Japanese Denim Brands to Watch

You think the best denim is all-American? Turns out, Japanese companies are making some of the best blues today.

Kiya Babzanidoesn’t call himself a denim guru. He doesn’t talk like that. But he could, and he wouldn’t be puffing himself up. The 36-year-old co-founder of Self Edge, the chain of stylish selvedge denim boutiques with a loyal following in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and New York, Babzani has done as much as anyone to bring great denim to America. And that’s what getting great denim is about right now: finding it abroad. Specifically, Babzani is a devotee of the Japanese brands that picked up the baton when America got lazy about its five-pocket legacy.

“The Japanese feel that material objects have a soul,” explains Babzani. “They want to produce something with a soul, so everything gets better over time, something that Westerners don’t traditionally believe in.”

Let’s not cut the West out entirely. We’re into it. We’ve made Babzani’s suggestions into a shopping list. Here are the Japanese brands he recommends:

The Flat Head

“A Japanese brand from the ’90s which specializes in every imaginable type of clothing and accessories. They generally stick to a more classic-weight denim, with most of their denim hovering between 14 ounces and 18 ounces. It’s extremely hard to find another jean that ages like Flat Head’s does; super-high-contrast fading is something they specialize in. It’s a jean that you can wash every week and end up with a jean that looks unbelievable, even with just six months of wear.”

Stevenson Overall Company

“The original inspiration came from a vintage clothing collector named Zip Stevenson, who owns Hollywood Trading Company. His brand is unique for a couple of reasons. Every jean is single needle sewn and stitched. Anywhere from four to seven different machines are used to make most jeans nowadays. Stevenson uses one single machine to make the entire jean. It’s an amazing thing to see in person. The fit of the top block is unique because the back pockets are hand curved. They look different from normal five-pocket jeans.”

Strike Gold

“Strike Gold is a husband-and-wife team from Okayama, Japan. They’re a fairly new company that has come a very long way in just four years. Their collection is very small and their production numbers are very small. They’re doing something very exciting with denim, using combinations of different cotton slubs to achieve a very unique look. It gives the fabric an almost wavy texture, like a vintage handwoven rug. You’ll see a three-dimensional fade pattern from the outside of the denim that is only achieved by a loosely woven denim. We can barely keep any of these jeans in stock, as demand is high and production numbers are low.”

Iron Heart

“This brand has been around for 12 years. They specialize in heavyweight denim and were the first to ever to produce a 21-ounce denim. Iron Heart’s founder spent many years working for Edwin and eventually left to start his own line inspired by motorcycle culture. Iron Heart is more concerned with durability than how the denim ages over time, and they figured out a way to make a classic jean that’s heavy in weight but comfortable. When you put on a pair of Iron Hearts for the first time, you won’t believe it’s 21-ounce denim. This is achieved through a combination of cotton type, weaving technique, and post-weave processing—a series of processes they’ve perfected over the past decade.”

The Exception: 3sixteen

“A non-Japanese brand based in New York City, which has been producing garments for 11 years. They make the perfect everyday jean for a combination of reasons, but especially if you don’t want to spend the price point of the Japanese brands. 3sixteen’s jeans start at $215, which is a great value, considering what goes into them. They were one of the first small American companies to go to Japan to develop all of their own denim styles directly with the mills in Okayama—no broker, no middleman. Through years of hard work, they’ve created a large and varied line of jeans, which even gives the Japanese brands a run for their money.”

Photos by Josh Bustos Photography