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“Weaving Shibusa” Director on Telling the Story of Japanese Denim

Japanese denim is no longer a specialty apparel item. Celebrities, hipsters and those simply in search of good quality jeans are learning the brands and the stories behind them. Devin Leisher, director of the upcoming film “Weaving Shibusa,” was, similarly, a layman who found the category and fell in love. Leisher’s entrance into the world of Japanese denim was Samurai Jeans, and he has since been an avid denim fan.

“Weaving Shibusa” documents Leisher’s travels around Japan, speaking with denim industry veterans. The film will premiere Aug. 6 at an event presented by retailer Self Edge at The Castro Theater in San Francisco. This is Leisher’s second denim documentary, following, “Warp and Weft” (2012), a film that explored raw denim in the United States.

RIVET: What’s the story behind the film’s title?
Leisher: Shibusa is the noun version of the idea of Shibui. It essentially means that there is “more than meets the eye.” A contrasting idea of simplicity in the overall sense, but a lot of intricacy in detail and texture. Shibusa is how those two ideas relate and balance each other. That’s what these craftsmen do, they create this very basic idea of jeans and other garments, but beyond the dark silhouette of a pair of jeans is a completely different world.

RIVET: What was the reception like to “Warp and Weft,” and what led you to make a second denim documentary?
Leisher: The reception was honestly mind-blowing. The film started as a Kickstarter, which was funded long before its end date, largely in part to the film’s presenter and executive producer, Anders Helseth (of Steel Feather).

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To be honest though, “Weaving Shibusa” was the film I always wanted to make. “Warp and Weft” was made out of frustration; frustration that people didn’t take the idea seriously, frustration that I hadn’t the slightest idea of where to begin taking on the challenge of making a film in Japan—not knowing how to get into contact with the brands, etc. “Warp and Weft” acted as more of a “proof of concept”: that there was something there people wanted to see and learn about.

RIVET: What were some of the challenges you faced while making this movie?
Leisher: Travel was a big one: trying to schedule interviews around train times and locations, hoping we built in enough time to account for eating, sleeping and delays due to not knowing the language. We had some very close calls. One day, we woke up in Okayama, had to train up to Nagano, and then be back in Okayama that same night in order to make an early interview the next day.

We had interpreters with us, so we could have a conversation in the interviews, and when I got home I would listen to the conversations to start building ideas on how to structure the film. I would have to try to put this all together while we waited for the translations to get back to me. Only then could the real editing begin. I essentially had to read my way through the editing process. It took about triple the time.

RIVET: What locations did you visit for the film?

Leisher: We were all over Japan. Tokyo for Marvins Vintage, BerBerJin, Stevenson Overall Co. and Atsu [Matsushima] from Clutch. Osaka for Fullcount, Nagano for The Flat Head, Kojima for Japan Blue and TCB, Kurashiki for Shinya. Somewhere in there we had dinner with an old friend, Beatle, who was part of “Warp and Weft,” in Okayama.

RIVET: Do you think films about denim have a scope beyond the denim community?

Leisher: I think if they’re done right, yes. In our mind, “Weaving Shibusa” is more of a film about passion and craftsmanship told through denim. I think there is a big space for Levi’s to do something serious. It could be a neat doc, or even play well as a scripted story. I mean, who doesn’t love the idea of cowboys and miners, the Old West, secrets and treasures lost in the San Francisco fire… Everyone loves jeans, but as far as I’m concerned, there is a reason why the average person loves them, and they just don’t know it.

RIVET: Do you think there is an increasing desire to bring Japanese denim to the United States?

Leisher: I think there is, but there are limitations in marketing as well as production, at least for the garments that are covered in this film. For me, Japanese craftsmanship is the greatest in the world, but I think it’s important to know that not all Japanese denim is created equal. Just because it says “made in Japan” or is from Japan, doesn’t mean it’s automatically of the highest quality. There are people who want to make a buck all over the world.