Big John is one of the heavy weight originals of Japanese denim, preceding even the Osaka 5 (who spearheaded the reproduction denim trend starting in the mid-1980s), but is seldom seen among Western denim circles.
Indeed, as the raw denim trend got going in earnest outside of Japan in the 2000s, most denimheads were after either strict Americana reproductions or over-engineered, fantastically detailed Japanese jeans. Big John, which continued to produce high quality, work uniform type denim products, was largely ignored by the budding Japanese denim community on Superfuture.
To tell the complete story of Big John is to trace Japanese denim right back to the earliest days when jeans were first introduced to Japan after WWII. I covered this story in an old article on this blog back in 2011, which you can read here. Long story short, Big John was involved in the production of the first pair of jeans made in Japan, and also the first pair of jeans made with Japanese denim.
Big John started life as Maruo Clothing Inc., a sewing workshop which was set up in 1940 to produce uniforms and workwear as part of the Empire’s war efforts, and after the war also took to the specialty task of converting imported American jeans to Japanese sizes.
In 1965, in partnership with Canton Textile Mills Inc. of the USA and Oishi Trading Co., Maruo Clothing became the first workshop to actually manufacture jeans in Japan, branded “Canton”, using American denim made by Canton Mills and imported by Oishi Trading.
Canton Textile Mills closed down in 1981, while the son of the founder of Oishi Trading went on to create Oni. Left on its own, Maruo Clothing created its own denim brand of “Big John” in 1967, manufacturing jeans using Cone Mills denim starting 1968.
The next major breakthrough came in 1973 when Big John manufactured the first jeans that were made with denim produced in Japan (by Kurabo Mills in 1972). This pair is the granddaddy of all the Japanese denims that we geek out about today, though the Japanese denims of the 1970s were largely pedestrian affairs, being fairly average projectile loomed fabrics.
Then, in 1983, even before the reproduction denim trend had commenced in Japan, Big John launched its own artisan product, the RARE jeans. This first pair of Big John RARE jeans were the first to utilize artificial slub yarns, an innovation which altered the course of Japanese denim manufacturing, and sold at 18, 000 yen (almost 4 times what Japanese jeans would cost in those days.) These RARE jeans were perhaps one of the very earliest attempts at artisan denim jeans in Japan. Generation 2 of the RARE jeans was released in 1997, and featured natural indigo dyed denim. Generation 3 was released in 2010, named the R008.
The Big John RARE R009 jeans I will be reviewing today is a modification of the R008, incorporating the same design & construction concepts and utilizing the same materials.
The RARE R009 jeans come with a pretty cool denim carry case made out of the same denim, canvas and buttons as featured on the jeans.
Not sure what I’ll actually be doing with this case, but its inclusion does reflect the attention to detail involved in the R009 jeans.
The R009 is a modernised version of the R008, with the fit being revised to have a more tapered & fitting silhouette. It is advertised as a “slim tapered” cut, which is a fairly accurate description of how these jeans actually fit.
My own measurements for the size 36 jeans pre-shrink were:
Big John advises the old fashioned shrink-to-fit method to ensure optimal fitting and maximum longevity of the jeans. This fabric is not loomstate, but is unsanforised and has an advertised shrinkage of 9%.
So, off to the bath it goes!
The first two soaks were 45 degrees Celsius, 30 minutes per soak with mild agitation. The water was greenish brown for these hot soaks.
This was followed by two rinses with room temperature water, during which the jeans were agitated and actively hand-washed. Interestingly, the water was the colour of indigo during these rinses.
Even after this fairly intense soaking process, the only changes in the measurements were a 1.75 inch reduction in the inseam and a 1.25 inch reduction in the flat measurement of the waist. The shrinkage was not quite the advertised 9%…more like 5%, but I do suspect with actual machine washes in the future, this denim will continue to shrink down.
How does it fit after the initial soaking?
The top block is relatively roomy with a higher rise. There is ample room in the seat and thighs without being too loose. There is a moderate taper from just above the knee down to the hem. Leg twisting is subtle but present.
I like how the tapering is a little more subtle on this pair, and not as carrot shaped as many of the tapered jeans from other brands.
More and more I find myself wearing jeans that have a “high tapered” type of fit, and the R009 is a well executed example of this style.
The denim on the R009 is the same as that developed for the R008. Nicknamed the BIG7055, this 15.5 oz unsanforised denim was literally built from the ground up for the RARE project. The cotton is a carefully blended mix of two different American staples, made into yarn threads by Asahi Boseki KK, a yarn spinning specialist in Osaka. Everything from the twist of the yarn to the shape of the slub has been customised, with a focus on smoothness and sturdiness.
The finished warp yarn is then sent onto Sakamoto Denim for indigo dyeing. You may notice the Sakamoto Ransei stamp on the pocket cloth of these jeans, translating to “Sakamoto indigo saint” in Japanese – the honorific given to Yasushi Sakamoto, the former president of the company and a legendary master of the indigo who had initially developed the synthindigo dye to be used for the third generation RARE denim products.
Mr. Sakamoto has sadly passed away since, but his spirit lives on in the incredible dye that you see on this denim: Mr. Sakamoto attempted to – and eventually was successful in – synthetically reproducing the shade of blue on a natural indigo dyed bayonet cover from the Edo era.
Finally the yarn reaches Shinya Mills, were it is woven very slowly with minimal tension into denim on a single Sakamoto narrow shuttle loom from the 1950s. A special note about the weaving of this BIG7055 denim is that it was design to be ‘Wrench Proof’, woven in such a way that the denim does not distort after shrink-to-fit or a trip to the washing machine.
Handling the denim in person, the first interesting aspect I noticed is the shade of blue – it is a very pure blue, without casts of either red or green or grey. It indigo is deep, rather brilliant in natural light, solid rather than inky…the shade of blue is a very clean one.
The denim is mildly hairy when raw, but becomes noticeably hairier at shrink-to-fit. The warp side features frequent but understated irregularities, the overall appearance being one of complexity and variegation, without overt slubbing.
At regular intervals along the selvedge line, tufts of cotton fibre appear, indicating the narrow shuttle-loomed nature of this fabric – on a Sakamoto, as previously mentioned. The selvedge ID is pale orange.
The hand-feel is solid and textured, but not rough, with the weft side being fairly gentle against the skin. For me, this denim is fairly comfortable even from the first day, and creases quickly. The weft side is relatively regular with the twill lines easily followed.
The pocket cloth featured in these jeans is a canvas clothmade by the famous Takeyari Co., the leading specialist manufacturer of canvas fabrics in Kurashiki, using the same yarn that was spun by Asahi Boseki KK. Plain at first sight, yes, but it is one of the nicest and sturdiest pocket cloths I’ve come across.
This type of canvas is also called the Kurashiki sail-cloth, and it is one of my favourite pocket cloths. I first encountered them many years ago on Eternal jeans.
This canvas is much heavier than average, coming in at the same weight as the denim – 15.5 oz. The front pockets will likely last a very long time.
Durable construction is one of the main features of the R009, and in this respect it stands out even among top-tier Japanese jeans. Big John was born of a sewing workshop after all, so it should not surprise you that their top tier jeans are impeccably constructed and made for strength – in fact, Big John guarantees the R009 for 5 straight years of wear!
One of the key features of the R009 is the double sewing with lockstitch – the jeans are at first sewn together with tonal blue polyester threads for strength, and subsequently resewn with burnt orange cotton threads for old school appeal and ageing. The idea is that the orange cotton threads will discolour and break apart with time, aesthetically keeping balance with the fading denim, whilst the blue polyester threads will remain intact and hold the jeans together.
I had to look very closely to see the tonal blue stitching from the outside. At everyday viewing distances, it can only be seen on the inside of the jeans.
This double sewing is very impressive – top brands such as The Flat Head would do the same, but only limit it to, say, the seams of the front pockets.
The sewing overall is neat, dense and well aligned. You’ll notice that there are no chain-stitching on this pair of jeans, all in the name of ultimate durability in sewing.
Bar-tacking is used at points of stress. Hidden rivets were deliberately omitted to avoid them wearing through the back-pockets. Instead, double bar-tacking (polyester and cotton threads) is used to reinforce the back-pockets.
The inseam is neatly lock-stitched, with the frayed fabric edges very nicely contained. Additional thread colours of olive and light grey are featured here.
The fly construct further demonstrates the fastidious stitching. Not only are the button holes very densely stitched and precisely aligned, if you look close enough you can see additional stitching reinforcing the top and bottom of each button hole!
All the rivets are backed with indigo-dyed deerskin to prevent them wearing through the denim. Again, you can see the double bar-tacking in the photo above.
All the buttons are backed with the same indigo deerskin too!
The belt loops were deliberately made flat – instead of roped or raised – to prevent premature tearing of the denim. The bar-tack attachments of the loops are some of the most precise, well-placed and dense I have seen.
Shock horror, no chain-stitching on the hem, you say…the hems were deliberately lock-stitched instead of chain-stitched to guarantee strength. While we all love the good old chain-stitched hem, it does tend to unravel easily and it is much less durable compared with lock-stitching, so its omission makes sense if longevity of the garment is the key issue. The hems are nicely done – again, you can see the sewing is dense and precise.
Hardware & Peripherals
High quality but understated is perhaps the best way to describe the peripheral aspects of the R009.
The indigo dyed deerskin patch is fairly small and tonally matched to the denim, almost inconspicuous. The deerskin used is very high quality, being less processed (other than the indigo dyeing of course) than most deerskin I’ve seen used for patches.
The woven tag on the inside of the waistband is, again, understated but very well done.
The pockets are square in shape, possessing straight edges, and reminiscent of Wrangler jeans of the past. The double row stitching across the pockets are functional, serving to attach the canvas cloth which half-lines the pockets.
The half-lined pockets feature the same sail-cloth as the front pockets.
The button fly possesses four buttons in total, the top button being larger and of a different design.
The steel buttons featured are from YKK, and very nice quality.
The top button is completely custom, and one of the nicest metal buttons I’ve ever seen on a piece of clothing. The embossing features the same two shokunin who also make an appearance on the pocket cloth.
The rest of the buttons are a bit smaller, being recessed with textured rims.
The selvedge fly minimises the use of lock-stitching and gives the fly a cleaner appearance.
As mentioned earlier, the Chinese characters (kanji) and red stamp of “Sakamoto Ransei” feature on the left pocket, in commemoration of Yasushi Sakamoto who spearheaded the development of the indigo used on the R008 and R009.
The right pocket features two shokunin, with the words “Since 1940 Experienced Craftman”. I speculate this refers to the founding of Maruo Clothing Inc., the forerunner of Big John.
At the front of the jeans, 6 rivets feature as fasteners – 2 for each pocket.
The washer burr is made of steel, whilst the rivet is made of copper. This makes for interesting contrast, and maybe also contrasting patina developments down the track.
I like the dome shape of the rivet and how the copper component does not stick out – there’s not danger of the rivet scratching our belts.
Finely, the hidden selvedge is a nice detail, helping me realize that the orange selvedge ID is meant to mimic stitching!
The RARE R009 jeans by Big John is certainly one of the most technical and detailed jeans I’ve ever come across. Keep in mind I say this with a closet of around 30-something pairs of Japanese jeans.
The fit on the R009 has been modernised from the R008 – slim but not skinny, tapered but not uncomfortably so – and should appeal to many more denimheads.
In terms of the actual construction or sewing, the R009 is – so far in my experience of the denim hobby – the most well made pair of jeans I’ve handled. Yes, even better than brands like RJB/TFH. This really shouldn’t be surprising given Big John’s heritage – consider that most other Japanese brands contract sewing workshops to make their jeans, whereas Big John is a 77 year old sewing factory, and the first one to make jeans in Japan too!
Also note worthy is the technicality involved in the fabrics. Everything from the yarn to the indigo dye were custom engineered from the ground up for the RARE project, with every stage of development being undertaken by some of the oldest and most specialised companies in the Japanese garment industry.
Pocket cloth? Yep, made by the leading canvas manufacturer in Kurashiki.
Denim? Yep, woven on very old Sakamoto shuttle looms at Shinya.
Indeed, the “craftsman” theme of the RARE jeans is no gimmick – everything from the yarn making to the final assembly of jeans are considered and focused. It is astounding how much effort Big John has invested into this 3rd generation of RARE jeans, but more than that, it is only through these RARE jeans you can achieve a tangible connection with the very beginnings of Japanese denim. Even the most senior member of the Osaka 5 cannot claim the same deep-rooted heritage which Big John is built on, and the RARE jeans represent Big John’s most passionate endeavor in celebrating the history of Japanese denim.
The overall appearance is that of work wear, being more utilitarian compared to very Japanese-style jeans that are popular outside of Japan (think PBJ, Oni, Momotaro, etc). The understated nature of the details and the back-pocket shape & design contribute strongly to this work wear aesthetic, as does the very pure shade of blue the denim possesses.
Given the great quality of Big John’s jeans, I wondered why Big John is not more popular among Western denim circles – indeed, why has it taken 12 years of jeans collecting for me to buy my first pair?
My observations over the past decade as the raw denim hobby grew ever larger is that, other than Levi’s reproductions, most Western denimheads are not particularly interested in mid-century workwear types of jeans design – cowboy, early century, and Japanese style jeans are much more popular. Sure, there are pockets of the internet that are all about work-wear cosplay, but in real life true work-wear enthusiasts are 1 in 100, 000. Think about the most popular Japanese denim brands and their headliner jeans – do they really remind you of 1940s dungarees? Not really, right?
Big John’s denim jeans are very much rooted in work wear, which is unsurprising given the brand’s heritage. Further, the extreme technicality of the RARE jeans is unlikely to be appreciated by beginners, who may be inclined to ask about the lack of chainstitching or the reasons behind the small leather patch. I think these factors may explain why Big John, although an industry heavy weight in Japan, is relatively neglected in the West.
At 30, 000 yen, the Big John RARE R009 jeans is certainly priced in the top tier of specialist denim jeans, costing about twice as much as their main line jeans. However, considering how incredibly well these jeans have been put together and the absolutely insane ground-up development on the denim and canvas by industry leaders, I would say you’ll be getting a whole lot of denim for your money.
Big John RARE jeans are certainly very worthy considerations for intermediate to advanced denim hobbyists – folks who have tried some basic Japanese jeans and wish to pursue increasing geekiness. Also, the RARE jeans would be a great choice for detail obsessed denimheads, as the R009 – with incredible attention paid to all of its individual components – is a great study into Japanese jeans in general. Finally, the RARE jeans will appeal to collectors due to its significance in the history of modern Japanese denim. Work wear or reproduction enthusiasts may want to look into the R008 instead of the R009, as the R008 has the more traditional ‘stove-pipe’ fit.
Overall, I can highly recommend the Big John RARE R009, especially for people who want to delve deeper into the denim hobby. Truly, a pair of craftsmen-made jeans.