By  on May 24, 2007

TOKYO — The Japanese Denim market is heating up after a slow 2006, and fabric manufacturers are looking to keep the momentum going by focusing on innovation.

The rising popularity of skinny and slim jeans helped Japan's denim production to rebound starting late last summer. The turnaround has become more evident in 2007. However, denim executives here realize the skinny jeans boom will not last forever and that it will be up to the them to bring new varieties of denim to capitalize on growth.

According to a local textile industry association in Hiroshima prefecture, where denim mills are heavily concentrated, denim production declined 5.4 percent in 2006 from the previous year to 46.89 million square meters or 56.1 million square yards. This represented a drop of as much as 14.7 percent from 2004. The area, an association official claimed, accounts for about half of national output.

The turnaround started ramping up in the first three months of this year, as February output rose 2 percent to 4 million square meters from 3.9 million square meters reported in January. March output ballooned 12.8 percent from February to reach 4.6 million square meters, or 5.4 million square yards, according to the association.

Two other denim production centers are located in the neighboring Okayama prefecture. A local textile industry association in the Mihara area said production of cotton yarn-dyed fabrics, of which denim makes up an estimated 70 to 80 percent, is "on a rise this year" after it stayed almost unchanged in 2006 from the previous year at 19 million square meters, or 22.7 million square yards.

While some 80 million pairs of jeans are produced in Japan annually, the Japanese denim industry depends heavily on the export market as it ships a large portion of its production to the U.S., Europe and Asia.

According to the Japan Textile Exporters Association, cotton denim exports in the first three months of this year soared 36 percent to 15.1 million square meters, or 18.1 million square yards. The value of the exports rose 38 percent to $55.8 million compared with year-ago levels.

This is in contrast to a sluggish 2006, when annual exports fell 3.3 percent from 2005 to 56.5 million square meters, or 67.6 million square yards, valued at $209.1 million, a decline 7.1 percent. The two biggest export markets are China and Hong Kong, followed by the U.S., Vietnam, Italy and South Korea.Major Japanese denim manufacturers say they are prepared for whatever changes may come in market and fashion trends, proclaiming that they expect to continue as the world's top supplier of premium denim by making full use of their product development capabilities.

"We always try to make and offer things that are new," said Yoshiharu Kaihara, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaihara Corp. "We attach importance to achieving high quality even at the sacrifice of productivity."

The Fukuyama-based company, with a monthly production capacity of 3 million square meters, or 3.6 million square yards, claims a more than 50 percent share of the Japanese denim market. The company exports 60 percent of its production to more than 20 countries though its Hong Kong-based company, Textile Resources.

"Our strength is that we have fully integrated operations of the entire denim manufacturing processes from raw material selection, spinning, warping, loop-dyeing and warp separation to sizing, weaving, fabric inspection, finishing, quality control and shipping," said Kaihara.

He believes that the dyeing process and quality of the cotton used are the two most important elements to manufacturing denim fabric. Kaihara's warehouses are stocked with a variety of cotton from around the world, allowing the company to develop a suitable mixture for production that will meet the particular requirements of its clients. "We offer 600 to 900 items a year," Kaihara said.

Since 1970, the company has invested more than 50 billion yen, or nearly $500 million, in new equipment and facilities. More than 300 looms — ranging from projectile looms for heavy denim and high-speed air-jet looms for lighter denim to shuttle looms for making classic denim — are in operation at its six textile mills.

"We are staying right here in Japan for manufacturing." Kaihara said, "We have no plans to go overseas for production."

The use of stretch fibers is an area Kurabo Industries is focusing on in its latest denim collections. Tatsuo Nishikawa, manager of jeans and casualwear sales of the Osaka-based company, said Kurabo will introduce "advanced versions" of stretch denim, partly in response to the popularity of skinny jeans styles. New types of stretch denim from Kurabo will use a range of stretch fibers, including Dow Fiber Solutions' XLA stretch yarn, XFit Lycra and T400.Every three years, Kurabo sets a new three-year denim promotion program choosing three main product areas for targeting, Nishikawa said. The current program for 2006 through 2008 emphasizes ocean blue colors under the Ultra Marine Blue brand name. Also being promoted is a line called Wave that features specially designed slub yarn. Air Spinner is Kurabo's third new line and features a soft denim.

The executive said Kurabo exhibits its new collections in New York and Los Angels twice a year, which he said is producing results.

"Although the boom in premium jeans in the U.S. seems to be subsiding, new brands are coming up," said Nishikawa. "Overall, I believe the market will continue to be firm."

Masaharu Tanaka, marketing manager of jeans and casualwear at Nisshinbo Industries, also credits the popularity of skinny styles and stretch denim for the rebound in the Japanese market. And the company hopes to take advantage of a new trend that seems to be gaining strength: a return to natural looks. The focus now, said Tanaka, is to bring out the best of indigo and yarn-dyed material in innovative ways instead of washing and damaging fabric to imitate used looks and styles.

Nisshinbo, regarded as one of the "Big Three" denim producers here, along with Kaihara and Kurabo, is emphasizing a new line called Indigo Pure, which unlike other processes involving indigo and sulfide or other chemical dyes, uses only indigo. The idea is to bring out the natural beauty of indigo in denim. Nisshinbo has a monthly production capacity of 1 million square meters or 1.2 million square yards, of which about 20 percent is exported to Europe, the U.S. and Asia.

Nisshinbo is also known worldwide for a liquid-ammonium processing of denim the company developed more than 10 years ago. The cotton fiber has a hollow portion in the center that crushes when spun and woven. When a cotton fabric is dipped in liquid ammonium in temperatures of 40 degrees below freezing, cotton in the fabric instantaneously regains its original shape, giving back softness to the natural fiber. Nisshinbo has five liquid-ammonium processing machines, of which one is exclusively used for treating denim, Tanaka said.

Collaboration between denim and jeans manufacturers is a must for success, Tanaka emphasized, noting his firm works with jeans firms in designing and merchandising.Toyobo, a leading textile manufacturer, is promoting color jeaning materials for color pants that are gaining in popularity. The company is teaming with jeans manufacturers such as Edwin and Levi Strauss Japan. Those color pants, or color jeans, are sold for more than 10,000 yen or $83 at current exchange in jeans shops.

"Fabrics are all developed and manufactured in Japan," a Toyobo marketing executive said. "They are not cheap and we only sell to the high-end market."

Duck Textile Co., based in Fukuyama, has developed and introduced knit denim at a recent textile trade fair in Tokyo. The jersey denim, which may look like woven denim at a glance, possesses the softness and other characteristics of knit fabric.

It took Duck Textile more than a year to develop the jersey denim and it will be sold to jeans and sportswear firms retailing in the range of 10,000 yen to 20,000 yen, or $83 to $167, according to Ryuji Mihara, president of Duck Textile. Mihara expects sales of 5,000 pairs of jeans in the first year. Jersey denim is expected to make up for a decline in sales of heavy cotton textiles to women's wear manufacturers who are increasingly turning to wool and silk knitwear.

A new technique to produce cotton yarn with its center core undyed or white by hand-dyeing is undergoing research and development at Nihon Menpu Textile Co. based in Ihara, Okayama.

The company has built a test factory for 500 million yen, or $4.2 million, to continue the research now in its second year, according to a company spokesman. The project has the support of the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry.

In the latest move to bring denim producers and jeans manufacturers together, Japan Jeans Makers' Association has been dissolved and reformed as the Japan Jeans Council. Membership has been expanded to 13 companies, including Kaihara, Kurabo and Nisshinbo.

The association said Japan imports about 20 million pairs of jeans annually of which, industry sources say, Uniqlo, the low-price casualwear brand operated by Fast Retailing Co., accounts for about 10 million pairs.

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