Since the 1950s, denim has been inextricably linked with Japan. From the post-war thirst for Levi’s 501s to the thriving Japanese denim industry of the 2000s, the island nation has a connection with denim that goes deeper than most. As true trendsetters and style leaders, the Japanese quickly caught on to the allure of selvedge denim and once the supply of vintage 501s dried up, they turned their hand’s at producing their own.
With a meticulous eye for detail, unmatched motivation to replicate those famous American blue jeans and a history of traditional craftsmanship, the stage was set for a pivotal moment in the history of denim. The Americana reproduction revival, spearheaded by brands like Evisu, Denime, Full Count, Studio D-Artisan and Warehouse—known as the ‘Osaka 5‘—really began in the 80s, and it hasn’t slowed down much since. The plethora of Japanese home-grown denim brands has skyrocketed in the last 40 years, creating an industry which continues to thrive and is arguably unmatched the world over.
One factor which connects all these brands, is not only their attention to detail but their common cause; to offer the perfect jean. All with their own quirks, tweaks and twists, the mission remains the same; to offer the consumer a pair of jeans which are so considered that they’re even better than the American original.
With vintage denim as a primary driver, many Japanese brands have extensive archives of original denim from the early to mid-twentieth century which they base their replicas on, painstakingly studying the fixtures, fibres and wear patterns. Combined with traditional manufacturing techniques from dyeing to weaving, alongside technical know-how and access to period-correct machinery, results in some of the best ‘blue gold’ we’ve ever seen.
One brand which personifies this pursuit is Ichiro Nakatsu’s Orslow. Founded in 2005, Nakatsu had long been a collector of vintage clothing and amassed a significant archive of American denim, military, outdoors and workwear garments. Wanting to make what he loved, he set about studying these age old garments in an effort to replicate them. But his journey with denim started much earlier than that—he references a pair of denim dungarees which his mother bought him when he was a young kid growing up in Osaka.
The feeling, the fade, and the fabric stuck with him and encouraged a search for jeans made from the same denim when he began his adventure with vintage clothing as a teenager. He later found out that his prized dungarees were made from a Cone Mills selvedge denim from the 1960s, a revelation which allowed him to start unpacking the lineage of twentieth century denim and developing an understanding of what fabrics were developed when, and why.
Combined with the Japanese vintage boom and passion for Americana, he regularly frequented the America-Mura (American Village) in Osaka, starting to collect old pieces of clothing with character that spoke to him.
Perhaps Matthew Klassen of Inventory (RIP) said best, “Orslow is a brand of quiet and measured design.” With the desire to, “make clothes that have a taste like vintage made in the past,” Orslow prides itself on producing a contemporary offering of heritage inspired garments which are produced as close to the original way as possible.
Nakatsu recognizes that, “most of the clothes worn as modern everyday clothes have evolved from clothes that existed in the past”; he sees the originals as a ‘prototype’ and acknowledges the importance of this when creating his own contemporary replica. There is a very clear intention to design simple yet long lasting clothing which conjures a powerful feeling for the wearer, safe in the knowledge that every stitch, every detail and each thread has been carefully considered during the design process.
Nakatsu wants Orslow garments to live on long past his time and for customers to have a connection with the brand’s items for many, many years.
While Orslow offers much more than just a classic five pocket jean, the core of the brand lies with denim. For Nakatsu, the appeal of denim is that, “denim changes after being worn, there are various ways of fading depending on the person” and, “denim fabric looks different depending on the time they were made.”
Take Orslow’s 105 jean in a two year wash for example—a light blue 13oz. denim with a gentle white fade, textbook roping at the hem and a perfectly imperfect texture to the fabric. Quite possibly the closest replication of a true vintage pair of 1950s 501s? More than likely.
Most OrSlow garments are made in Kurashiki in the Okayama Prefecture of Japan using vintage Reece, Singer and Union Special sewing machines. Orslow understands the nuances of production techniques from another time and they admire the subtle irregularities that a machine or fabric can offer.
Nakatsu is up front and honest when discussing his unrelenting passion for denim and the work of the brand; “when your hobby becomes your job, it can be hard to strike a line between work and play.”
With his home and office located in Nishinomiya, just outside Osaka, he references the inspiration found in the natural environment of the area as elements which shape OrSlow collections, by way of color and texture; “The atmosphere of the city is so cozy and it takes roughly two hours and a half by car to get to our main production factory. There are lots of rivers, parks, and greenery. People here seem not too busy. Perhaps because this environment provides such a nice space to live, I can concentrate on working on my project”.
It’s easy to see this consciousness and considered approach from looking at Orslow product, so it’s no wonder that others within the industry speak admirably of Nakatsu and his work ethic. Terry Ellis—buyer and director of Fennica, a sub-label of Beams—has worked closely with the brand to produce two to three garments for Fennica each year.
Taking the old-world techniques, design sensitivities, and uncontrived offering of Orslow, combined with the extensive knowledge, experience, and inspirations of Fennica, have lead to some truly impactful and unique products. When asked about Fennica’s relationship with Orslow, Ellis remarked;
“The process is slow design by communication. Making new clothing styles season after season is trying, but Orslow’s patient and sensitive approach to realizing our ideas keeps stress levels low to medium. Each new garment calls for new and often untried techniques and some projects are stopped at toile stage for a long time until an appropriate technique or fabric or part is developed. Because the end product always finds a receptive buyer we are not afraid to take difficult projects to Orslow.”
Similarly, Paul Craig—co-owner of The Bureau—speaks highly of the product and approach, “We’ve been selling Orslow for about ten years and the first time we saw it, we knew it was something special. Just from talking to Ichiro for the first time you could tell his passion for what he was doing, and as the relationship developed we started to work with Ichiro on making some exclusive product for us and this has become a very important part of our business”.
As well as stocking a core collection of the brand, each season the Belfast-based menswear mecca has become known for working with Orslow in order to offer limited edition product including a Climbing Pant, Mill Pant, and Service Pant. Reworking existing silhouettes and selecting exclusive fabrics, it is a great example of shared principles leading to meaningful brand / retailer collaboration.
In a world of unrelenting pace, fast fashion, and throwaway culture, Orslow is genuine and true. Inspired by the beauty of secondhand, the longevity of classic design and the skills of traditional manufacturing, Nakatsu has built a brand which offers more than just clothing. Through a balance of detail and dedication, Orslow has carved a reputation held in high esteem, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Although the brand has only been in existence for fifteen years, it seems like it’s been around forever, yet retains a youthful exuberance. David Kenji Chang remarks that, “Nakatsu applies old-world techniques to make workwear staples—workwear for a life of play.” And although Nakatsu may have difficulty drawing the line between work and play, we’re fairly sure that he’s having a lot of fun taking life in the (Or)slow lane.
*With thanks to Paul Craig, Terry Ellis and Ichiro Nakatsu.
Orslow US Navy Salvage Hooded Parka
Based on the iconic US Navy ‘Gunner Smock’ of World War Two and offered in a lightweight denim, this simple yet functional piece of outerwear is a reflection of what Orslow does best; classic heritage inspired silhouettes with a contemporary twist. More than just a reproduction, but a modern day homage to a classic design of the twentieth century. Featuring two angled chest pockets and a funnel hood, it’s an eye catching piece that works well year-round.
Available for €340 (~$405) at Meadow.
Orslow US Army Fatigue Shirt
Taking inspiration from the classic OG-107 military fatigue shirt and cut from a sateen cotton made in Japan, Orslow’s iteration stays true to the original and comes in a relaxed fit. Simple in design, it’s an understated and undisputed must have.
Available for £249 (~$330) at END.
Orslow 105 Jeans Two Year Wash
The pinnacle of Nakatsu’s fastidious study of denim, the 105 jean is Orslow’s answer to the Japanese fascination with mid-Twentieth Century 501s. A classic relaxed fit straight leg jean, the 105 is made from Orslow’s archetypal 13oz. selvedge denim and comes with aged hardware in keeping with the two year wash. Featuring a button fly, contrast stitching and leather branded patch, the 105 is a modern classic.
Available for £265 (~$350) at The Bureau.
Orslow US Army Fatigue Pants
The counterpart to the US Army Fatigue Shirt, the Fatigue Pants are made from the same sateen cotton and a pillar of Orslow’s line up. Often imitated but rarely bettered, they’re available in both a slim fit and ‘vintage’ (wider) fit. Equally at home on weekend maneuvers in the city or in the backcountry, they’re designed to get better with age and you bet they’ll become future vintage.
(Image via Liquor Store Clothing)
Available for £205 (~$270) at Liquor Store Clothing.