TOKYO — With over four decades of experience in the denim industry in Japan, Yuji Honzawa knows a thing or two about making jeans. Now, the man whose peers nicknamed him “Dr. Denim” has his sights set on bringing his own brand, Red Card, to the top stores in the U.S. market.
Honzawa started Red Card in 2009 after spending 30 years at Edwin Jeans and six years at Levi’s Japan, in addition to consulting for some of the biggest jeans sellers in the country, including Uniqlo, Muji, Onward Holdings and Takeo Kikuchi. But despite all his experience, he was underwhelmed by the selection available in the market.
“There were no jeans that I really wanted,” he said. “Also, at that time the casual division of United Arrows, called Beauty & Youth, asked me to make boyfriend jeans. At the time Levi’s wasn’t making boyfriend jeans for women, so [United Arrows] asked me if I could do it under by own brand, and that’s how Red Card first started.”
A year later, Honzawa added a men’s line to the collection, finally giving himself something he wanted to wear. Today, women’s jeans make up 70 percent of Red Card’s sales, while men’s represent 30 percent. But what both lines have in common is that they’re all made in Japan, a point that Honzawa wants to emphasize to customers in the U.S.
“I really think it’s true that the quality of things made in Japan is the best in the world, and I want to prove that,” he said. “I also think that if you put [Red Card] jeans in Barneys they’ll look so much better than anything else there.”
Such a statement may sound presumptuous, but Honzawa is a perfectionist who is absolutely particular about every detail and aspect of the jeans he makes. Red Card places utmost importance on what it calls the “three Fs,” which stand for fabric, fit and finish. Throughout his career, Honzawa has established a large network of the best mills and factories in the world.
For Red Card, he works with the top producers across Japan to get the best materials, cuts and finishes. His pattern cutter, for example, is not a pattern cutter from the denim industry, but a former dressmaker who knows how things must be cut to properly fit a woman’s body. And the finishing factories Red Card uses produce the most authentic, natural-looking distressing for a “vintage” look that is incredibly soft to the touch.
Honzawa refers to Red Card’s products as “premium Japan jeans,” but the prices are surprisingly reasonable considering they’re made in a country with some of the highest labor costs in the world. A pair of jeans starts from around 10,000 yen ($90), while other premium brands such as AG Adriano Goldschmied average about $200 a pair.
As the Japanese denim industry continues to feel the crunch brought on by increasing competition from countries such as China and Thailand, Honzawa feels a certain responsibility to the factories he works with.
“I think by making our jeans in Japan, one of our jobs is to help protect the factories that we work with. I think that’s really something that we have to do,” he said. “Preserving and protecting those factories is important since there’s no growth or expansion happening for them anymore.”
Red Card can be found in some of Japan’s top department and specialty stores, such as Isetan, Hankyu, Mitsukoshi, Beams, United Arrows and Tomorrowland. It is currently carried by a handful of retailers in the U.S., including American Rag Cie and Brooklyn Denim, but Honzawa is aiming for more.
“For me, being accepted into the U.S. market would mean that we’ve hit the big league,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges for Asian brands that want to expand into the American market is sizing. Honzawa, however, doesn’t see this as an issue for Red Card.
“In terms of fit, our way of making jeans is such that we don’t think of them as Japanese jeans,” he said, noting that his brand has offered a wide range of sizes since its start. “In that sense, we’ve been making things with a global fit since the beginning.”
In addition to his work as director of Red Card, Honzawa continues consulting even now, working with brands that are struggling or underperforming and helping them to get back above water (“like a doctor for jeans,” he said, explaining his nickname). He has been able to put to use what he has learned through his consulting work for Red Card, and vice versa.
One thing his decades of experience with jeans has taught him is that Japanese denim didn’t get its high notoriety for nothing.
“Los Angeles has become a place with a reputation for being able to make good jeans, but I think the best ones are made in Japan’s Okayama region. I really want to tell people that,” he said. “It’s the same as with Japanese food and sake: jeans made by Japanese people have a unique flavor, and I think they could really be successful in the U.S.”