It’s been 25 years now since Hisao Manabe founded Collect, until today a company to plan and produce fine fabrics and denims, based in Japan’s denim heart Okayama. It’s been also the cell of a bunch of Japanese denim brands such as Momotaro Jeans, Japan Blue, Setto and Soulive, meanwhile all gathered under the roof of Japan Blue Co., Ltd with a total turnover of 3,8 billion Yen (30.7 million Euro) in 2016. We talked to Katsu Manabe, Hisao’s son and executive director of Japan Blue Co., Ltd, about Japanese denim culture and the new labels of the Japan Blue Co. family.
You started to sell your products in Europe about a decade ago – why was the time ripe for Japanese denim at that time?
Well, at first we presented our fabrics, for example we showed at the first edition of Denim PV back in 2007. We felt there was a lot of interest in Japanese denim starting to arouse in Europe; but it was also the times prior to the Lehman crash and an economic uncertainty, so because of the high prices it was difficult to find a good partner in Europe to buy our fabrics and produce garments. That was when we decided to bring our brands to Europe; in 2009 we opened our Paris office. In the first two years it was certainly difficult to bring the message across, it needed to convince buyers and trained staff to explain our products to the consumers in Europe because they did not know much about it. But that has changed meanwhile. There is more knowledge now and consumers who embrace the value of the Japanese denim culture.
How did you start doing business in Europe?
We started to sell Momotaro Jeans about ten years ago with Tenue de Nîmes in Amsterdam as our first European customer, then Burg & Schild in Berlin followed; in the beginning it was a handful of stores in Europe, we took step after step, by now we serve about 50 clients worldwide and 180 in Japan only. Then, in 2010, we introduced Japan Blue as a product for the European market – and two years later brought it to Japan, so just the other way around as it went with Momotaro. Japan Blue has about 100 international customers and 130 in Japan. And about a year ago we also opened our Paris store for all our brands.
You know, you have to find the right stores for our products, and there are not so many where they really fit. So we really carefully choose our partners, it’s more a mouth-to-mouth promotion than truly doing acquisition for new customers.
What’s the difference between the European, American and Japanese approach to denim?
There is certainly a difference between the three when it comes to denim culture. Japanese denim was always about a passion for the fabric, about the craftsmanship and the old looms and machines for spinning and weaving. I’d say in Europe denim was more about the casualwear aspect and it had a rather commercial side. The same goes for North America – denim had always been more of a mass market product, also because the produce it themselves.
How did the typical Japanese denim culture that we see today develop?
The Japanese denim culture as we see it now it was born in the early ‘90s with the cult around Japanese vintage denim and a certain look that went with it, for example wearing Red Wings or Nike Air Max. It was about rigid denim coming from the famed denim-manufacturing prefecture of Okayama. Back then Japanese denim did not play a role in Europe, the only brand that became popular was Evisu. For the rest it was about brands such as Levi’s when it came to vintage denim and Diesel for the fashion side of denim. About ten years ago it started to change in Europe, there is also a younger generation now that appreciates denim and the culture behind and brands looking for good materials and having an eye on the traditional producers and mills, take for example the US denim heritage with Cone and White Oak.
Today selvedge denim is no longer a high-end denim product with chains such as Uniqlo selling a pair for 49 Euro. What’s your take on that?
There is a good and a bad side about chains such as Uniqlo offering selvedge denims for only 49 Euro: the good part is certainly that they help to make selvedge denim more popular, so people appreciate it and might start to look for denim brands who offer an even more special product. The bad part is on the production side – the big chains request such high amounts of products that a producer cannot work for other companies any more and in the end depends on that one chain.
Do trade show still play a key role for your brands?
Yes, trade shows are important for us to meet buyers and the community, they mainly serve as a marketing and communication tool. In summer we will be at Selvedge Run in Berlin with all our brands, we will have our Paris showroom of course, but very likely will show at Man in Paris and also New York, and we exhibit at Pitti with Soulive and Setto.
The Japan Blue family grew further...
Yes indeed, we just introduced two new brands in Japan, that we plan to bring to Europe soon: Urvin, which stands for Urban Vintage, is a denim line for ladies-only with a rather fashion and trend approach and average price points around 200 Euro retail. The other one, Permanent Blue, is for men’s and women’s and is an upscale home wear line featuring price points at around 200 Euro in retail for pajamas. We just opened stores for both brands in Okayama.
Being a store owner yourself, how will the apparel and fashion retail scene develop in the next years?
Fashion retail in the future will embrace other segments such as food, furniture and music. To sell apparel only will become more and more difficult, you have to offer more to the consumers and connect to other markets. It’s about offering a whole lifestyle, a total look in that sense. And of course in Europe we strongly see the sustainable and bio trend becoming stronger.