, which can run in surplus at your local Gap and J.Crew. But for some, that’s part of its mystique and appeal: In an increasingly digitized world, the act of seeking out and trying on a pair of jeans to feel the weight and texture in person is part of the product’s allure. Stateside denim lovers got interested in finding jeans that would become uniquely theirs. And so they started trying to get Japanese denim across the pond.
Nick Coe, founding editor at the menswear website Heddels, traces this back to around 2003, when denim enthusiasts started sharing information on specialized forums where the minutiae of jeans were discussed. Japanese denim was particularly popular, so much so that they had their own dedicated forums. By the time denim-focused shops started opening, catering to this niche audience was important to retailers. The result was great, high-quality Japanese denim, available at local specialty shops and curated online stores.
Here, a few of our favorite pairs you can get without a trip to Okayama.