Woodworkers will tell you that making a chair is one of the most difficult projects to tackle. It’s deceptively simple, four legs and a seat, but creating the perfect symmetry to support someone requires intensive study and experimentation. The direction of the grain and the type of wood is crucially important, as are the joints and stretchers. If the builder wants to add any comforts - ergonomics, arm rests, or a back - it needs to be balanced just right. There is a lot of quiet genius that goes into the established designs, waiver too much and things either don’t feel right, or fall apart completely. To innovate is an even higher level of mastery.
Translating loomstate fabrics into jeans that fit perfectly is similarly formidable. Unsanforized denim changes quite a bit with time and wear. Its secrets are only divined after decades. Minor adjustments and reexamination are required for each fit and size. Every seam needs a slightly different treatment - from stitch type and thread weight to styling - as well as the right machines to do it. Like many useful things, jeans aren’t finished when they’re folded new and looking fresh on a shelf; that’s just the beginning. They need to be designed for the life they lead.
Over fifty years ago, Japan started its romance with western blue jeans. By the 1970s, Japanese mills began producing their own selvedge denim, attempting to replicate cherished American manufacturing styles. There were many successes, but there were issues too. Even importing the same shuttle looms into Japan, the results were often different than the originals.
Kibata (Japanese denim) is like a different hardwood with a particular grain. Many of the pioneers of this style revolution are still in the industry today, spread throughout the mills and brands of the archipelago. Their stained blue hands have studied the materials and construction as a life discipline, but there was a change in modern tastes that not all were willing to adopt.
Two denim makers were talking one afternoon about the future of the industry in Japan, worried that it had stagnated and would fade away. Denim traditions were beginning to be replaced by fast-fashion and styling from Europe. A declining interest among young people in supporting and joining the denim industry led to the closure of some treasured mills and labels in Japan. Who would the denim makers pass the baton to? How could the industry continue to evolve?
They agreed that to survive, they would need to revitalize traditional kibata with innovation. Playfully, they agreed that what they needed was “Tanuki,” a Yōkai or supernatural spirit, a creature of transformation and regeneration that brings luck and prosperity.
They got back to work. In those rare and special moments of epiphany, when they had achieved innovation, the designers would exclaim “Tanuki!”, honoring their hopes and commitments with that single, encompassing word. Other designers and industry colleagues wanted to know why they were saying the obscure reference, and as they voiced their concerns and challenges together, the word spread through the industry like an inside joke, but with a serious purpose.
A decade later, a team had formed into a passionate side-project with a new mission: Preserving Japanese denim manufacturing by making it accessible for urban and street style youth.
A large part of the team are mill-guys, the people who have developed the fabrics for the last half century. For their first pair of jeans, they wanted to use a popular retro fabric from the 70s, but the original factory had closed years prior. Thankfully, a member of the consortium had saved the original formulas for it. For five years they worked at developing and revitalizing that fabric, and the results were amazing: A premium low-tension version of the 70s original in a heavier weight and a rich, dark, rope-dyed pure indigo. It featured a daring taper that pushed the boundaries of the heritage scene and sparked debates across the internet.
That first pair premiered in 2015 and its success proved to the group that there were others like them, people that wanted traditional Japanese selvedge, worked to complement its unique properties, but in modern, casual styles.
The two lines on Tanuki’s veg-tanned, deer skin leather patches represent the two elements that underscore their pursuit: The past/tradition and future/innovation.
Never boring or exaggerated, Tanuki masterfully delivers denim of streamlined subtlety, details and construction interactions that are quietly complex. They are producing jeans on a level that doesn’t exist in the Japanese industry today - slow sewing on vintage machines for tighter thread integrity and signature craftsmanship.
Each pair requires years to develop. Tanuki’s process is to manufacture a prototype and wear them in before adjusting, repeating again and again until a new pair has a future built into it.
Tanuki, using decades of cumulative expertise, gives historical depth and modern breath to denim. In their words:
“Our names don’t matter. What matters is that we have brought back traditions and partnered with the world. What matters is that we brought back fabrics no one had seen in over three decades. What matters is that we are taking the past and looking forward. What matters is that we are here to maintain an art alive. Tanuki will transform with you, will grow with you, will be a part of you.”
The place to focus is on the results.