LONDON — Nearly 6,000 miles away from Tokyo, Japanese design signatures are making their mark on London’s denim and streetwear scenes.
A clutch of streetwear labels and denim brands based in the U.K. are drawing on everything from Japan’s typography to the country’s premium denim fabrics to enhance their British designs.
Superdry, the seven-year-old collection based in Cheltenham, England, has built its brand on its associations with Japan. The label’s logo is “Superdry” written in English and Japanese, and one design is a track-style T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Osaka.”
“Our mantra is ‘British design, spirit of Japan,’ ” said James Holder, brand and design director at Superdry, adding that the label evolved out of his “love of Japanese graphic design.”
That, along with vintage American clothing and “a shared love of British tailoring,” was among the inspirations that led Holder and Superdry co-founder Julian Dunkerton to create the label in 2003. Blending Japanese and Western inﬂuences has proved a powerful selling point. In July, Supergroup, Superdry’s parent company, reported sales of 139.4 million pounds, or $224 million at current exchange, in the year through May 10, up 83.1 percent on the previous year, and proﬁts before tax of 22.5 million pounds, or $36 million for the period. Supergroup’s listing on the London Stock Exchange earlier this year valued the company at 395 million pounds, or $636 million.
“[Japan] runs deep into the foundations of the brand and will continue to do so as we grow,” Holder said.
Meanwhile, a number of British premium denim labels are making a point of using heavyweight Japanese denim in their designs. Snake & Dagger, a men’s line that launched for fall 2010, has as its tag-line “Japanese Denim, London Style.” Roy Westﬁeld, who founded the label with Bayo Lasaki, said when they launched the company the criterion was that they “work with the best denim — we didn’t want to compromise on quality.
“We did look at denim from other regions around the world, but it just wasn’t what we were looking for,” he added.
The label works mainly with boutique denim mills in and around Japan’s Okinawa region that use the shutter looms that make denim fabric with a selvage, rather than denim made with the projectile looms that can produce larger quantities of fabric.
Snake & Dagger places its emphasis on Japanese denim fabrics in novelty washes, such as a jeans style with a subtle reﬂective wash made from a white selvage denim that’s garment-dyed, dry-washed and oven-baked, and will retail for 520 pounds, or $837, for spring.
“From a buyer’s perspective, it’s a real talking piece,” said Westﬁeld. “We like to say we work hand in hand with the artisans from Japan — they’re the technologists and we’re the designers.”
Another style, called Artisan, which has rips, creases and oil stains that are all worked into the denim at a wash house in Kojima, Japan, retails for 445 pounds, or $716. Westﬁeld said that these high-end jeans had been “received very well.” The brand’s jeans are sold at Browns in London and will be at Jades in Düsseldorf, Germany, and F95 in Berlin for spring.
“For the customers who are into that type of denim, the price doesn’t scare them,” said Westﬁeld. “I think in the time we’re in now, people are much more aware of quality. [Denim labels] PRPS and Evisu have led the way in making people aware of Japanese denim.”
Mithun Ramanandi, buyer for men’s denim at Selfridges, noted that Japanese denim is becoming a draw at Selfridges’ London store. He said washed after it’s dyed, “is currently selling extremely well.”
“These pieces mold to the shape of the body, and the natural distressing gives a very personal look, making them a real investment,” said Ramanandi. “By making it clear to customers that they are working with Japanese denim, brands are increasing their customer appeal but also their street cred. There’s certainly an industrywide opinion that Japanese denim is among the best in the world.”
Natural Selection, another British men’s denim label, also uses a number of Japanese fabrics in its designs. But Paul Young, creative director of Natural Selection, said it wasn’t a conscious decision when the company launched.
“We will only use fabrics that we love and we think can do the job very well,” Young said. “It just so happens that a lot of them are Japanese.”
The label tends to use heavier Japanese denims, in 13-ounce or 14-ounce weights, for designs that are both raw and subtly distressed, to look as if they’ve naturally aged.
“I think the industry’s become a lot more educated [about] Japan as a general country of origin,” he said. “[They have] beautiful fabrics, they’re fanatics on quality. That has reached the end consumer, whether that’s a guy who thinks, Japan, that’s where the good stuff comes from…[or] the connoisseur guy who will only wear Japanese products.”
However, Young said the label doesn’t actively promote its fabrics’ Japanese origins to consumers, as he’s led by the look and quality of a fabric, rather than its provenance.
“We don’t really market it as branding, as I think we would be jumping on the bandwagon of people before us who have used ‘Made in Japan’ [as part of their branding],” said Young. “[Though] I think it’s relevant to the buyers because they have to understand your product.”
Although Snake & Dagger’s founders are explicit about the label’s Japanese fabrics, they note that London design runs through their jeans. The label does produce some jeans in raw, unwashed Japanese denim, but the duo said their washed-denim styles are inspired by the worn-in, distressed jeans that London builders and plumbers wear for work.
“We take pictures of these guys all day, just to try to take elements of them to put into our jeans,” said Lasaki. “We’re London guys through and through. That’s going to translate into our design.”