West meets East: A Conversation with Kiya and Andrew of Self Edge

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Upon arriving to the Self Edge shop in New York City, I met Andrew Chen, the co-owner of 3sixteen and manager of the NY Shop, and began our conversation in the tiny, warm backroom office of the shop. As Andrew deftly identified the details of some of the Sugar Cane and Iron Heart shirts on a rack in the rear of the shop, the elements that make Self Edge so unique began to congeal for me. What at first glance looked strikingly similar to vintage shirts reveal themselves to be new garments crafted with a similar attention to quality that used to be synonymous with American manufacturing. Andrew gently held up and described the materials that are sometimes produced by hand for a small batch of shirts, the thick buttons that are deadstock 60s finds (“found objects,” as Andrew called them), and on some models, the cable stitches which run off the hem and dangle in hand-braided threads. We had only been chatting for a few minutes, and his knowledge of the items on the custom-made gunmetal hangers and true appreciation for the craftsmanship became sort of infectious.

Once we moved towards the front of the store and began discussing jeans, I asked him my most pressing question: Why are some people so fetishistic about jeans? Anyone

who does even a cursory google search of some of the brands that Self Edge carries—Imperial Denim, Sugar Cane, Iron Heart, and Flat Head, for example—inevitably comes across a forum thread with a denim fan waxing poetic about the fit and aging process of his Japanese-produced jeans. It doesn’t take long before you’re thrust into hundreds of pages about the weight of a particular piece of denim, the chainstitched hems, the intricacies of the dying process, the weaves, the loom chatter that yields irregularities, and many other terms and phrases that comprise the lexicon of the bizarre, compulsive world of raw denim. Many wearers wait months, some even a year or longer, to wash their jeans in order to accentuate the distressing and whiskering on their pairs. Effectively, as Andrew told me, this process is one that allows the wearer to personalize his jeans, as the fades become a veritable roadmap of its wearer’s unique travels.  He added that there is a communal element to denim as well, as seen in threads on Superfuture and Style Forum which show photos of people from the waist down in various locales—jumping over rocks in a lake, legs crossed with arms akimbo in front of a building, etc…

Kiya Babzani is the owner of the Self Edge store in San Francisco and the face of Self Edge on forums as well. He often says that, “Denim doesn’t lie,” which is a succinct summation what makes a pair of raw selvedge denim so alluring. When Andrew and I began to discuss denim, he relayed that quote from Kiya and further explained how there is a pride that a discerning customer begins to exude when acquiring pieces from these detail-obsessed Japanese brands. I learned firsthand that the attention to minute elements of clothing becomes contagious, and after I left the interview and reexamined my wardrobe staples, I found them haphazardly produced and inferior to the garments sold at Self Edge. At the shop, the staff is quite proud of the Japanese products they sell, which—whether its evident or not—forms a bit of a paradox. After all, the shop boasts a focus on Americana and garments synonymous with the strength and freedom that symbolized the USA during the time period that the shop honors—the late 40s, 50s, and 60s. So, in a distinctly American shop that honors an American tradition, the garments are produced in … Japan?

Kiya has spent more than a decade learning about the production, manufacturing, and marketing of Japanese denim, so he is well-qualified to speak about the story of Self Edge’s offerings of Japanese-made homages to American workwear. During my interview with him, he spoke candidly about the obsessive tendencies of Japanese Americana collectors, the fiercely competitive Japanese jean manufacturers and their attempts to one-up each other, and the Japanese obsession with Americana and the spirit of rebellion.

Freshness is proud to present in depth interviews with both Andrew and Kiya, and we are confident that after you finish reading this feature, you’ll get a taste of what it’s like to be blissfully and willingly compulsive about a wardrobe item that is unparalleled in its connection to its wearer—good ol’ American blue jeans… that are produced and manufactured in Japan.

I see threads on forums where people chronicle the aging of their jeans, and it seems to me that no other garment has that kind of personal connection with its wearer. What it is about jeans that people seem to be so attached to?

Andrew: Jeans can become part of a person’s personal journey; they go with him everywhere. Wearing the same pair of jeans and bringing them along with you and charting their progress becomes a sort of narrative.

Your partner, Kiya, uses the phrase “jeans don’t lie.” What exactly does that mean?

Andrew: As you wear raw jeans, they have to change along with you. They have to show wear, they have to mold to you, and they have to age. When you look at some worn jeans, you know that they’ve been somewhere and that they’ve done things, and I think that’s cool. After time, you can recognize those that have been authentically worn in and those that have been worn in at a washhouse. With raw denim, your jeans age wherever your body moves. We understand that a customer may want to wear something a bit more lightweight and comfortable, which may be what attracts many of them to prewashed and predistressed jeans. We, on the other hand, choose to just focus on raw jeans. That’s part of the story of our shop—this is the only way that jeans used to be made.

Like we spoke about in the beginning, more than any other article of clothing, people seem to have an affinity for their jeans as a personal item. Does that sentiment go along with the way that a person used to wear jeans in the early part of the century? How has the way that people wear denim changed from the early part of the century when people primarily wore denim to work?

Andrew: When we talk about the term “workwear,” we mean just that: jeans were made to work in. Because of the wearer’s labor, the aging process was accelerated because he was harsh on his jeans. This trend towards lighter, more comfortable materials on jeans came about during the time where jeans were transitioning from workwear to something that could be worn as a fashion item.

Did that trend emerge because a customer wants to wear the item without putting in the work themselves?

Andrew: Right. It all boils down to personal preference, so I’m not trying to say one is better than the other. But inevitably, one positive attribute to aging jeans yourself is that they last longer when you put in the work yourself. And beyond that, when customers get to see the process and how things age over time, it’s an added bonus. That said, gold miners never really admired their fades.

If a worker’s jeans got old, did he just get a new pair in those days?

Andrew: No, they’d patch them up. In our SF store, we have a vintage Singer Darning machine to repair denim the old fashioned way. It’s a really hard-to-find machine… back in the day, if that was your one pair of work jeans that was damaged, you’d patch them up, you’d darn them or you’d press in a new rivet yourself. Nowadays, people don’t repair their jeans anymore. If they get old, people toss them out.

That being said, as far as construction and longevity go, what these Japanese companies are producing now is superior to what you’d find at a cheaper big-box place. To them, these clothes aren’t trendy. It’s not this “return to manhood” that people talk about in fashion. It’s functional; it’s long-lasting; and it represents an era of Americana.

What does the term “Americana” mean in the context of what you do at Self-Edge?

Andrew: For us, it’s not limited to the types of garments we offer. It’s referenced in the books that we carry, the magazine selection, and even Kiya’s music tastes. Much of what you see here is western and workwear-influenced, but Kiya has a vision to push this shop’s offerings into casual wear, or what people would wear when they weren’t working. So, that means rayon shirts, and other things that people were wearing after their work day was over

What period does this reflect?

Andrew: As early as the 20s or 30s to as late as the 60s. Obviously, there have been a lot of fashions that have come and gone during that era, and in the shop, you’ll see military and Western influences—and a workwear influence, of course.

How do customers respond to the high price points on the extremely-detailed shirts?

Andrew: Customers are mostly respectful, however there are times when people respond with a question like, “Are you serious?” But I welcome the opportunity to discuss the pieces with those customers and let them know exactly why they cost so much to produce.

How have Japanese customers’ consumption habits affected marketing in both America and Japan?

Andrew: The Japanese discovered when buying and deconstructing vintage garments that the only way to properly remake those items would be to get the actual machines. In terms of research and development, and when thinking of how to progress past the vintage quality, the Japanese kept working at the process until they really nailed it. What they can accomplish now is far better than when they started. A lot of the Japanese denim companies started out making jeans that were in homage to Levi’s.

Did some of these people find that they could actually surpass the quality of Levi’s jeans?

Andrew: Absolutely. With the exception of Sugar Cane jeans, which makes cuts that are identical to famous Levis cuts, all these brands may have started with Levi’s as their inspiration and then kept progressing and moving on. Three years ago, Levi’s filed a lawsuit against Self Edge because they had Levi’s-styled arcuates, patches, and a red tab. These were all copywritten trademarks, so Levi’s issued a cease and desist and told us to cut off all red tabs and destitch all arcuates off the jean pockets. So, after the lawsuit, the companies offered to make jeans without arcuates, and Kiya said no. He went to them and asked them to redevelop the arcuates. They complied, which showed us that they were interested in growing. The reason we do have the arcuates is because they tell a story. A while back, Levi’s, Wrangler, and Lee all had a sort of branding that a customer could get behind. A customer would support that brand and learn about that company’s models, and usually that person became an aficionado about one brand or another. Modern customers are again getting into the idea of following a brand.

What are some differences between New York and San Francisco?

Andrew: Weather. We base our buys and adjust them in the New York store because we have four seasons, whereas the San Francisco store has more consistent weather year-round.

People seem to have thousands of recommendations as to how to properly care for denim. What do you recommend to wearers of raw selvedge denim as far as the care of the jeans?

Andrew: We get all kinds of questions regarding this topic. When it comes to the care of jeans, I have learned a lot as a customer and shop owner, and I encourage customers to do whatever they are most comfortable with. If they want to wear them for a year straight — I say do it! I’ve done it myself. On the other hand, I have jeans now that I wash every two months. There is no single way to care for jeans.

Is there any care advice that is consistent?

Andrew: Yes, certain jeans, unsanforized ones, need to be soaked. That’s a requirement. They need one soak before you wear them to remove shrinkage.

Is there a future for American selvedge denim?

Andrew: Can you make selvedge denim in the US? Yes, there is one mill in North Carolina—Cone. To my knowledge, no one else is able to do it in the US.

Is 3sixteen constructed in the US?

Andrew: Well, we make our items here so we can oversee the entire process carefully. When we started our denim program, we wanted to learn, grow, and develop our products in the US, but the best materials are made in Japan. Thus, we elected to bring our denim in from Japan and construct it locally.

There is a draw to selvedge because it has imperfections in the weave, right?

Andrew: Yes. Japanese denim is known for its imperfections. The Japanese have a term called “wabi sabi,” which refers to the beauty that is found in impermanence and imperfection. We see that a lot in the denim that Japan produces; selvedge denim generally takes longer to make and is inefficient to produce. It can yield greater inconsistencies as the process does not employ modern production techniques. But it is in these imperfections that you get a truly special textile.

What are the differences between your selvedge products found here and those found in a big box store?

Andrew: You can weave selvedge denim in China or Indionisia. They are replicating the process and look of selvedge denim—the actual properties of a 30-inch wide panel—with finished edges—but without any of the artisanal details that define the selvedge denim that you’d find in our store.

What is the comparison in durability of denim?

Andrew: Well, selvedge is not necessarily about durability. It can be, but it’s not necessarily connected. A major reason that people prefer selvedge is that it takes longer to weave it than cheaper denim, and it has a history behind it. The desire often reaches beyond durability.

Is there more of a narrative appreciation?

Andrew: Yes. That appreciation is based on where the denim comes from, and the philosophies of the companies to respect and honor the past while experimenting and pushing boundaries, all while making garments with a high level of detail. In many cases, it has a much more beautiful fade, which is a unique element of selvedge. On our racks, each pair fades differently based on the type of indigo and the process of dying the yarn. If I were to show you which jeans age dramatically, Flat Head comes to mind. They rope dye their indigo, which means that the core of the thread stays white. With other jeans, it may take a few months to see wear, but their denim fades faster. You may see a $40 pair of Levi’s age in a few months, but for a discerning customer, he or she will notice the quality of the aging of the denim.

So what are some elements of craftsmanship characteristic of items you offer in the store?

Andrew: The elements cover everything: dying, the types of rivets, the shanks, buttonholes, and other details. Today, you can make an entire pair of jeans on one machine. For some of the jeans we stock, there are 8 or 9 machines involved. We have a Union Special chainstitching machine in the basement that we use to hem our customers’ jeans. Union Special is now out of business, and it’s very tough to find a machine like this in good repair. The effect of a chainstitch makes a sort of roping effect on the hem, and while it doesn’t really matter to many, we want to be able to offer these unique details and services to our customers.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in start-up brands from HBO’s How to Make it America. How realistic is their story of making denim on the show?

Andrew: It’s easier than you think, but it’s also a bit more difficult than you would think if you want to make to make something that’s really special. Truth be told, Johan [of 3sixteen] and I can’t make some of the stuff that you see here in the shop. We can’t. It’s impossible. Our manufacturer has some really good machines—but we don’t have access to those mills that can make certain denim to our specs, and without the Self Edge connection to Japan it would be very tough to get things made—it’s pretty much impossible. If you were starting your own brand today, you would do exactly what they did in the show: buy a roll of denim off a truck. There are jobbers all over the place. Can you happen across an unbelievable roll of fabric? Sure, but what are you going to do after you make your 50 pairs?

So the show is a bit unrealistic in some regard?

Andrew: It’s interesting, Rob Weiss came into the shop, as they were filming in the neighborhood. He’s a multi-millionaire, and he put on an Iron Heart shirt and then balked at the price. It was hilarious. I’m thinking, “You’re making a show championing the do-it-yourself brands and you’re richer than anyone I know, and yet you see no value in the product.” So if the producers don’t get it, then who does? I liked the show, and it was cool to see people and places I know. And you know, the show is not as off-base as someone may suggest. But as for the business side of things, yes, it can be quite unrealistic.

To me, there is a philosophical quandary to this shop. You’re a shop selling Japanese-produced products that honor American garments from decades ago. It represents the strong base of American workwear. And to get these products, you have to get the items shipped all the way from Japan. Explain this craziness!

Andrew: It’s as bizarre as it gets. This shop represents Americana as viewed through the eyes of the Japanese. And it’s curated and re-introduced by Americans. People always ask where the Japanese connection is among the shop’s employees – it’s just a love that we have for the products. We have Japanese customers who can only buy these products here. We have an American-inspired product that’s made in Japan and only available in America.

The spirit of the whole quandary is somehow ultra-American as well.

Andrew: Right, people can take it for what it is, but there is something exciting about the re-interpretation or new angle for helping a customer to rediscover something. And to add to that, when you go this crazy about details in garments, let’s get honest—there has to be some level of compulsion. So in Japan, there had to have been that love first in order to have other customers value that story behind it for the brands to survive and give us a chance to bring their work here.

Is there a way to categorize the typical Self Edge customer?

Andrew: No, and I love that! We have customers from 16-80. You’ve got 16 year-old kids in high school who are looking for their first real pair of jeans. Maybe it’s a young kid looking for his first wardrobe staple. Next, you have the college student with no money but enough for one pair to last the year. Next, you have the young professional who finally has disposable income to build a wardrobe. Then, you have the married guy, who comes in with his wife and tries them on for her. This goes all the way to the 80-year old who says, “Yes! Finally clothes that are built the way they used to be when I was a kid.” It’s not about style to this customer. It’s more about rediscovering something very dear to him or her.

You are in a very fashionable and influential city in one of its most influential neighborhoods, so you have the cache to comment on this: have you seen a shift away from over-adornment to more simplified looks? Is this look going to more of a mass audience and away from the niche market?

Andrew: Oh sure. We get big box buyers in here all the time looking at what we stock. You can tell the way that they look at the stitching, and that’s ok to us. We knew we were ahead of the curve, we know what’s up when people look at J.Crew and say, “look what they’re bringing to the market!” A lot of what we have in here is fashionable now. People may be in that recession-mode where they are shying away from flashiness, and others coin terms like “durable goods” and “dry goods” – we just know that once this moment has passed in fashion, we will still be here. These brands will keep doing what they do. We’re not too concerned with the trends.

So maybe you give them something they can stick with regardless of the trends?

Andrew: Yes, we try to give them something special about these brands’ philosophies and give them a taste of that obsessiveness. You give them a peek at something foreign, like what a documentary would do for a person. It gives that customer a look at a different way of doing something.

How have Japanese customers’ consumption habits affected marketing in both America and Japan?

Kiya: In Japan, these products are designed and produced based on necessity. They are made because the originals are unobtainable and if they are found, they are extremely pricey. So the marketing behind the products is not unlike what it was for the same products sixty years ago. We do our best to carry over that style of marketing and advertising, but we have to tweak it because the American market doesn’t view the products in the same light the Japanese. In the West, people aren’t buying these brands because they can’t afford the originals, they’re buying these things because the brands and styles are hot. This varies greatly from how it works out in Japan because there the customers would love to own the originals, but they can’t afford them or can’t find them. Take a deadstock, Sir Guy brand, mid-50’s production atomic print rayon shirt, for example. That shirt would cost you about $300 in the US and about $700 in Japan, so why buy it if you can get an exact reproduction of it for $275 in Japan?  It’s less than half the vintage price and the quality and construction are identical. This is the basis as to why the Japanese market for these brands exists.

If an American is buying something newer because the brands are hot, doesn’t that sort of suggest that the American may not be buying into a story of original construction?

Kiya: It’s hard to say because we do have a large selection of clients who do buy what we sell because of the vintage factor, but a majority is buying it all because they like how it’s constructed, the way it looks and feels, and how it ages over time. People’s reasons for buying what we sell here vary greatly. We do our best to educate our customers about how these pieces we have in our stores are similar to the originals produced years ago and also how there isn’t much else on the market today being made like these garments.

Can you try to briefly encapsulate the Japanese love for Americana—in all aspects, not just fashion?

Kiya: The Japanese love American culture, we all know that. The reason so many of them have latched onto this one era of Americana is because it’s viewed to be the Golden Era. During the time after WWII ended, Americans came home to their families and new styles of music, business, and culture were popping up at a fast rate. It was everything that the Americans missed out on during the war that they tried to fill during those years that followed. Results of all this are things like rockabilly, which was the original punk rock, or car cruising, which was the original rebellious thing to do with girls in the back seat and beers all over the car floor. These were kids rebelling against the institution who were also the cool kids. The Japanese fetishize different parts of 40s and 50s American culture—everything from the rockabilly greaser look to wearing military and flight jackets over chinos. The ones that turn it into a full lifestyle are the ones who follow the rockabilly thing and buy a car from the 50s, etc…

Can you talk about the fascination with denim, and the quote that Andrew attributed to you about how “Denim doesn’t lie”?

Kiya: Indigo is a living molecule, it changes over time whether or not it’s attached to a cotton fiber and being worn as a pair of pants. This is a fascinating thing; you can’t say that about anything else that we buy as a piece of clothing or almost any other material object which we own. The indigo dye ages over time and shows off a patina that’s unlike anything else; there’s no way to reverse the effects of everyday wear or to reverse its natural aging process. With these things taken into consideration, it’s a beautiful process to watch and to study old textiles which were dyed with the plant. Jeans are just a vehicle for us to study and watch indigo change over time. Five-pocket jeans are wearable in almost any situation and have turned into an iconic symbol of casual America.

I want to ask you to explain the bizarre connection between Japan and America as it pertains to your products: It’s Japanese craftsmanship on a product that’s distinctly American sold in Japan and shipped to the US and curated by Americans. Explain how that happened.

Kiya: I’d been following the Japanese denim scene for years, for about 12 years now. I had traveled to Asia when I was younger and noticed that the Japanese had started to reproduce this vintage American style, starting with the jeans.

I was buying magazines and as many of the jeans as I could and bringing them back to San Francisco. I searched everywhere I could for these styles in the states and realized that this sort of jean didn’t really exist here. Here we had all fashion products and almost everything was pre-distressed. So after years of studying, reading, and traveling, my wife and I decided to open Self Edge in San Francisco to bring this style of jean to the states. Granted, we weren’t the first ones to sell this exact type of product in the US, but we were the first ones to sell it with the purist vision of only doing this one style of product. It was definitely a risk, and thinking back now it’s hard to imagine, but when we first started Self Edge nobody knew what “chambray” was. Barely any stores in the US carried any raw selvedge denim, and the thought of selling reproduced navy shirts was extremely foreign.

That’s weird, because now GAP and Target sell chambray.

Kiya: Yup, so it goes.

Do you think there’s a future for Domestically produced and manufactured selvedge denim?

Kiya: There will always be a need for domestically produced selvedge denim, and Cone does a great job with it. The issue I see is that there are a load of lines selling jeans and buying their denim from Cone then having the jeans cut and sewn in the same factories in LA or NY. What really are you buying at this point? A leather tag and a marketing plan. This bores me; it’s not interesting; it’s like buying private label jeans. Anybody can do it with a few phone calls. The jeans all age the same because they’re using the same denim types in slightly varying weights. They fall apart in a similar manner (not to say they fall apart early) because they’re made in the same factories. In comparison, companies in Japan are extremely competitive against each other in general, and this carries over to the denim companies as well.

So do Japanese companies not use the same factories to manufacture their denim?

Kiya: At their spring or fall expos in Tokyo they put up worn in jeans with signs next to the jeans bragging about how many denim contests they’ve won in Lightning or Free & Easy magazine. There are far more factories in Japan making selvedge denim than anywhere in the Americas or Europe. And not to mention, when the Japanese companies make a jean they have the denim produced for them, whereas in America brands go to a rep and pick from a swatch book. This is not the case, of course, with a few of the very large companies in America such as Ralph Lauren or Levi’s.

Is CONE the only company who carries out production of selvedge denim in the US?

Kiya: Yes.

Do you see others beginning to try to do it in the future?

Kiya:: No, I don’t. Not with the way the market has been moving and the economy being in the situation that it’s in. Producing selvedge denim is very expensive, as the machines are slow and cost a good amount of money to run. So the fabric turnover has to be at a good rate or else the mill will lose money.

Where would you like to see SE in 10 years?

Kiya: I’d like to see us carrying a wider range of styles all from the same era, all produced by the Japanese.  We’re going to venture off into a few new styles starting at the end of 2010 and continue that into 2011 at all three stores. I think the 1940’s and 1950’s had more to offer than what’s currently carried by Self Edge. We’ve also seen bigger and more well-known brands start doing exactly what we started doing five years ago. This takes away a bit of the mystique for the American buyer because Americans are so concerned with the cost of something, whereas in Japan a customer would never considering buying a J.Crew US Navy Chambray shirt over the Buzz Rickson version. We need to adapt to that and change with our customers.