A while ago I wrote a piece about direct copies of jeans by certain popular Japanese brands being produced and sold mainly in Malaysia through internet social groups, this is unacceptable, criminal and direct piracy, but there are grey areas here too. In the area of clothing design it is probably fair to say that just about everything is derivative to one degree or another, if you can think of it then the chances are that someone has already done it, or at least something very similar. Narrow that field to something as simple as jeans and you find yourself even harder pushed to be original, it doesn’t help that the basic five pocket blue jean is pretty much a perfect design in its most basic form, there are tweaks sure, but they are exactly that, tweaks.
Unarguably the most popular and well known jeans company in the world is Levi’s, their iconic designs details and cuts have formed the basis of just about every denim brand since, with the clear exception of the other American super brands of Lee and Wrangler, but I don’t feel a huge amount of love for Levi’s in the circles of Japanese denim enthusiasts. The reason for the lack of Levi’s love for many is the court case in which the San Francisco brand successfully lobbied to have certain design details removed from Japanese brands who they felt were treading too much on their toes in terms of the jeans which they were producing. The details in question were most notably the “red tab” and stitched arcs on the back pocket, and even as a confirmed fan of Japanese denim I do have to concede that Levi’s may have had a point. The legal victory limited the sale of jeans by other brands carrying these details in the United States, Europe and anywhere else where Levi’s could enforce a copyright ruling, so no effect was felt on Asian domestic markets. Weirdly this had the effect of making Japanese jeans carrying the red tab seem even more original to the denim head, and jeans by Japanese brands who still flaunt this ruling are prized possessions for some, whilst other brands have handled it with a clever twist of their own (such as the red W for “works” on Iron Heart back pockets).
The case of and for Levi’s is the most famous example in the history of quality denim, and ironically it came at a time when Levi’s themselves had begun to realise that they would perhaps like to step into the quality denim market through their own LVC range, marking and celebrating the heritage of the brand by bringing back some manufacturing to the US, and using domestically produced denim. In typical big business style though it did not last and more recent LVC efforts have seen production once again sourced out to both Mexico and Turkey in the name of cutting costs, the brand has been further diluted by the introduction of the “Made And Crafted” range, which purports to be a quality line of crafted products and is in fact made in factories in more economically challenged lands. I personally find it quite sad that the only aspect of quality denim that Levi’s really seem to understand these days is marketing, they undoubtedly have the financial clout to reinvigorate domestically produced denim, but they seem more intent of maximising profits and using smoke and mirrors to market their wares. It’s also quite ironic that Levi’s in turn have borrowed a design feature first popularised in Japan for the made and crafted range with the internally stitched pockets arcs being revealed through the wear and fade of the denim, and had no problem passing it off as their own original genius.
In truth, Asian copyright laws (or lack there of) make pretty much anything fair game for both sides unless they want to get really pissy (as Levi’s did) and control their domestic market. I did say earlier that Levi’s had a point in their law suit, and they definitely did, but where I lose sympathy for them is that their lack of ethics and chasing of profit over everything else created the gap in the market which the foreign brands exploited. While Levi’s moved production out on the USA and into Mexico at rapid pace, expanding into manufacturing operations in Turkey and the Philippines to satisfy foreign demand for recognised brands at lower prices they totally ignored their own production heritage in the name of efficiency, profit and progress, failing to recognise that the demand still existed. It wasn’t right what the Japanese denim companies did, and continue to do, but I am glad that they do it as a constant reminder that Levi’s dropped the ball, and spat their dummy out when someone else picked it up.