THE YANKS WERE COMING, AND THEIR DUFFELS WERE STUFFED WITH THE MAKINGS OF WORLDWIDE DUNGAREE ENVY.
Byline: Koji Hirano / Luisa Zargani
Sure, GI Joe brought American big-band swing and Coca-Cola to the shores of Europe and Japan. But even more important, U.S. troops were also the first real ambassadors of jeans culture, and the Europeans and Japanese people took the jeans mystique to heart and ran with it.
American soldiers during and just after World War II made a habit of carting their denim pants with them as off-duty wear. To them, of course, jeans were the rugged, comfortable clothes that they’d probably used in their pre-Army days at the farm or on the job. But to the Japanese and Europeans, jeans were a fashion revolution, since “over there,” dungarees had no tradition as workwear.
That lack of a denim workwear heritage allowed overseas designers for many years to be much more experimental and innovative with new jeans looks, drawing the category further from its classic Yankee roots. Whether it was the Japanese skill for problem-solving and technological tweaking, or Europe’s flair for the avant-garde, the cultural assimilation worked in both directions.
Japan: Kimono-Couture Embraces Denim
In the years after the war, Japanese consumers came to know U.S.-made jeans as “G-pan,” a derivation of “GI pants.” Until the early Sixties, pretty much the only jeans available in Japan were used pairs, cast off by American soldiers and travelers, which were then resold in Tokyo’s Ameyoko district, which was known as a mecca for foreign goods.
Because jeans were scarce, they also were expensive. “They were some 4,000 yen, at a time when the starting [monthly] salary of Japanese was 10,000 yen,” said Takenori Ando, a sales executive at Edwin Co. Ltd., the biggest denim maker in Japan.
“In this country,” said Ando, “jeans were positioned as the fashion item ever since they were first imported.” Even today, the lack of a link with denim’s utilitarian past remains the biggest difference between the Japanese and U.S. jeans businesses.
The early adopters in Japan included celebrities. Yujiro Ishihara, the first actor to wear jeans in a Japanese movie, is credited by some for helping to quickly elevate jeans to the status of fashion icon.
After years of gobbling up Yankee goods, the Japanese market gave rise to two jeans brands of its own in 1963. Canton by Oishi Boeki and BF Jeans by Edwin were both produced with Japanese consumers’ body proportions in mind. Two years later, Maruo Hihuku — now known as Big John — entered the scene.
The local players faced a psychological hurdle: Japanese consumers were accustomed to the soft, well-worn look and feel of used jeans and were not attracted to the stiff, dark new denim.
The need to replicate the feel of a used pair of jeans led Japanese manufacturers to develop completely new finishes, including stonewashing and chemical washing. Then, having cleared the first hurdle of how to build in wear, the Japanese concept of jeans fashion continued to evolve, as the nation’s manufacturers kept pushing the limits of technical design and finishing.
Women’s jeans appeared in Japan in the Seventies, around the same time that U.S. designers were paying more mind to women’s fits.
“That was the most drastic change in the nation’s denim history,” said Norio Kubooka, managing director of the jeans division of Takaya Shoji Inc., a denim manufacturing, distributing and importing company.
The introduction of women’s jeans was followed by a price revolution. Women’s jeans were introduced at prices 60 to 80 percent higher than men’s models, which offered manufacturers much higher margins. The cost of men’s jeans soon rose to the new price levels established for women’s product.
Then, finally, in the Eighties, Japanese jeans makers attracted international notice when they began exhibiting at overseas trade shows.
American jeans — new American jeans, that is — have also established a presence in Japan. Levi Strauss & Co. established its Japanese branch in 1971, and The Lee Co. entered the country in the late Eighties. Gap Japan was established in 1995.
Not surprisingly, the assimilation has been near total. According to a 1998 Levi’s study, 88 percent of Japanese consumers own blue jeans.
Jeans the European Way
As in Japan, Europeans were quicker than Americans to experiment with jeans, pushing them further than ever into new territory.
Italian designer Roberto Cavalli broke new ground in the Seventies with a radical departure from denim.
“My first pattern was the leopard skin, and it caused quite a stir because it was so different from what people were used to,” said Cavalli. Over the years, the designer added python, zebra and tiger prints, among others, and colorful flower patterns.
As designers pushed the fashion envelope, more doors in European society were opened to jeans, and women grew comfortable wearing them in dressier situations.
“Designers interpreted jeans in a more refined and elegant way and made them suitable for different occasions,” said Carlo Pambianco, a Milan fashion consultant.
He added, however, that some companies were too slow to adapt to the higher fashion expectations being set by designers.
“Traditional denim pants,” he said, “remained the same and grew stale: same cloth, same five pockets, same shapes — while consumers grew more demanding and their tastes evolved.”
Europeans quickly came to expect fashion innovation in their jeans, said Maurizio De Ponti, managing director of VF Italia, a branch of VF Corp.
Indeed, in continually raising the bar for fashion’s influence on the market, Europeans pushed jeanswear as a concept far beyond its classic American roots.
“Jeans have evolved from total-American look to cosmopolitan, with multiethnic influences from all over the world,” said Claudio Buziol, owner of Fashion Box, which produces the Replay line. His company, for instance, has recently begun adding touches like Asian-inspired bridges to its stores.
But while the GIs that first lugged their faded dungarees to Europe would never recognize what passes for jeans today, the intangible yet irresistible cultural message embedded in the fiber of those old pants still rings true across the Continent.
“In the Sixties, when I wore jeans to school one day as a kid, I was sent home to change, because they were not socially acceptable,” recalled Manlio Massa, sales, communication and marketing manager at Super Rifle, the Italian company that produces the Rifle label. “Today, though jeans are no longer worn to rebel against the establishment, they are still a symbol of youth — and, often, the over-50 crowd wears jeans to look younger.”