Japanese Selvedge: The History of the Osaka 5
Updated: May 29, 2021
Following the "Ivy" movement spearheaded by Kensuke Ishizu of VAN Jacket, Japanese males slowly became more fashion-conscious. The proliferation of modern men's fashion in Japan, coupled with a growing political and social disease paved the way for more rebellious styles, and an infatuation with American culture quickly permeated throughout mainstream Japanese culture. Between drifting popular opinion, and relaxed trade regulations, Japanese citizens suddenly had access to a myriad of American-made products.
In particular, American denim was an instant hit with Japan's style-conscious population. Veterans of the Ivy style loved the casual fit and the thick, durable nature of the woven twill fabric, while younger consumers enjoyed denim’s embodiment of a rebellious American ethos—James Dean, Marlon Brando, and their ilk. Unfortunately, the sizing of Western denim was an issue for most of Japan's male population—usually too bulky and long-legged. As a result, stores and importers began shipping their used jeans to be recut, and then remade for the Japanese body.
Over the next twenty-five years, the Japanese denim business went from niche to a competitive retail market. Denim labels like Edwin, Big John, and Canton played up their association to American culture through western tropes, and in turn enjoyed great success. The image of the "authentic" American was no longer that of a well-off Ivy league student as perpetrated by VAN Jacket, but rather rebellious youth—most notably hippies and cowboys. Over the next several decades, blue jeans became a wardrobe staple. By the 1970s the country was undergoing a massive economic boom, and Japanese youth no longer needed to save up for a single pair. Instead, they bought multiple pairs at once. The widespread success of denim and surging demand resulted in large-scale production and a gradual drop in quality. Jeans were mass-produced on projectile looms that lacked the ubiquitous, well-dyed nature of their vintage counterparts. Details like rolled belt loops or hidden rivets had all but disappeared.
There was a clear need for well-made denim that adhered to Japan's infamous attention to detail and craftsmanship. Tired of an oversaturated market, several designers sought to revive Japanese denim through hand-dyed processes, archival machinery, and time-consuming weaving techniques. In response to the near-extinction of these artisanal methods, five companies based Osaka—later known as the “Osaka Five”—began to revive and reinterpret heirloom American denim in order to create durable garments that stand the test of time.
The genesis of the Osaka Five can be traced back to 1979, when Shigeharu Tagaki founded his inaugural label, Studio D'Artisan. From the label’s inception, Tagaki hoped to create authentic reproductions of jeans, similar to models popularized in the 1960s. However, when the brand was first established, D’Artisan was viewed solely as a reproduction company, rather than a legitimate denim brand.
In fact, this turned out to be a positive attribute and would eventually become their main selling point. Using vintage designs as reference was—and still is—commonplace. What set Studio D'Artisan apart from their competitors was the decision to focus completely on original designs inspired by archival pieces, rather than direct replicas. The brand's long-standing philosophy—to use indigo selvedge denim and sourced parts—contrasted heavily with the pre-shrunk and acid washed denim craze of the ‘80s. Still, Tagaki insisted that the brand stay within the realm of meticulously-crafted Americana garments. Due to an insanely high price point, however, Studio D'Artisan initially experienced numerous sales issues.
At the time, the starting salary for post-university students was roughly ¥2,000,000-2,500,00 annually. The average cost for mass-market jeans floated between ¥6,000 and ¥7,000 yen per pair. On average, Studio D'Artisan sold one pair of denim for about ¥29,000. The price was surely daunting to younger consumers, and a luxury even for those who could afford them. The label's D0-1 jeans, released in 1986, retailed at a similar cost due to the fabric, which was woven on a vintage 27-inch shuttle loom and hank-dyed, a much more arduous and meticulous process than rope dyeing.
Luckily, by the 1990s, vintage denim became immensely popular, with prices ranging between ¥20,000 to ¥30,000 a pair. While on the high-end of the spectrum, Studio D’Artisan was suddenly in good company, setting a benchmark for Japanese denim. Despite being in the midst of the denim craze his brand initiated, Tagaki left the company he founded in 1995. The label continues to produce familiar models such as the SD-101 which features a deeper indigo dye and many details now synonymous with the brand. Although Tagaki is no longer at the helm, Studio D'Artisan will always be remembered for setting the standard for all other Japanese denim thereafter.
Denime—the second member of the Osaka Five—was founded in 1988 by Yoshiyuki Hayashi. Technically founded in Kobe, the company's general proximity and similar design ethos resulted in a close association with the Osaka denim boom. Much like its counterparts, Denime boasts a storied history. Less rooted in legend, Denime embraced the by-gone tradition of considered construction. Offering arguably the cleanest, most traditional interpretation of vintage denim, Denime is still committed to crisp, fashion-forward renditions of classic American cuts.
In contrast to their predecessor, Denime effortlessly captured the ethos of the Osaka denim boom. At the time of their founding, Studio D'Artisan was considered radical, employing far more experimental techniques. For Denime, however, the surging interest for reproduction denim in the ‘90s enabled the brand to release accessible products through a wider distribution channel. Over the next few years, Hayashi developed a reputation for educating a new generation of denim enthusiasts on the appeal of vintage selvedge denim.
However, by the mid-2000s the vintage retro movement peaked, and the company began to suffer. Eventually, Hitoshi Tsujimoto—best known as the founder of The Real McCoy's—purchased Denime through his retail chain, Nylon. Hayashi has since left the company and gone on to found Resolute, the spiritual successor to Denime and the continuation of his dream to reproduce the perfect pair of Levi's 501s.
Perhaps the most well-known of the Osaka Five, Evisu is easily one of the most influential denim brands of the past three decades. Unlike his contemporaries, founder Hidehiko Yamane’s focus went well beyond heritage Americana. Through brand partnerships and celebrity endorsement—both foreign and domestic—Evisu developed an unprecedented cultural presence. In the late 1980s, amidst growing discontent with the quality of Levi's and other mass produced brands, Yamane began researching vintage denim with the intent of reproducing the quality found in older, more durable jeans. Alongside co-worker Mikiharu Tsujita, Yamane quit his day job and established the label. He picked the name Evisu—a nod to Ebisu, the Japanese folk god of money, usually portrayed holding a fishing rod. Yamane selected this name for his new venture in recognition of his two greatest loves: fishing and money.
With an impressive collection of vintage looms, Yamane began producing about 14 pairs of denim a day out of his Osaka workshop. Each pair featured a seagull on the rear pocket, hand-painted by Yamane. The detail eventually became a brand trademark, recognized the world over. A selling point, the seagull increased in both extravagance and intensity, appearing in various colors, sizes and patterns. Following a feature in the popular Japanese magazine Mono, Evisu quickly grew into one of the most recognizable and influential names in Japanese denim.
In the early 1990s, Yamane introduced a tailoring line, followed by fishing and golfing lines. In 1999 he introduced his ladies line, Evisu Donna, cementing the label as a multi-tier fashion brand. His influence continued to expand, pouring into the streetwear scene and resonating with hip-hop fans courtesy of co-signs by Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy. However, with all the hype came inevitable backlash and cheap knock-offs. In the mid-2000s, South Korea based Wolbi sold a massive amount of counterfeit Evisu denim, with annual sales reaching over 450 million dollars per year. In fact, many South Koreans misconstrued these replicas as authentic jeans . Evisu took legal action against the company, but inevitably lost, as Wolbi Co. registered a trademark in South Korea prior to Evisu Japan Co being able to do so. However, this proved to be only a minor hiccup in Evisu's development.
All said and done, Evisu transcended the boundaries of traditional selvedge denim to create a new niche. The brand has never lost touch with its roots, making the label's original models, the Evisu 2000 #1 and #2, some of the most sought-after denim around the world.
Originally working alongside Yamane, Mikiharu Tsujita departed Evisu in 1992 to launch his own denim brand, Full Count. The label's initial claim to fame was their fiber choice. In 1994, Full Count was the first "Made in Japan" denim company to use soft, long-fiber Zimbabwe cotton. Tsujita sought to create a pair of jeans that "feel so good that you don't want to pull them off until you get to bed." Tsujita’s rationalization for choosing the oft overlooked Zimbabwean cotton was that it had very similar characteristics to 1940s American cotton. When produced on vintage 1960s shuttle looms, he was able to create near-perfect renditions of the iconic Levi's XX leather patch jeans.
Full Count prides themselves on their incredibly comprehensive range, including renditions of denim that retain the aesthetic qualities of those worn by 1940s-1960s Hollywood stars. While the brand began as a workwear line, it quickly shifted into a lifestyle brand. The company's selection transitioned from blue-collar workwear to daily casual wear, indicative of the changing role of denim from utilitarian to casual garment. Today, Full Count is far more interested on everyday items and comfort rather than workwear. Consumers of high-end denim and workwear garments are already conscious of where materials and labor are sourced, but even the most meticulous brands are prone to missteps in production. Thankfully, in an era where clothing production is dominated by cheap, fast labor, Full Count demonstrates refreshing concern for issues beyond the final product.
Warehouse & Co
The final member of the Osaka Five, Warehouse is probably the most versatile of the bunch. Founded by the Shiotani brothers in 1995, the label focused on manufacturing authentic utilitarian garments, beyond simply denim. Before launching their own imprint, the siblings worked under Yamane and Tsujita, cultivating a repertoire of traditional and experimental design techniques.
The Shiotani brothers decided to look beyond reproducing vintage jeans. Instead they utilized these production principles to produce original garments that shared similar qualities to the vintage jeans produced by their peers. At Warehouse, denim is an artform, with complex choices and techniques behind every detail. Proprietary fabrics were woven with intertwined threads that were carefully stitched by the inch. Warehouse's 1001XX model demonstrates each of these details—iron buttons, copper rivets, a rayon pocket tab, and deerskin leather patch. Beyond denim, Warehouse brings the same passion to iconic garments, reproducing pieces of fashion history with original production methods and premium materials.
Through their Dubbleworks series, Warehouse uses high-quality fabrics steeped in vintage details to capture the spirit of Americana. Through meticulously-crafted crewnecks, pigment-dyed tees, and their durable 330 denim, they are recreating the most iconic pieces of vintage American workwear. Another line, Copper King, is a series of "union-made" repro denim from the 1920s-1970s, that incorporates old western tropes. To the same effect, Warehouse's recently introduced Brown-Duck Digger line displays the facets of workwear's illustrious history combined with the company's sustainable ethos. Their major product line, “LOT 1001” to this demands respect for their denim’s viability, quality of material, sewing, silhouette and attention to detail.
Author: Gunner Park