TOKYO — Major denim manufacturers are the real power behind jeans brands in Japan.

The developmental talents of denim mills such as Kaihara, Kurabo and Nisshinbo for new fabrics and finishes has provided a springboard for the jeans industry here to achieve rapid growth, especially in fashion jeans.

Denim mills here now export about one-third of their production, mainly to Europe and the U.S. The export share goes higher than 50 percent when shipments that are made to China and other countries for processing and re-exportation to Japan in the form of apparel are included.

According to industry executives, the monthly production capacity for denim by major mills is in the range of 5 million linear meters. Denim makers and jeans firms here have maintained a close relationship, working together in collaborative projects for new product development.

As Yoshio Nakano, general manager of sales of Kaihara Corp., put it, “confidentiality” is the crux for such collaborative efforts. A denim manufacturer may be working with many clients and each project must be kept confidential from another.

Through many years of collaboration with jeans factories, and in some cases retailers, denim mills have been able to develop and accumulate new technologies and skills, Nakano said, which has contributed to the growing presence of Japanese specialty denims on the world market.

Each year, more than 300 new types of denim are developed and produced at Kaihara. In many cases, initiatives for new product designs come from Kaihara, but in others from buyers. But in all cases, final products are decided through two-way collaborations, the executive said.

The Hiroshima-based company produced 33 million linear meters of denim in the last year, making it Japan’s fifth-largest importer of cotton. The company, which chalked up pretax profit of $10.8 million (1.3 billion yen) on sales of $157 million (18.8 billion yen) last year, invested $15 million (1.8 billion yen) compared with $13.3 million (1.6 billion yen) in the previous year in new equipment, including $6.7 million (800 million yen) in an automatic assortment and packing system that can automatically place varieties of yarns coming from spinning frames in designated boxes. The automation replaced eight workers.“We only buy the kinds of cotton that are best suited to the kinds of denim we produce,” Nakano said. “We import cotton from many sources, but we conduct a series of dyeing and finishing tests. We don’t have special machines for trial production per se,” he said, explaining all new fabrics are produced on existing machines or looms in operation in Kaihara mills and then presented to prospective buyers for evaluation and testing. That way, the buyer is assured the merchandise will be the same as the sample.

Kaihara exports through its Hong Kong-based agent, Textile Resources Ltd.“Our motto is to make new things that are not yet in the wardrobe,” Nakano said.

Japanese denim mills have been kept busy for nearly four years with the rise of the women’s jeans market, Nakano said. But the business environment does not warrant any optimism, as Japan’s population is on a decline from a lower birth rate resulting in a sharp drop in the population of teenagers, while wages are on a rise.

Kurabo Industries is taking a route to specialty denims, with higher processing for higher value, and away from mass-production types, as is Nisshinbo Industries. Using biotechnology to accelerate deep coloration, Kurabo has come up with bio-dyed denim featuring deep color, noted Kenshi Kawano, manager of jeans. The product is marketed under the Nature Blue name.

Kurabo is also introducing variations of indigo in greenish or “Clear Sky” denim or in deep red“Dark Red Blue” denim with a smoother surface using cleaner yarns with less fluffs.

There are color tone variations of indigo available, at Nisshinbo, as well, according to Masaharu Tanaka, manager of jeans. Nisshinbo has succeeded in producing on shuttleless looms vintage-style denims that previously were only possible on shuttle looms.

Nisshinbo is widely known for its liquid ammonium treatment of cotton or Ekian processing. Liquid ammonium makes cotton crinkle-free, enabling production of denim that is soft and durable, with a natural luster and depth of color, Tanaka explained. By using upgraded ammonium treatment, the company has produced a new breed of vintage denim, which is almost free from fluffs.

Three years ago, Toyobo, in a joint project with Edwin, developed and marketed super-strong denim using Toyobo’s Zylon fiber, which has a tear strength that is twice that of ordinary denim.Imamichi said the company is supplying fabrics using its EKS fiber to jeans manufacturers. Called a “conditioning” fiber, it absorbs perspiration, generates heat and retains heat to keep the wearer in a comfortable condition, he explained.

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