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A Chat with Pure Blue Japan’s Kenichi Iwaya

In a country renowned for its denim, how does a brand stick out? For the Okayama-based Pure Blue Japan, its worn-in, highly-textured raw denim speaks for itself, the subject of denimhead adulation far outside its country’s borders.

Utilizing a unique low tension production method, PBJ’s are made on vintage shuttle looms with only the finest cotton from Okayama. This method produces a jean that is not only beautiful and comfortable to wear, but that resists fading and ages naturally into a one-of-a-kind work of art.

Founded in the historic city of Kurashiki in 1997, Syoaiya Ltd.’s Pure Blue Japan has grown steadily over the last two decades and is now sold in many places around the world under the Syoaiya label, named so because of the company’s great affection for the color blue.

In Japanese, “Syoai” refers to a dye method which only uses natural extracts from indigo leaves without containing any chemical substances. This love of indigo is reflected in the jeans themselves, the back right pocket of every pair of PBJ’s is embroidered with a small indigo leaf.

But it’s not just denimheads who are noticing, big names in apparel are too. In 2014, Japanese mega-retailer Uniqlo debuted a collection “inspired by” authentic Japanese indigo denim, named Pure Blue Japan. The collection had nothing to do the real PBJ, but was sold exclusively in the US, where Syoaiya doesn’t own the right to the Pure Blue Japan name.

RIVET spoke with Syoaiya Ltd. President Kenichi Iwaya on everything from denim history in Okayama to how that translates to the unique PBJ aesthetic.

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RIVET: There is a long history of dying and weaving in Okayama prefecture. Can you tell us about that?
Iwaya: From 1603 to 1868, cotton plants were actively cultivated in Okayama prefecture. It lead to the development of the textile industry. The sewing techniques and machine technology were built up through the manufacturing of Tabi socks, school uniforms and thick canvas clothes. These traditional technologies were passed down and led to the development of today’s denim industry of Okayama.

RIVET: Can you tell us more about how PBJ’s are made?
Iwaya: Our products are produced in small scale factories in Japan using own specially customized weaving/sewing machines. As the aging and wear of each item is taken into account, different variations of blue are made by blending the original indigo. The company owns specially customized looms and knitting machines so that diversity in texture is achieved by paying close attention to the material yarn quality and yarn surface shape. This helps us differentiate between the rough texture of selvage denim and the soft and lithe cotton and knit shirts. When sewing, several customized and adjusted machines make well-itemized needlework for different expressions, such as ‘wild and strong’, and ‘warm and tender’, with stable quality.

RIVET: Is there any difference between your Pure Blue Japan-branded jeans and those branded Syoaiya?
Iwaya: Pure Blue Japan is the domestic trademark in Japan, while Syoaiya is the overseas trademark outside of Japan. Despite the trade name difference, all items we produce are similarly put through a fully controlled manufacturing process in the same factory. Everything from the material, sewing, button kinds of parts, name tags, and to price tags are made and sold in the same manner.

RIVET: How has Pure Blue Japan changed over the years?
Iwaya: The number of international dealers and customers who visit our store have been increased in the past 4-5 years.

RIVET: How is your business outside of Japan doing? Have you added any new shops in the US?
Iwaya: Our business is going very well. As you might already know, Blue In Green in New York has been carrying our brand over the years. Additionally, Standard & Strange in Oakland, Calif., Blue Owl Workshop in Seattle, and some more shops started selling our products in the past year.

RIVET: Is Pure Blue Japan traditional or modern?
Iwaya: I think it’s neither of them, but rather ‘Japanese denim’.

RIVET: Why “Pure Blue”? What does this name mean to you?
Iwaya: Since Japan is an island country and surrounded by the sea, we Japanese are very familiar with color of blue. Our name contains our wish for making many people come to know the beauty of Japanese blue.

RIVET: What do you think of new types of jeans that use stretch and synthetic fibers?
Iwaya: All of them are “jeans” as long as they are dyed with indigo. We use stretch for our jeans as well and we think it’s necessary to continue to evolve in the denim market.

RIVET: What is your first denim memory? Why did you start working in the denim industry?
Iwaya: My first pair was Levi’s 501 selvage jeans which I bought when I was a junior high school student. Okayama prefecture where I was born is the famed denim manufacturing place in Japan, so naturally I started to feel like I wanted to make jeans myself.