Talking about Oni Denim…

Someone asked me today – what is so special about Oni Denim?

To go beyond the obvious in describing the loosely woven, slubby denim and the impeccable craftsmenship, though, would take a little time.

Where better to do this than my personal rant box? (This blog.)

Here goes – our story begins a long time ago when selvedge denim was plenty but no one really cared:

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After WWII, in a rather curious way, the Japanese became infatuated with American culture.

Indigo jeans was one of the highly sought after imports, being a cultural icon of sorts.

The simple denim work pant, whilst so coveted, was a rare commodity in Japan.

A few sewing & trading companies began importing 2nd hand jeans from the US, and remaking them into Japanese sizes.

Yes, even back then the yanks were a fair bit chunkier than the Japanese – I’d imagine such an undertaking today  might be a harder task than making a pair from scratch 😛

(Haha, jokes, don’t worry, us Aussies are right behind you on the chubby chart.)

These pioneering workshops included what was to become Edwin & Big John.

One in particular, Maruo Clothing (the predecessor of Big John) did particularly well for itself, and in the 1960s – under a partnership with Canton Textile Mills (USA) & Oishi Trading Company – made one of the first pairs of domestically manufactured jeans, using American denim from Canton Mills, in 1963 under the brand name “Canton” in Kojima.

This partnership coincided with Canton Mills’ efforts in modernising it’s production, with the denim fabric being produced one step closer to what we see in our local supermarkets today.

( Btw, there is some controversy as to who was the first – Canton, Edwin, etc? Edwin claims to have made the first pair in 1961.)

Anyway, controversy aside, Maruo Clothing later started making it’s own brand of denim – Big John – in 1967, using denim imported from Cone Mills.

Later, in the early 1970s, Big John would be the first to utilize Japanese denim (AFAIK from Kurabo Mills) in it’s production of jeans – yep, that’s right, Japanese denim has only been around for 40 years.

From there on Big John went on to do pretty well for itself as a factory brand, being one of the companies leading the way in re-discovering natural indigo dyed denim as well as doing some earlier reproduction work.

Maruo’s partners though, were not as fortunate – Canton Mills closed down in 1981 (leaving Cone Mills all by itself in America) and Oishi Trading Co. decided to cease producing jeans under the Canton brand in 1983.

After Maruo Clothing, Oishi Trading Company had used different workshops to produce Canton jeans – the Takahata sewing workshop, for example, whose modern day affiliates are producing Eight-G jeans.

But ultimately, Canton did not last – it had been revived in the past, though never again with actual Canton Mills denim.

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Fast forward to today, the first generation Japanese denim companies have taken very different roads.

The Canton brand has been passed around, and the latest iteration of the Canton brand seems to be run by a fashion focussed company producing jeans which feature some curious hard-washes…the soul of the original Canton partnership & brand was all but dead.

Edwin, as we all know, was quite successful and at one stage had Brad Pitt model their wares – mostly doing mid-market & “washed” denim nowadays, though their knack for quality constructs occasionally still shines through in products such as the old Japanese Wrangler reproductions and their own Vintage Collection line.

Big John has been making fair priced denim all along, occasionally doing “anniversary” special editions which feature solid craftsmenship, but sad to say they’ve largely missed the train on the vintage-revival & raw denim trends.

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Where does Oni Denim come into this?

Well, a little bit of the Canton spirit lives on in Oni, as the man who runs Oni Denim (a bloke called Oishi) is in fact the son of the founder of Oishi Trading Company, one of the original Canton partners.

A convoluted tale no less, but for me it is interesting to trace some of the history of denim jeans manufacturing in Japan in a pair of Oni’s.

That pioneering spirit certainly does live on, as Oni continually comes up with interesting concepts, from the Shoai to the single-stitch 1001-HM, playing with the fabric both in terms of weave and material.

Indeed, the myth of Oni Denim is that the brand relies on fabric made by an old weaver close to 80 years old – only this man can operate the old shuttle loom that makes Oni’s fabrics…he works slowly, and due to his health cannot work in cold weather, and as such the production of Oni jeans is very limited and only done in intervals of months.

Personally, I’m not sure how much of this is spin and how much is truth – part of me thinks the story is very cool, though another part wishes it wasn’t true as I would still like to purchase Oni Denim with it’s magnificent slubby fabrics in 2020.

Oni Denim doesn’t give much away either  – the company is famous for denying interviews with the top denim magazines in Japan – the focus is on quality jeans.

This single-mindedness and obsession is something I admire & can relate to.

Although the little Oni fan inside me was quite taken aback by their collaboration with Naked & Famous…

It is all a big mystery: Which mill manufactures Oni’s denim? Which workshop constructs Oni’s jeans?

A very interesting topic in the hobby of Japanese denim, but these mysteries soon become an after-thought once you’ve handled Oni Denim jeans.

It’s truly special stuff.

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25 thoughts on “Talking about Oni Denim…

  1. Very interesting history lesson! I have to admit, I’ve never paid any particular attention to Oni, but their denim sounds quite interesting. Brands like Big John and Edwin are carried in big chain retailers here like Americaya, and I figured they were on the low-end/overseas production end of things and never paid much attention to them.

    I could probably learn more about denim’s history in Japan since I live here and have a decent grasp on the language, but it would probably be very time-consuming to do that. Just trying to read articles in Lightning takes long enough…

    1. So much to learn, but the language barrier does me in sometimes – my Japanese is so rusty it’s pretty much non-existent.
      Would appreciate any info. on Oni you can find 🙂

  2. Hey mike, as told on SuFu, damn nice article. Still, I am wondering :do they have a website, or does there a website exist covering ONI denim… google doesn’t give me that many results…

    Also, living in Belgium, where would you buy ONI? BIG? Or order through a Jap site?

    1. Hi Rob, thanks mate!
      Sorry, haven’t had a chance to check SuFu yet, just woke up 😛
      They don’t have a website as far as I can tell, though in the beginning they were much more liberal with their information, so some little bits of data are available on old cached versions of various Japanese retailers’ website.

      For buying Oni Denim, I think your cheapest (& safest) bet would be Hinoya or Vari – and they usually have all the models, and the staff can communicate in English.
      BiG, and now Tate + Yoko, are a little more expensive – great service for people who live locally, but factor in the increased priced and increased shipping (to Australia anyway), it’s a bit too much.

  3. hey rob, if you want oni’s, hinoya is really the way to go, my first pair of japanese jeans was a pair of oni red that i had to proxy from hinoya at the time…

    due to a sizing mistake david now has that pair though, i can honestly say, i have never seen any denim that is quite like the oni denim though, very special.
    though nowadays i’m more interested in the vintage like denims, such as ooe, warehouse and mf offcourse

  4. Thanks INDIGOSHRIMP — nice primer to Oni denim. I’m thinking of getting a pair of the new Oni Awa Shoia from B&G. I like a comfortable fit. I’m waist size 30′. The before wash size is tabled as 32′ and 33′ for tags size 30′ and 31′ respectively. I’ll warm machine wash and air dry. What’s your recommendation? Thanks.

    Julius

    1. Hi Julius,
      Sounds like sz 30 will be a straight fit and sz 31 a relaxed fit. The loose weave denim will probably stretch at least 1 inch in the waist with wear. Best to contact Gordon for the precise shrinkage details though!
      Btw they have arcs that are sufficiently different from Levi’s since modifying them a few years ago…

  5. I`ve been checking your blog because I`m interested in buying Oni Denim. Now I`ve heard you talk about buying from ‘Hinoya’ could you give me a link to the website where I could purchase them? Thanks!

  6. Whats the hang up on the NFxOni collaboration? I’m curious because I actually own this pair and it’s one of my favorites, slubby as any normal Oni’s.

    1. Mark Twain once wrote: ” If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” Oni is the cat.
      I won’t drag out the topic too much, but essentially for me (who is a Oni Denim fan) the collab. is a sell-out against what I perceived as Oni’s brand philosophies – traditionally shying away from mass-market advertising and held status as a mysterious and exclusive product.
      Would a Alden fan buy an Alden x Nike collab.? Nay, and he may never look at Bugatti the same way again.

  7. Hi Indigoshrimp,

    What are your thoughts on the natural indigo models offered by SA & Oni?
    How would you compare the denim, cut and overall quality of say the Awa Shoai and the D1507?

    Cheers,

    Julius

    1. Hi Julius,

      I have not handled the d1507 in person before, though on paper the stats are similar: both are Tokushima natural indigo dyed to the core with many dips, and are moderately heavy fabrics (17oz for the SDA, 18 oz for the Oni), not to mention the domestic RRPs are similar too.
      Both are straight legged cuts, as are most higher end natural indigo jeans.
      I think the decision would come down to the surface texture you prefer – the SDA slubbing is much more subtle.

      SDA do offer natural indigo models from a couple more regions in Japan though, utilising different plant species too. Harder to track down, but if you’re a natural indigo enthusiast it’s worth looking into it.

      Cheers,
      Mike

  8. Thanks again Mike. Your comments are balanced , informative and incisive. I am quickly learning how much there is to learn about denim from your blog. Yes, I am a natural indigo fanatic!
    I’m finding purchasing from Ratuken however problematic, as tabulated sizings for models appears to vary, and to be at odds with BIG. The D1507 sold out at BIG being an example.

    Cheers,

    Julius

  9. Hi Mike,

    Very good article about Oni, as I’m about to cop a pair of them– a Oni Denim – Blue Fit 18oz. Slub Denim.
    But what if this Oni denim compared to *Samurai Jeans – 17oz S710VX Blue Shadow Edition , or an Warehouse 15th 1001XX ■ –which the fabric comes from cotton which only grown in the Memphis, Tennessee, –was called “Cotton King” of America.

    Which one is the best to purchase?

    Any thought or suggestion for this?

    Thanks,
    Ditto – Indonesia

    1. That’s fairly specific…my answer probably comes too late, but I reckon the Oni would be an interesting experience. The three pairs are all quite different though, so objective comparisons wouldn’t be very informative – best go with personal preference, since it seems like you know the specifications of each quite well.

  10. Good read, simple and easy to follow, I’m some research on core denim brands your article was very helpful and to the point. i’ve been trying to find a website for ONI but to no avail do you know if they have one?

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