A cover of Boon Magazine circa 1994

Rebel youth in bootleg Levi’s: the story of Japanese denim

...fake Levi's, and DIY

In the wake of World War II, as Japan slowly adjusted to life after years of turbulence and trauma, the 1950s saw a new generation of spirited youth challenge the societal conventions that their parents held dear.

Despite the elder generation’s mistrust of and disdain for America – whose troops had come to occupy Japan in the final years of the war – their children formed something of an obsession with the USA, taking the all-American spirit and subversive style of the country’s rock ‘n’ roll rebels and outsiders and making them their own.

As Japanese kids began emulating silver screen stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, there was one American classic that particularly stood out as key – jeans. Caught up in a wave of denim-mania that swept across Japan, the demand for vintage Levi’s was such that the country couldn’t keep up with imports. So people did what they had to do: they made their own.

Here we trace the story of Japan’s obsession with denim, the Osaka 5 and the influence of Japanese denim on both the rest of the world and the American hip hop industry.

AN AMERICANA-OBSESSED 60s GANG PAVED THE WAY  

In the early 60s, authorities were tasked with policing the ‘rebellious teenagers’ of Tokyo’s Ginza strip. The youth in question were – simply put – dressed to the nines in American-inspired collegiate clothing. Despite their clean-cut, Ivy League-style leanings, the kids were branded as gang members and rebels, and dubbed ‘The Miyuki Tribe’ – all for the want of subverting traditional notions of dress. Eventually, the group was stamped out by distraught parents and the local authorities, as the Miyuki Tribe disappeared from the Ginza strip, their pressed suits and ties replaced by school uniforms.

THE TEENAGERS FOUGHT BACK (IN DENIM)

Though the Miyuki Tribe had been disbanded at the beginning of the 60s, the obsession with all things American continued. American ideals penetrated youth culture, and a new style subculture was born from this deep fixation – Ametora or Ame-kaji, meaning ‘American casual’. Ranging from loose-flowing silhouettes to tight-fitting cuts, dissent for the uniform of Japan’s youth – denim – did little to abate, as the older generation deemed denim provocative and controversial. “I think the only clothing that can cause controversy (is) jeans. They became the symbol of outlaws. Students wore jeans to college, and the professors would not allow it because they were too ‘sexy’,” says Masayoshi Kobayashi, founder of denim brand The Flat Head, in the film Weaving Shibusa.

“The only clothing that can cause controversy (is) jeans. They became the symbol of outlaws. Students wore jeans to college, and the professors would not allow it because they were too ‘sexy’” – Masayoshi Kobayashi

Reflecting the mood of optimism that swept through Japan’s youth in the years following the war, jeans embodied the easy, carefree ethos of the hero protagonists and motorcycle-riding bad boys of the American silver screen, offering up a heady cocktail of movie magic and an attitude of anti-establishment. Simultaneously, American GI presence ran rife on the streets, as their democratic ideals were wrapped up in faded blue Levi’s denim. With the occupation of Japan and American censorship still at the forefront of the older generation’s minds, dissent for this new, Western style of dressing was of no surprise – but as jeans rose in popularity, soldiers took to the underground markets to resell their blue jean babies in the post-war downturn. In Tokyo’s Ueno district, stalls were suddenly teeming with denim.

THE LEVI’S HYPE HIT JAPAN HARD

In opposition to the systemic conformity of the late 60s, the Levi’s hype instantly changed the fashion system; jeans, and an obscure knowledge of jeans, became a cultural phenomenon. Magazines published pages upon pages detailing the different types of Levi’s jeans – their fit, their wear, their different fades and how to tell them apart, “Japanese men’s magazines sometimes had 10 pages about one type of denim,” remembers Yukari Negishi, director of concept store Ron Herman in the documentary The 501 Jean: Stories of an Original. Denim effectively de-classed the fashion system; clothes that communicated social standing were quickly denounced as blue jeans became an informal symbol of revolution.

...BUT THERE WASN'T ENOUGH TO GO AROUND

What started as a seminal middle finger to classist dress morphed into a cultural mania. As each pair encapsulated the adventurous American spirit that Japanese youth were so drawn to, those that were infatuated spent their time trawling through vintage shops and marketplaces to source authentic Levi’s. So high was the demand, importing denim deadstock wasn’t enough to fuel the hungry, and the only viable answer was to produce replicas. With a long, heralded history in manufacturing garments, Japan quickly began churning out jeans. Lauded for their excellence, this created an era in the late 60s and early 70s where Americans began to rely heavily on Japanese textiles factories. But with rising want, businesses responded accordingly – quality was foregone for quantity.

ONE DESIGNER PIONEERED THE TECHNIQUES 

Though quality had faded and quick turnaround was favoured over craftsmanship, slowly tides began to turn, as denim aficionados began a quest to rediscover the perfect selvedge edge. In the tide’s wake, Shigeharu Tagaki founded Studio D’Artisan in 1979, the first of the Osaka 5’s five designers that would change the denim scene forever. His intention was simple; to reproduce Levi’s quality found in the 40s and 50s. Meticulously examining his Levi’s collection, Tagaki found the secret ingredient to vintage-ify denim, which combined traditional selvedge denim techniques with natural indigo dye – two defining characteristics of Japanese denim today. 

FIVE DESIGNERS WHO REVOLUTIONISED JAPANESE DENIM

Denim enthusiasts took notice, and between 1988 and 1995, Denime, Evisu, Fullcount and Warehouse were also founded – a group which would come to be known as the Osaka 5. Made up of Mikiharu Tsujita, Hidehiko Yamane, Shigeharu Takagi, Yoshiyuki Hayashi, and twin brothers Kenichi and Kenji Shiotani, the collective was propelled by the same mission – to produce quality, vintage-looking jeans using the blueprint of their beloved 501s – so vehement in their vocation were the group that competition was thrown aside, as the they banded together to share trade secrets, found specialised factories and re-employ traditional denim techniques. In the first few years following the 5’s establishment, they attracted a quiet following; the jeans were expensive to make and therefore expensive to sell, as many viewed them as A-grade dupes. But eventually, word of their craftsmanship and attention to detail began to spread, thanks to magazines including Mono and Boon who spread news of the collective, extolling their individual and distinctive take on the classic 501 style.

JAPANESE DENIM HITS THE US HIP HOP SCENE

Acclaim for the Osaka 5’s mastery of traditional techniques soon made its way out of Japan, and, as part of a reversal effect whereby Americans actively sought out Japanese denim, the group attained a cult following – a sort of recontextualisation of the original meaning of ‘Americanism’. The hip hop scene, particularly, took a big interest in what the Osaka 5 were doing by the time the 90s rolled around. Evisu was immortalised in a number of tracks, as the likes of Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane, and T.I. proclaimed their love for them in “I Call It Whateva” and “Shook Them Haters Off”, and “ASAP” respectively. Jay-Z was a fan too, reminding us that “these ain’t Diesel, these is Evisu” on “Show You How” – a true testament to the proclivity for Japanese garb over their domestic counterparts.

By paying homage to the symbol of their youth – Levi’s 501s – the Osaka 5 started a denim phenomenon that saw the nation’s beloved Levi’s cast aside for local wares, as they attracted a huge wave of admirers and advocates. Many – if not all – of the Japanese brands that came in their wake, including Iron Heart, Sugar Cane, and The Flat Head, owe their success to the revered level of craftsmanship and attention to detail that the Osaka 5 revived.

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