Someone asked me today – what is so special about Oni Denim?
To go beyond the obvious in describing the loosely woven, slubby denim and the impeccable craftsmenship, though, would take a little time.
Where better to do this than my personal rant box? (This blog.)
Here goes – our story begins a long time ago when selvedge denim was plenty but no one really cared:
After WWII, in a rather curious way, the Japanese became infatuated with American culture.
Indigo jeans was one of the highly sought after imports, being a cultural icon of sorts.
The simple denim work pant, whilst so coveted, was a rare commodity in Japan.
A few sewing & trading companies began importing 2nd hand jeans from the US, and remaking them into Japanese sizes.
Yes, even back then the yanks were a fair bit chunkier than the Japanese – I’d imagine such an undertaking today might be a harder task than making a pair from scratch
(Haha, jokes, don’t worry, us Aussies are right behind you on the chubby chart.)
These pioneering workshops included what was to become Edwin & Big John.
One in particular, Maruo Clothing (the predecessor of Big John) did particularly well for itself, and in the 1960s – under a partnership with Canton Textile Mills (USA) & Oishi Trading Company – made one of the first pairs of domestically manufactured jeans, using American denim from Canton Mills, in 1963 under the brand name “Canton” in Kojima.
This partnership coincided with Canton Mills’ efforts in modernising it’s production, with the denim fabric being produced one step closer to what we see in our local supermarkets today.
( Btw, there is some controversy as to who was the first – Canton, Edwin, etc? Edwin claims to have made the first pair in 1961.)
Anyway, controversy aside, Maruo Clothing later started making it’s own brand of denim – Big John – in 1967, using denim imported from Cone Mills.
Later, in the early 1970s, Big John would be the first to utilize Japanese denim (AFAIK from Kurabo Mills) in it’s production of jeans – yep, that’s right, Japanese denim has only been around for 40 years.
From there on Big John went on to do pretty well for itself as a factory brand, being one of the companies leading the way in re-discovering natural indigo dyed denim as well as doing some earlier reproduction work.
Maruo’s partners though, were not as fortunate – Canton Mills closed down in 1981 (leaving Cone Mills all by itself in America) and Oishi Trading Co. decided to cease producing jeans under the Canton brand in 1983.
After Maruo Clothing, Oishi Trading Company had used different workshops to produce Canton jeans – the Takahata sewing workshop, for example, whose modern day affiliates are producing Eight-G jeans.
But ultimately, Canton did not last – it had been revived in the past, though never again with actual Canton Mills denim.
Fast forward to today, the first generation Japanese denim companies have taken very different roads.
The Canton brand has been passed around, and the latest iteration of the Canton brand seems to be run by a fashion focussed company producing jeans which feature some curious hard-washes…the soul of the original Canton partnership & brand was all but dead.
Edwin, as we all know, was quite successful and at one stage had Brad Pitt model their wares – mostly doing mid-market & “washed” denim nowadays, though their knack for quality constructs occasionally still shines through in products such as the old Japanese Wrangler reproductions and their own Vintage Collection line.
Big John has been making fair priced denim all along, occasionally doing “anniversary” special editions which feature solid craftsmenship, but sad to say they’ve largely missed the train on the vintage-revival & raw denim trends.
Where does Oni Denim come into this?
Well, a little bit of the Canton spirit lives on in Oni, as the man who runs Oni Denim (a bloke called Oishi) is in fact the son of the founder of Oishi Trading Company, one of the original Canton partners.
A convoluted tale no less, but for me it is interesting to trace some of the history of denim jeans manufacturing in Japan in a pair of Oni’s.
That pioneering spirit certainly does live on, as Oni continually comes up with interesting concepts, from the Shoai to the single-stitch 1001-HM, playing with the fabric both in terms of weave and material.
Indeed, the myth of Oni Denim is that the brand relies on fabric made by an old weaver close to 80 years old – only this man can operate the old shuttle loom that makes Oni’s fabrics…he works slowly, and due to his health cannot work in cold weather, and as such the production of Oni jeans is very limited and only done in intervals of months.
Personally, I’m not sure how much of this is spin and how much is truth – part of me thinks the story is very cool, though another part wishes it wasn’t true as I would still like to purchase Oni Denim with it’s magnificent slubby fabrics in 2020.
Oni Denim doesn’t give much away either – the company is famous for denying interviews with the top denim magazines in Japan – the focus is on quality jeans.
This single-mindedness and obsession is something I admire & can relate to.
Although the little Oni fan inside me was quite taken aback by their collaboration with Naked & Famous…
It is all a big mystery: Which mill manufactures Oni’s denim? Which workshop constructs Oni’s jeans?
A very interesting topic in the hobby of Japanese denim, but these mysteries soon become an after-thought once you’ve handled Oni Denim jeans.
It’s truly special stuff.