Denim HQ – Denim Sans Frontiers

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I read, and indeed have written, plenty about the history of denim and jeans production. My regular speciality subject is the shift in production of quality denim from the USA to Japan, how it happened, why it happened and when it happened, but this is the past, what about the future? It’s a rare thing, in fact it is a very rare thing that someone writes an article about where the denim scene is going to move to next, it’s rare because people fear looking stupid when their prophecies fail to come true….luckily appearing stupid is not something I fear. I have plenty of practice.

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Certainly for the last 4 or 5 years the majority of quality denim is made by, and purchased from Japanese companies. There has been a re-emergence in the last few years of small scale manufacturing in the USA with brands like ROY and White Horse Manufacturing, but the main focus has certainly been on the denim mills and sewing factories of Kojima in Okayama prefecture, Japan. The Japanese eye for detail, quality and authenticity has become truly dominant in this niche but growing market, but can it remain so? Is there any competition out there? If so, where does it come from and how is it likely to change things for the humble customer? Let’s take a look.

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There can be no doubt that the denim scene is expanding, this has been great for more popular brands such as Iron Heart and The Flathead who have seen their range and popularity expand exponentially and equally great for smaller brands who have found it much easier to get a foot hold in the market and gain some traction, brands such as Trophy Clothing, Jelado and The Strike Gold for instance. This increase in popularity has no doubt been aided by the freedom of information exchange and advertising afforded by the internet, and has seen the demand for good quality denim and work wear go through the roof in the growing economies of South East Asia and mainland China, and it is from these emerging markets that domestic competition may be a danger to Japanese dominance both in their own lands, and perhaps eventually further afield.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Japanese produced clothing is expensive. I have elaborated in previous articles why it is expensive and I think those of us who buy the majority of our clothing from Japanese brands are all intimately familiar with the reasons for that, but in real terms price can be a factor for many people hence the success of brands such as Edwin, Nudie and Naked and Famous. There are a couple of economic principles that will no doubt have a bearing on just how successful any challenge to the status quo of the tribe of Yamato will be…

* In times of economic hardship sales of luxury goods actually increase. Whether this is because in dark days people want to make themselves feel a little better or not, who knows….but it remains a fact proven over years since the great depression.

* In times of economic hardship domestic goods outsell imported goods on a like for like basis.

I have personally visited various brands in Indonesia and there is a quite a scene there for this kind of thing, I believe that it needs to mature a little more before it becomes a major contender but the greatest strength the Indonesian scene has is it’s willingness to experiment and innovate, along with mixing their own rich history of textile and fabric production in with jeans manufacturing. Some Indonesian brands are doing it the right way by building their domestic market before steadily getting their name known elsewhere, and I think that this could lead to some long term success if they maintain an appreciation that foreign customers will expect a level of quality that premium priced goods demand.

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In Northern Europe there are a number of newer brands manufacturing both domestically and in Japan, using a mix of Japanese and American (mainly Cone Mills) denims. By virtue of where the denim is coming from, and where the manufacturing operations are taking place, this is never going to be entry level priced denim and my worry for this kind of operation is that (in my opinion) most people in the denim scene are more comfortable paying a premium for what is familiar (Japanese brands produced in Japan), than they are paying it for European brands using Japanese expertise and materials. Maybe I am wrong, but I think that these brands will need to offer something unique in order to capture a market share.

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Image borrowed from and owned by my friend Jonathan of Bandana Almanac (http://bandanna-almanac.com)

My main tip for competition for the established brands comes from China, with brands such as Red Cloud offering an extremely tempting combination of attractive pricing, variety of items and interesting denims and cuts of their jeans. If Chinese brands can deliver consistent and proven quality, whilst showing the Western market that their wares are ethically produced (which Red Cloud is) then they could make some serious waves for the more established brands. These days more than ever before there is opportunity in the denim market, demand is increasing internationally and whilst this presents a danger in itself of market saturation there is certainly a wave, the crest of which is yet to be ridden into shore.

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