Chris Baus

In Search of American Jeans on Labor Day

Some American made goods for Labor day...
Today, while perusing the web site of one of the few companies in the U.S. which sell the Japanese jeans I wear, I saw a product by the Japanese apparel company, Sugar Cane, jeans made in the U.S., that caused me to pause. I had just documented some of my U.S. made goods, and high quality U.S. made jeans are something I've been seeking for years, but they are almost unobtainable in the U.S.

In these days of economic turmoil, huge trade and federal budget deficits, this begs the question that I believe is at the core of our economic problems: Why is a Japanese denim company making jeans in the U.S., when few American companies do?

Japanese vintage

It was a freakish sight. We carried the 4x8 foot cabinet across the dark stage over what looked like a failed arson attempt and a puddle from the leaky ceiling which was pealing away from the rafters. Out the back door of the theater, we strapped the horn speaker to the top of the Jeep, practically doubling the height of the SUV, dropped it off at the warehouse, and then came back for the second.

I was helping a friend,a collector of vintage audio equipment, remove the unwanted audio equipment from an abandoned theater which was scheduled to be torn down. In the 90s and early 2000's almost every abandoned theater in the rust belt was scoured for vintage audio gear, and while the old horn cabinets we extracted that day were collectible, they didn't command anywhere near the prices of Western Electric amplifiers and speaker drivers which were approaching insane prices overseas. Old projectors, Western Electric amplifiers, RCA vacuum tubes, and worn out Levi's: stuff that would have been thrown away before the days of eBay was now being regularly shipped to Japan and Asia, yielding high returns to those who knew what to look for.

Now, the days of walking into a TV repair shop and finding 500 NOS EL 34 vacuum tubes (commonly used in guitar and audio amps) are a thing of the past. The vintage electronics gold rush is over. The $100+ prices that popular tubes demand have flushed them into the open market. But it was then I first learned of the near fanatical interest in American products in Japan. American vintage goods were held as prized possessions, yet mostly considered junk in the U.S.

The dearth of American made products

Around that time, I became annoyed by the difficulty of finding American made products. Call me old fashioned, but as an American man wearing an iconic American product like Levi's 501's, I kind of wanted them made in the U.S. Are 501's that aren't made in the US, American? While the quality of products decreased as off shoring increased, the prices largely stayed steady while U.S. goods inflated.

But as a country, we went for this, and while the amount we spent on apparel continued to rise the quality continued to decrease. It now has reached the point where those of us that prefer products that employ traditional, high quality, production represent such a niche that without the internet, I don't think we would be able to find them.

In America we take for granted our own heritage and influence. When our President famously threw out the first pitch in his "Mom Jeans", I couldn't help but wonder what jeans he was wearing and where they were made, but I might have been alone in that thought.

But, in Japan, consumers still wanted jeans that were made to the standards that originally made them an icon in the U.S. After most of the denim mills in the U.S. were shut down and the secondary market began to dry up, they brought vintage shuttle looms to life and started making denim with (or exceeding) the quality of classic American jeans. The denim industry in Japan has now grown to the point where it would be hard to dispute that the country is the leader in the high quality denim market.

Now you would think in the U.S. all us aging Gen Xers and our Baby Boomer parents (who originally popularized denim in the mainstream), would welcome the opportunity to buy jeans just like the 501's we had (or admired) in high school and college. And we could even afford the price that the craftsman quality product required. I shouldn't be surprised, but that didn't happen. Instead the Japanese company which started the trend toward reproducing the quality denim products, Evisu, jeans took off in the youth urban street wear market.

I thought Evisu were yet another low quality fad product like rainbow colored Nike's. And no way was my 30 something ass was going to display a huge arc like a wanna be hip hop star. I was wrong. Evisu had started to reverse the trend of lower standards in the apparel industry, and a subset of the youth crowd who realized that Evisu and other Japanese manufactures were offering something different than the other denim manufactures starting congregating on web sites like super future, which I found while researching the market for American jeans.

I have to admit I felt a bit awkward browsing news groups where 20 something guys routinely posted pictures of their back side, and asked the others on the group their opinion on the fit, while simultaneously discussing the quality of their fade and how infrequently they had washed their jeans. But ultimately they were looking for the same thing I was: a quality product. And they found it.

Like a lot people wearing Japanese denim, I started with jeans from a Swedish company that was selling jeans made from Japanese denim sewn in Italy. What the hell? All I wanted was a pair of U.S. made Levi's 501's like the ones I had in high school, instead I was wearing something that had traveled to three different continents (or more depending on where the cotton was grown) before finding a home in my closet. But Nudie opened the market outside of street wear for Japanese denim in the U.S.

So, I am American guy who likes classic American products, and oddly I find better reproductions made in Japan. So why is Sugar Cane, a Japanese company who makes high quality reproductions of vintage jeans in a country that leads the world in quality, now making jeans in the U.S.? Because the Japanese will pay a premium for products made in the U.S. Let me repeat that. The Japanese will pay a PREMIUM for an American made product. Denim is an uniquely American product, and producing that product in its country of origin has value beyond the good itself. Just as I wouldn't want to buy a Japanese sushi knife made in Malaysia, the Japanese want the authenticity of American made denim products. America has cachet, and we should recognize it!

The denim market is only one example where the value of American made products are more appreciated abroad then domestically. Alden, is one of two makers of men's dress shoes in the country (the other is the larger Allen Edmonds), along with a handful of boot makers. Alden makes good shoes; better than almost any shoe you can find in the U.S.; but they can charge a premium because they are one of the last U.S. shoe manufactures that make shoes with a classic American aesthetic. Oddly one of the biggest retailers of custom Alden shoes is in Hawaii, and their largest customer base is from... Japan. When I was browsing at the Alden store in San Francisco, the associate told me that a large percentage of his customers were from Europe. I think it is a fair assumption that Alden's market outside the U.S. is as big, if not bigger, than it is in U.S. Again I am amazed how classic American made products are in more demand outside the U.S. Do Italian's wear American shoes? No they wear Italian shoes. But hardly any Americans wear American shoes.

I've been critic of Levi's, but Levi's figured out that other markets would pay a premium for U.S. made products a few years back and released a line called Levi's Vintage Clothing (or LVC) of high quality reproductions of their own products, but the line is almost impossible to find in the U.S. Unlike Japan and Europe, there hasn't been a big enough market for American made Levi's in the U.S. While the jeans are made in San Francisco, I couldn't tell you where to find them in San Francisco. But finally, after 10+ years of searching for classic American made jeans, Levi's finally seems serious about releasing LVC jeans in the U.S.

On the night before Labor day, a day we honor the American worker, maybe we are on the verge of a change. I believe we innately know as a country that we are going to have to change our ways and start to value our own products and our own culture, instead of selling our future for container ships full of imported goods. The U.S. has the largest consumer market in the world, we could probably save our own economy by simply buying and appreciating our own goods. I think it is time that Made in the U.S.A. meant something to us again.