For a brand with such a low profile, Samurai Jeans has unexpectedly become one of the most revered companies in the world of raw denim. For over fifteen years, the company has been working to merge quality and rarity into their unique products, based on the unifying idea that, “without a perfect match between the jeans and the maker, the jeans are worthless.”
On the Samurai Jeans‘ website, their concept is explained in more detail:
…in a world dominated by cheap jeans which easily lose color, we focus on ‘quality’ and ‘the beauty and zen of the fading of color’ and seek perfection in our creations, always taking on new challenges.
Samurai Jeans was started in Osaka, Japan by Toru Nogami (Nogami-san) in 1997, at the height of Japan’s raw denim boom. Samurai was a relative latecomer to the market, with the infamous “Osaka Five” all producing jeans early in the decade. Inspired by the Levi’s 501, Nogami-san named their first jeans the 510 (full name S510XX).
Initially, the company used medium weight fabrics, such as the 15 oz. denim, for their first jeans which only a hundred pairs were produced. But over time, Samurai began to push the limits of what a vintage-inspired company could do, as they introduced heavy fabrics and inventive experimentation, carefully working to develop original fabrics with texture and aging properties that were quite different from vintage jeans.
With their innovative effort to try new things, Samurai established a unique identity for themselves, combining American Casual influences with a distinctly Japanese edge.
Unlike some brands that have, at least in some sense, sold out for the sake of reaching a wider audience, Samurai has only become more and more obsessive over the years; perhaps culminating in 2013 when the Nogami-san and the Samurai staff produced a run of jeans in which they took part in every stage of production. Starting with the growth of the cotton itself, their actions were completely unprecedented in the history of denim, and a powerful reminder of Samurai‘s near-psychotic commitment to the art of crafting denim.
Even though the company started up in 1997, it would be years before the brand was available in the west. Only a few die-hard, early raw denim fans in the first years of the 21st century knew about Samurai, which they imported from Japan through proxying. But in 2005, the brand finally reached the US market when Gordon Heffner opened the New York-based retailer Blue in Green.
BiG remains as the only official U.S. retailer, although for a very short period in 2006, Self Edge also sold Samurai. Unlike other brands eager to expand outside of Japan, Samurai is slow to seek new retailers, and almost seem wary of their success overseas. A few other foreign retailers include DC4 representing the European market in Germany, Take5 in Asia, and Right Hand Distribution in Australia.
Expanding beyond their standard 15 oz straight cut, the brand now offers many models. Though initially inspired by vintage work wear and American brands such as Lee and Levi’s, the company has found considerable success in the overseas market with models such as the S710xx.
Though it attracts little interest in Japan, the 710 is by far the most popular model outside of Japan, showing the considerably divergence in taste between Japanese and Western denim fans. Iron Heart is probably the brand most closely associated with heavyweight denim, but Samurai is nearly as well-known for their heavy fabrics, including ones that go up to 24 Oz., and which are unsanforized; further adding to the extreme nature of the denim.
Samurai‘s denim has also won many fans for its terrific fading properties. Not only do fabrics like the 19 oz. denim fade much more quickly and with higher contrast than most brands’ fabrics, they also have a unique texture that’s immediately identifiable as a Samurai fabric. Another impressive facet of their denim’s character is the nature in which all the parts of a pair of jeans are designed to age together.
In their own words,
The leather patches, buttons, rivets, slake, flasher, are used to accent and create the perfect performance, to create the epitome of original denim and the best jeans.
Samurai is heralded for their attention to detail. They always create new rivets and engravings on their denim, and a different leather patch for every single model. Most of their models include a unique leather patch with its signature full moon silhouette and lot number, which designates the year that a pair was manufactured. For example, pairs made in 2013 – celebrating the company’s 15th anniversary – are lot #16.
The brand’s first model was the classic straight cut, the S510XX. This jean has been altered and tweaked over the years, but remains the brand’s trademark model. In 2000, they came out with a WWII cut, which would later become the S3000VX. They introduced their now-infamous 19 oz Kiwami denim in 2003, along with the women’s Geisha model.
One of the brand’s most iconic models, the S0500xx, was introduced in 2006, and quickly gained attention for the SuperFuture Samurai contest. In 2007, they began to create even heavier denim, as Samurai released their first 21 oz denim, which was eventually amped up to an even-heavier 24 oz in 2009.
The people at Samurai care a lot about their denim, but they also care even more about the people wearing their jeans. They’re recognized for putting on the first worldwide denim contest back in 2006. It was put on in conjunction with Beatle and they used the S0500XX for competition.
Samurai also put on two other competitions that took place solely in Japan. Besides competitions, however, the brand also donates pairs of jeans to the Japan Rescue Association. The jeans that are donated come from their package of re-released styles that they bring back every year. The Japan Rescue Association brings aid and performs rescue missions for people affected by earthquakes, and these jeans can be recognized with a “RR” in their name.
While Samurai could be content to coast by on the success of their standard models, the company is constantly introducing new pairs, limited editions, and otherwise taking risks at a rate that outpaces virtually any other Japanese raw denim company. Just as the company’s hidden rivets are branded with the Japanese phrase 諸行無常 – shogyo mujou, which refers to the impermanent essence of material things – they are constantly changing and innovating in interesting and unique ways.
Samurai Jeans continue on towards the future this this in mind: “To create the world’s best denim, never compromising, we keep fighting.” The modern raw denim market might be filled with copycats, but once small brand is a powerful reminder that it’s possible to create jeans that are both recognizably based on familiar, vintage styles and yet have a distinct character and story that are completely unique to the brand.