Hiroki Kishimoto, founder of Japan Blue Jeans, on Becoming the Best in Japanese Denim

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Japan Blue Jeans is one of those Japanese brands always trying to innovate their collection, by combining vintage inspirational pieces, with new innovative production processes. As their founder, Hiroki Kishimoto, tells us, it’s the balance between pursuing vintage design and utilizing modern technology. Every year, they successfully present another impressive collection, all designed, developed and created in iconic Okayama, Japan, a denim capital of the world.

Kishimoto launched the boutique Japanese selvedge denim brand over a decade ago, focusing first on the European market and then returning to his roots and focusing on the domestic market in Japan. Kishimoto has a deep understanding of the importance of the quality of fabric and closely with Collect, an international superstar of the fabric world, known for its selvage denim.

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We had a chance to catch up with Kishimoto about the cult like following that Japanese selvedge has, how he stays in control of the fabric creation process, and the beauty of imperfections that culminate to create the perfect pair of jeans.

Kishimoto's vision is brought to life through every fiber they create.

Brian Aitken: How did you get started in the denim industry?

Kishimoto: After graduating from university, I got a job at Collect, a denim textile maker. I love jeans, especially used clothing, and wanted to get involved with it. I had been planning, producing and selling fabrics at Collect for 13 years. Then I started Japan Blue Jeans 10 years ago. We wanted to make jeans that have a vintage, luxurious and traditional Japanese feel.

All of our products are made in the same area where our headquarters are located in Okayama prefecture, Japan. Focusing on not just quality but also sustainability and ethics, we aim for a crescendo of transparency when it comes to our processes.

This includes our handpicked, naturally cultivated Côte d’Ivoire cotton, our signature cotton. A wide array of fits and fabrics for every kind of customer, from the stretch loving one to the hardcore denim heads – that is what Japan Blue Jeans is known for.

Brian Aitken: What inspired you to create Japan Blue Jeans?

Kishimoto: Over the years, I have made various fabrics with various apparel brands, and I have become more motivated to think that this fabric could be more useful while being beautiful.

In that experience, I had many thoughts and ideas, “If you use this fabric for this item, it will be more attractive” and “If you use this fabric for this item, it will make the fabric look more attractive.” I liked the idea of function and form together.

We also wanted more people to know about our materials, especially overseas, so we decided to create a brand that would allow us to enjoy our fabrics.

Initially, it was only sold overseas, not in Japan. I thought that the same silhouette could not be sold because the body shape is different between overseas and Japan. This was my bias that I should choose either domestic or overseas. We have developed a silhouette for overseas people so that many people will know about it. After that, a Japanese who saw my jeans in Europe asked me to buy them and sold them in a trial. We decided to sell it in Japan as well, because it has a reputation for being fresh and beautifully worn with a silhouette not found in Japan.

A seamstress at the Japan Blue factory begins the stark white process of denim dyeing.
A seamstress at the Japan Blue factory begins the stark white process of denim dyeing.

Brian Aitken: Can you describe what makes Japanese denim so unique and desired?

Kishimoto: There are two reasons. Firstly, a unique culture of vintage clothing has grown. Otaku culture Japanese denim fabric making has evolved rapidly since the 1990s, when used jeans were sold for over 1 million JPY (USD 10,000-). The price of used clothing has soared, and the replica brand (for example, Osaka five) boom has arrived. In addition, apparel that tries to reproduce old (vintage) clothes by themselves has appeared. Their demands are high, and their technology will improve to meet their demands.

They are an extension of their hobbies rather than a business, and they grow by making jeans.Dismantling jeans that cost more than 1 million yen, analyzing them from cotton, imagining the color of rotten jeans 100 years ago, tracing the life of the person who wore them and thinking about discoloration, the meaning of the details of jeans that were work clothes think of. As a business, Japanese denim culture would not have developed unique technology so far. As a result of continuing to meet the demands of denim heads by skilled craftsmen, there is the “now.”

Secondly, small factory with division of labor is a big part of it. The Japanese factory has its own technology in each process because it is a division of labor in all processes. A new thing is born by the combination. The process of making fabrics alone involves spinning, dyeing, sizing, warp thread, weaving, shrink proofing, and walking through at least 5 factories.

Brian Aitken: There are a lot of established denim companies and lots of boutique specialty denim companies emerging on the scene. How do you stand apart from them?

Kishimoto: I think Japan Blue is quite different to some Japanese denim brands. I don’t use vintage details for everything, or purely pursue vintage jeans. For every product I compare whether vintage or modern tech is a better fit. It makes for a unique variety and something that caters to a wider audience.

A worker at Japan Blue working on a special pair of denim.
Utilizing modern technology while paying homage to Japanese roots.
Utilizing modern technology while paying homage to Japanese roots.

Brian Aitken: What are some of your favorite products you’ve created?

Kishimoto: I love the tapered fit in our new concept jeans, “CIRCLE” series. I also love our handpicked, naturally cultivated signature Côte d’Ivoire cotton denim. It took two years to develop “CIRCLE” that realizes the silhouette and comfort. Taking part in all processes that involve making jeans – choosing cotton, spinning, dyeing, and sewing – gives us full control over the jeans and fabrics we make.

Brian Aitken: What do you recommend as a first pair of Japanese selvedge for first-time buyers?

Kishimoto: I’m partial to the 12.5oz selvedge denim. It’s thick enough to wear all year round.

Brian Aitken: What’s the best way to care for a pair of Japan Blue Jeans denim?

Kishimoto: Please wash it without worrying when you get dirty or sweat! I just want you to wash inside out so that you don’t get strange Atari (a Japanese term for the selective fading of the ridges of creases).

Brian Aitken: What does the future look like for your company, people and products?

Kishimoto: The main focus is to become the best in Japan for denim fabrics and jeans. As it is said that quality is the best, not scale. If you become the best in Japan, you can have a strong presence in the world. I would like to provide ideas that can contribute to society other than denim through “blue”.

Brian Aitken: Do you have any words of wisdom for first time buyers of Japanese selvedge?

Kishimoto: First, bring your eyes closer and take a closer look at each thread.

I want you to feel the unevenness of natural threads that are not artificial and the pure blue. Then touch the fabric, stroking the surface or pinching it with your fingers. There is a clear difference.

Finally, pay attention to the silhouette. The silhouettes that are popular are different in Japan and overseas. Japan tends to have wider silhouettes. Find what works for you, and have fun with it.

A pile of denim sits, waiting to be inspected and approved, at the Japan Blue factory. No detail is overlooked.