Japanese Denim: The Osaka Five

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There is something comforting about the words “made in Japan”. There's also something quite mysterious about the phrase too.

It’s as if ‘made in Japan’ is code for high quality, made with care, and just damn good. The Japanese just do it better when it comes to everything – well, that’s what I think. Yes, there is a hype around Japan and everything that comes with it, especially when it comes to fashion. But I won’t be talking fashion today… I’ll be talking denim. Japanese denim.

How did Japanese denim become the denim we know it as today?

To the untrained human that most likely owns a pair of blue jeans, Japanese denim is just another ‘thing’ in the world of fashion. To the well-informed quality goods enthusiast, style-conscious person, or denim head, Japanese denim is the holy grail of the blue world.

Mikiharu Tsujita, founder and president of Fullcount, explains: 

"Your jeans will eventually become part of your life. Vintage jeans are cool because they are dwelled not only in a physical aspect but also feelings and emotions.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Such high-quality denim that lasts so long and is made with impeccable attention to detail becomes more than a product. Raw denim jeans continuously capture memories of the wearer. Each fade, wear mark, tear, stain, and repair has its very own bit of character. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their jeans.

I’m sure there is a much deeper mystical back story than the one I’m about to rattle off, but this one is the one I know, the one I believe, and the one I think is probably the coolest.

The Osaka Five

The Osaka Five are a conglomerate of five denim brands. Fullcount, Evisu, Studio D’Artisan, Denime, and Warehouse. These Japanese denim brands essentially pioneered the industry of today. Earlier I mentioned that the words ‘made in Japan’ have a slight mysterious awe around them, I think it has something to do with these five. 

You have to ask yourself, why would five Japanese denim brands take it upon themselves to reinvent the way things are done in the world of denim?

Some say it was because Osaka had convenient production facilities suitable for denim — facilities for weaving, cutting and sewing. Others say Osaka was teaming with vintage stores, heavily influenced by American Military style, and had the kind of clientele that did not need to be convinced to buy products like selvedge denim. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash when it comes to the Osaka Five’s origins. Mystery, quality, a bunch of cool dudes, and bloody good taste — the world needs more gents like the founders of the Osaka Five.

Oh, I almost forgot the other legend that is tied to the birth of the Osaka Five. Apparently, a large number of vintage Draper shuttle looms were abandoned by Cone Denim and imported to Japan. If you’re not familiar with what a Draper Shuttle Loom is, then I’m sure you’ve heard of Levi's. Well, those are the exact same looms that were used to weave Levi's Selvedge denim 50s and 60s.

To cut a long story short, five dudes saw a gap in the market due to the popularity of denim in Japan. They also thought denim wasn’t being produced in the way they thought it should be. Brands were focused on quantity and not quality, so these guys stepped up and the rest is history.

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Studio D'Artisan

The inception of the Osaka Five dates back to 1979. Shigeharu Tagaki founded his label, Studio D’Artisan, on the premise of bringing Parisian haute couture thinking into the world of high-quality Japanese denim. Tagaki set out on a mission with one goal in mind. To reproduce authentic jeans similar to styles from the 1960s. Before launching Studio D’Artisan, Tagaki had been working for Pierre Cardin in Paris. This is where the idea of starting his own brand came to fruition. Tagaki used vintage designs as references for his original pieces. This became a huge success for the brand. It’s fair to say Studio D’Artisan are known for doing their own thing. Trends, fashion, and mainstream weren't on Studio D’Artisan’s radar. They went against the grain even when sales were down. Tagaki was adamant that the brand remained within the region of extremely detailed Americana style garments. This really does show how important the overall brand and product values are to their creator. You just don’t get this with many other brands. There is emotion like no other when it comes to Japanese denim. Vintage denim had its return in the 90s, and Studio D’Artisan set the standards for high-end denim.

DENIME

Founded in 1988 by Yoshiyuki Hayashi, Denime started out by producing the cleanest, most traditional interpretations of vintage denim jeans. Denime couldn’t have done a better job of capturing the true ethos of the Osaka denim revolution. To this day Denime is still committed to developing fashion-forward translations of classic American cuts. Just like other highly sought-after brands from this era, the Levi’s 501 had a slight influence on how things panned out.

Yoshiyuki Hayashi built up a strong reputation for influencing and driving a new generation of denim enthusiasts – ‘denim heads’ – on the appeal of vintage selvedge denim. Throughout the 90s, Denime mastered their craft and released high-quality accessible products to their dedicated community. The vintage (or should we say retro) movement hit an all-time high in the mid-2000s. Unfortunately, Denime were under fire and weren’t in the best of positions. Luckily enough for Denime, Hitoshi Tsujimoto stepped up to the plate and pulled it all back together. If you’ve ever heard of a brand called The Real McCoy’s, well… that’s Tsujimoto’s brainchild. Tsujimoto purchased Denime through his well-known retail chain Nylon, and it was not long after Hayashi departed from Denime that he founded the brand Resolute. 

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Evisu

Evisu could very well be the most well-known denim brand from the Osaka Five. Well, at least in the commercial world they are. Founder Hidehiko Yamane’s focus exceeded the classic heritage Americana style and pushed contemporary boundaries. Yamane is a tailor by trade, a denim enthusiast at heart, and one of the leading figures responsible for the 1990s Japanese denim boom. The commercial rise of Levi’s in the 80s and lack in quality denim was somewhat a catalyst for Yamane to kickstart Evisu. In 1991, Yamane and talented friend/colleague Mikiharu Tsujita (founder of Fullcount) decided to get the ball rolling with their own brand, Evisu. There was no stopping the duo. They became a powerhouse in the blue world, expanding far and wide and becoming one of the most successful denim brands around the globe. One of the most recognisable details of Evisu jeans is their handprinted gull-wing arcuates – an iconic symbol in the world of denim. Evisu established itself as a multi-tier fashion brand, and Yamane’s creations found their way into the streetwear scene. If you thought influencer marketing was big now, well, just think about what would happen to your brand if hip-hop legends Jay-Z and Lil Wayne decided to represent it. This is exactly what happened to Evisu, and the brand rapidly exploded and grew from strength to strength.

So, the story behind the name Evisu is one to remember.  Yamane first named the brand ‘Evis’ – kinda rings a bell. Stick an L on the front and you’ve got the magic word, Levi's. On the other hand, Yamane wanted to link the name to his own heritage. Ebisu is the Japanese god of prosperity, so it made perfect sense to merge his denim inspiration and Japanese culture into one. It wasn’t long before Levi’s cottoned on and legally forced a name change. That’s when the name Evisu was set in stone.


Fullcount

Fullcount has got to be one of my favourite brands in the world. They just do things right. Mikiharu Tsujita is the mastermind behind the Fullcount brand, famous for sourcing the finest Zimbabwean cotton for his creations. He was one of the first to do this. The rationale behind the Zimbabwean cotton choice was that it had very similar characteristics to 1940s American cotton. Fullcount being Fullcount, and Tsujita being a top-notch creative, he knew after trial and error that combining the long-staple nature of the Zimbabwean cotton yarns and weaving his fabric on a 1960s shuttle loom would result in his ideal vision: a near perfect interpretation of the iconic Levi's XX leather patch jeans from his own perspective. Tsujita plays a key role in the denim world of today. He is a born leader, innovator, and true creative. Before Fullcount was brought to life, Tsujita co-founded Evisu with Hidehiko Yamane. You can now see why the Osaka Five brands are insanely good at what they do. Tsujita describes the idea behind his brand as creating jeans that “feel so good that you don’t want to take them off until you get in bed.” 

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Warehouse & Co.

Kenichi and Kenji Shiotani (the twins) founded Warehouse & Co in 1995 and have been making high-quality garments ever since. The duo previously worked under Mr. Yamane at Evisu, together with Tsujita of Fullcount. They were the last of the five to form. The Warehouse & Co brand was built on the twins’ original ideas with a nod toward vintage jeans. Warehouse & Co denim were renowned for their interesting take on the denim fabric; their original fabrics were woven with intertwined threads, giving them a different quality from more conventional denim and the brand was particularly careful to sew their jeans with a certain number of stitches per inch. Known for their meticulous detail, yellow line selvedge and considered construction, Warehouse have successfully and respectfully reproduced garments previously consigned to history. Warehouse produces some of the finest denim garments in the world today. And it doesn’t stop there. They have a full range of quality goods including sneakers, sweats, and tees.

The Osaka Five essentially laid the foundations for Japanese denim brands of today. 

To even comprehend that a group of 5 brands engineered what we call the denim world of today (notably, the selvedge denim world) is absolutely amazing. But, the even more amazing aspect of this whole ordeal is this…

The Osaka Five is a name that not one of the companies recognises themselves as part of today. 

Hisatani of Studio D’Artisan states “honestly, we don’t even actually use that term in Japan.” 

"We know we’re talked about as being part of that,” says Warehouse’s Kenji and Kenichi Shiotani, “but we can’t offer any comment beyond that because, well, we don’t really understand it. But, yes, we feel honoured to be called part of the Osaka Five.”

Marcus Freeman
@thebrutesupply