One of the biggest obstacles to sharing one’s denim hobby is price – it’s likely (if it’s going to be something other than washing frequency) to be the first point of conflict that shows up when conversing about your obsession. Most denim heads can count a number of times they’ve heard the phrase “You paid how much for those jeans!?”
Skepticism over price is a valid concern. For many fashion brands, there is a huge markup from the wholesale price to the retail price – oftentimes beyond what’s really necessary for a retailer to turn a decent profit. The reasons for such markups are often dubious – large brands and retailers spend a fortune on advertising their products, a cost for which the retail price compensates, plus many large established brands charge more money for the exclusivity of the name, or for licensed elements such as band logos and designs. There is no shortage of over-priced clothing that’s not really any better in quality than what you can buy at Target.
Sometimes though there are exceptions to the pointless mark-ups rule; small scale Japanese denim companies are a different story entirely. There are very good reasons why jeans by brands like Eternal, Strike Gold, and Sugar Cane charge high prices, as well as other factors that raise the cost of jeans for fans around the world.
Japan is a country with a very high standard of living and a large middle class population. When this is combined with the low number of immigrants, this means that manufacturing in Japan is almost always done by the Japanese people (one reason for the generally high quality of made-in-Japan products). However, this also means that the labor costs are much higher as Japanese workers are paid much better than labourers in countries such as China or India.
However, Japan’s industrial base is rapidly shrinking due to competition from developing countries. This means that a large piece of the production pie is moving overseas. As a result, fewer Japanese enter blue-collar professions like factory labor which has led to the closing down of many factories and sewing companies.
Many of the sewing companies employed by Japanese high-end denim brands are staffed by aging workers, and as they retire or factories close, there is an even smaller workforce with the skills and knowledge to produce such products. With more companies than ever competing for the talents of relatively few factories, this is driving the costs of labor to be ever-more expensive.
Details like chain-stitched hems, bulging belt loops, ato-mesu button holes and hidden rivets are marks of pride among denim fans and real selling points for artisan denim brands. These kinds of details are usually accomplished using vintage machinery and specialized labor, pushing the problem that vintage machines are old – and the older the machine, the more prone it will be to breaking down, no matter how high the quality.
There are fewer people with the know-how for fixing such machines, and to make matters worse, the necessary parts for repair are no longer manufactured for some machines. Breakdowns can be a large obstacle for companies, which slows down production and delivery dates. Furthermore, while we may love the character of a faded chain-stitched hem, such machines were often abandoned in favour of newer machines without so many obvious drawbacks.
Additionally, some machines used in crafting jeans are just simply slow. Shuttle looms are one of the most obvious examples: they produce denim slowly, and the denim produced is narrower than denim produced on other looms, thus limiting the number of pairs that can be made with each roll. Modifications to the machinery – such as an increase in the loom chatter for a more textured fabric, or weaving far heavier fabrics than the loom was designed to handle – can also slow the weaving process and increase the risk of breakdown.
On top of this, the majority of manufacturing processes used in making the best Japanese jeans are dependent on skilled labor, not automatic machinery. When patterns are cut by hand rather than by computer-operated machinery, for example, there is an increase in cost as well as a decreased efficiency. However, the resulting product has a hand-made touch that’s not found in items mass produced primarily with the use of automated machines.
Most of us take fabrics for granted – at least we did, until we became interested in denim. A major cost for brands who choose to use high quality denim is simply creating the fabric. Most brands use stock fabrics, offered by a mill or textile company, which are available to any client interested in purchasing them.
However, brands like Toyo Enterprises, Samurai Jeans, and The Flat Head are known for their beautiful and unique fabrics which are designed by the companies themselves and are not stock fabrics offered to any paying customer. This is very expensive – explaining why it is common for small brands to use stock fabrics offered by companies such as Cone Mills or Kaihara Mills. The cost is usually just too much for a company that’s not already quite successful or established.
Another factor relating to fabrics is the cost of the raw material. Cotton has increased in price over the past several years, and this results in more expensive products. Many of our favorite brands use 100% cotton fabrics for jeans, shirts, and other garments, making the cotton cost even more vital. Furthermore, the high-end varieties of cotton used in the best jeans – like Pima and Zimbabwe cotton – is even more expensive.
For customers inside of Japan, shipping is a non-issue; in fact, Japan has a highly efficient shipping network that often means the package arrives at your doorstep within forty-eight hours of placing the order. This also means that it’s relatively quick and inexpensive for a retailer to get the product in stock. On top of that, shipping is cheap for the customer; most Japanese denim retailers with an online presence offer free shipping for purchases over a certain amount of money (which high-quality jeans and other clothing usually tend to exceed.)
Before Japanese jeans can be sold outside Japan they need to be shipped to a retailer in America, Europe, or elsewhere. This can be extremely expensive when you’re dealing with large, heavy orders of clothes, and retailers have to price their products accordingly to make up for the cost of shipping. On top of that, it’s going to be more expensive to ship to a store located in Atlanta or London because they’re farther from away from Japan than Bangkok or Los Angeles. Buying directly from Japan is often expensive as well.
In recent years, the price of Japanese jeans has increased overseas simply because of an unfavourable exchange rate between the Yen and the US dollar (as well as other world currencies). Though the yen’s value has dropped a lot in the last few months, it’s still an obstacle. Naturally, this means that getting good Japanese jeans outside of Japan is quite expensive.
The Bottom Line
Even though there are more high-quality denim shops than ever which offer Japanese jeans overseas, the denim fan must often choose between buying from Japan at a lower price but higher shipping, or buying from their nearest retailer for a higher cost but reduced shipping and duties.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. Buying directly from Japan has obvious benefits: the price is lower, and oftentimes, Japanese shops have a bigger selection than foreign retailers. However, shipping can be quite expensive, and depending on where you live, you’re likely to get hit by taxes or customs on your imported purchase.
In the end, you might only be saving a very small amount of money (if any) by buying directly from Japan instead of a closer retailer. Most importantly, it can be risky: many popular shops on Rakuten will ship to international customers, but few offer English support, and some shops, such as 2ND, will not take overseas returns at all.
This can make buying raw denim from Japan risky: even if you don’t soak your jeans, you may not be able to return them if there’s an issue with sizing or some other problem, such as a defect. If you happen to import the wrong size, then you have little choice but to try and sell the jeans, get most of your money back, and try again.
On the other hand, domestic retailers offer their own set of drawbacks. The pricing is the least appealing aspect of choosing domestic retailers: due to shipping and taxes, there’s often quite a large increase from the Japanese prices. Additionally, retailers of high-end Japanese denim are such a niche that unless you live in close proximity to locations such as New York, Los Angeles or Berlin you won’t even be able to enjoy the advantage of visiting the shop and trying on the jeans in person – not to mention the advice of knowledgeable sales staff.
However, there are several major benefits that tilt the balance back towards the domestic retailer. The first is that they will take returns (provided that you haven’t washed your jeans or worn them around). The second is that they’ve already paid the taxes and most of the shipping, so the price you see is what you’ll get. From this point of view, the increase from Japanese pricing can be viewed somewhat akin to insurance, in which you’re guaranteed that you’ll be able to exchange the pair or deal with any other issues if they come up.
Many of the best-known foreign retailers are known for outstanding customer service and quickly answer customer questions to help them find the right pair of jeans. On top of that, foreign retailers are trying to help promote and spread our favourite brands outside of Japan, and supporting them also supports their efforts to help Japanese brands succeed overseas.
Ultimately the dividing is issue is whether the item you want is carried outside of Japan or not. If it is, I think you’re better off going through your nearest retailer. If it’s only sold in Japan, then buying from Japan is really your only choice. Just remember to proceed carefully.