Heddels has recently released an interesting article discussing the politics and finances involved in the international retail of Japanese denim. While I do agree with much of what was written, the article did prompt me to reflect on these issues from the perspective of a long time hobbyist. Here are some of my thoughts:
My own interest in denim began during the 2000s, as a teenager, catching onto the very tail end of the reproduction craze of denim in Japan. In those days, brands that are now household names among the denim community were little known – it took quite a number of years before street-wear enthusiasts and pioneering Western denim retailers created a large enough consumer group and knowledge base for the Japanese denim hobby to begin flourishing.
Certainly, North American retailers such as Self Edge and Blue in Green were major forces driving this increasing awareness during the mid-2000s, contributing to the hobby not only through foot traffic in their brick & mortar stores but also through facilitating the growth of the worldwide denim community via the social media of the day – denim forums such as Superfuture, for example. These early stores made available previously difficult to obtain denim garments – at marked up prices compared with Japan of course – without the hassle of navigating the potentially risky use of proxy purchase services of the day.
Even in those early days, however, serious hobbyists such as myself were already purchasing directly from Japan. It was well known within the Superfuture community that if you wanted to purchase Studio D’Artisan or Denime jeans, Naoki at Pants Shop Avenue is your man. If you wanted to purchase Samurai Jeans, then you’d send e2nd an e-mail. Oni jeans? Go directly to Hinoya. Buzz Rickson sweatshirts? Definitely SeaBees.
Back then, the only reason I’d purchase from a Western retailer is if they had a collaboration product that was particularly interesting or if they had exclusive stock of shirts & jackets in Western sizes. As a young man with expensive hobbies, the lower prices when purchasing directly from Japan outweighed any other factors or risks involved in denim shopping, and given I didn’t live in San Francisco or New York, it wasn’t like I could visit any of the Western stockists in person anyway.
More than a decade later, the denim hobby certainly looks very different.
New shops have popped up both inside and outside of Japan. Of significance is the launch of Japanese retailers Denimio and Okayama Denim – these are operations based in Japan with all the local connections, yet they target the denim market outside of Japan and have the English language abilities & Internet know-how to facilitate easy purchasing by non-Japanese speaking customers. These web-shops sell their products at Japanese pricing and are stocked much more extensively than the average brick & mortar store, usually ending up more competitively priced than even Rakuten stores too due to their offer of free international shipping.
Meanwhile, the growth of Japanese denim ‘culture’ and awareness is now mostly facilitated by the Internet and social media. A forum thread on Superfuture or a Instagram post by a well known influencer will have far wider reach compared with attempts at educating new customers by a Western stockist. B&M shops, from my own memory of the past years, have never been viewed as authorities on subjects within this hobby anyway. In most English speaking countries we don’t have close-knit communities based on interests in Americana or work wear clothing, people with serious spending power don’t hang out at local denim joints all day, and certainly people largely approach this hobby in a much more individualistic type of way…which I don’t believe the Japanese brands can fully understand.
All in all, from my perspective as a hobbyist in 2017, brick & mortar shops are less relevant to me (in terms of my private purchasing of denim) than ever, and certainly more than 90% of my purchases are from overseas retailers via the Internet. Even with a handful of specialist denim stores having launched in my city in the past few years, my purchasing habits haven’t changed – the Internet remains my shopping mall of choice, and where possible I would like to obtain my garments from as close to the manufacturing source as possible. As a working professional with some disposable income, most of the time it’s not even about the cost, but rather the depth and range of stock that the larger Japanese online retailers can offer over most Western retailers.
However, I do believe that Western stockists and B&M stores remain important.
Firstly, the vast majority of people who might be interested in Japanese denim never reach the point of enthusiasm as the old timer Superfuturians. Most folks would be very well served by picking up a pair of Japan Blue jeans and Red Wing boots from their local shop, and will never have the desire to spend hours of their life reading about how a pair of Tanuki jeans have been dyed or the reproduction details on a pair of Conners Sewing Factory jeans. Further, individualised sizing advice and in-person fittings will make the raw denim experience much less stressful for beginners. This allows the hobby to grow not in depth but rather in absolute numbers, which is still a great thing!
Secondly, when stores are run by genuinely enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff, the passion can be infectious and will help in the creation of future hobbyists. For most people, having a cool guy or girl telling you about Japanese jeans is much more persuasive compared with reading about jeans on an Internet forum or some geeky blog. Further, through special events and functions, the denim hobby can be promoted more widely within the local community – the recent Weaving Shibusa screening and Denim Panel Talk in Melbourne was a great example.
Thirdly, B&M stores can facilitate physical spaces where local denim culture might mature. An often neglected aspect of this hobby is the importance of interacting, in person, with like-minded people. When this is not possible, people tend to burn out of this hobby far more quickly, as had happened to me at one point – hobbies are usually much more fun & engaging when you can share them with other people, and even more so if one could establish an identity within said hobby. Local denim hang-out spots are important for this reason, even if we’re never going to form little clothing gangs like they do in Japan.
Finally, an important aspect of the denim hobby is the repair and alteration of our garments. Although it is possible to find such services through the Internet, a well equipped B&M store is far more likely to be able to offer timely, reliable and personalized denim services.
To conclude? I’d say that the aims and wants between brands, retailers and hobbyists are very different but most somehow all be reconciled. If a brand or a store is to succeed in the currently saturated and very competitive Japanese denim market, they must carefully consider what it is that their customers want, beyond the actual denim jeans that they’re trying to sell. Price fixing or banning online international sales by Japanese brands are unlikely to win over any potential customers, even if the reasons are justifiable from one or more perspectives – a determined hobbyist will always find a way to buy from Japan directly, there’s no stopping us.
Instead, it may be more useful to look at the problem a little more laterally and work with Western retailers in fulfilling the wants and desires of denim consumers, capitalizing on the advantages that a physical retail space might offer over the pricing and stock availability that is the strong suit of Japanese web-stores. Building loyalty and community may be the saving grace of brick & mortar shops in the long run, whereas pricing politics will detract from this goal.