Gavin Smith

How did we get to the point where Japanese made work wear based around vintage American designs is considered authentic, in most cases more authentic than its American counterpart? On the surface of things it sounds ridiculous, like a Wyoming based Kimono company being considered more authentic than one based in Kyoto, but is it really? Firstly we must define what constitutes "authenticity" in this particular instance, if we are thinking purely about country of origin then clearly it cannot be considered so, we must look a little deeper into where this sense of almost imperceptible authenticity is born.

American work wear is not a new phenomenon, it is not even an invention of the 20th century never mind the 21st; American work wear is as old as the country itself. America as founded by the settler forefathers is a country of pioneers who required their clothing to be adaptable to the hard environments and labour required to settle a new nation; as time moved on professions and industry evolved too - mining, ranching, pan handling and construction on a scale the world had not seen before. Generations of labour gave rise to generations of work wear, designs which were as adaptable and utilitarian as they were detailed and meticulously patterned - designs which are still in use today.

From this period of innovation we saw the invention and introduction of items such as the work shirt, the chore coat, the duck canvas trousers, various types of boot previously unseen and of course the garment which would level social boundaries, the humble yet spectacular denim jeans. To understand where Japan took its place in the refinement and production of these very American products we have to understand a little about the garment manufacturing history of the United States, and the pivotal role which America played in the re-emergence of Japan in the mid part of the 20th century.

After the second World War Japan was awash with American military personnel and private construction companies providing administrative support and assisting in the reconstruction of the ruined cities, and with this flood of American labour came American goods by the container load, filling the newly established post war black markets and swiftly becoming the standard wear for many Japanese citizens who were fascinated with the foreign occupation forces.

It did not take long for smart Japanese and American businessmen to realise that there was a domestic demand for traditional American garments. Back in the USA the economy was thriving with the baby boomer generation and garment manufacture was being outsourced to Mexico and other Southern countries where cheaper labour was to be found; many of the older garment factories and their machines lay idle. Seizing on this opportunity many newly established Japanese companies bought up the old machinery and had it exported to Japan where it was put to use in creating American garments for both the temporary American residents, and the modern thinking Japanese youth.

It is often said that a national trait of Japan is the ability to improve whatever they make, in the 1970's and 80's the world saw this with the emergence of Japanese electronics, and the garment industry was no exception. Whilst the major labels in the USA sought to maximise profits by outsourcing production to places with cheaper labour, which inevitably lead to a dramatic reduction in quality, Japanese companies took their renowned attention to detail and looked to improve on the established designs.

 

The Japanese improvements to classic American garments were far more subtle that the miniaturisation of technology however, they double or triple stitched seams which were previously single stitched, they used synthetic thread for improved strength over cotton, the materials were improved in many cases, imperfections were ironed out and it was all done with the aesthetic preservation of the original remaining intact. In essence what the Japanese brands are doing is taking a Shelby Mustang and fitting it out with a top spec Nissan engine, shocks and electrics. It maintains the beauty of the original but it will last a lifetime.

This must beg the question as to whether the Japanese produced Americana wear can truly be considered as "authentic", I would argue that by producing the garments to their own original designs and using improved manufacturing techniques that they lose what we truly mean by authentic, and that true authenticity can only be found in vintage product. Having said that though I would also argue that what we are seeing produced from the Japanese companies is a vastly superior product in all other areas, the care and attention to detail which they give to their improvements and maintenance of the original "look" has to be admired and appreciated. The fact that the machinery used to make these garment is, in many cases, imported from the USA and even the domestic machinery is upwards of 50 years old, not to mention that the people making these clothes pass their skills through generations of their company or even their family tends to lend credence to the thought that maybe the products do not lack authenticity, more that they have their own authenticity. The answer is not simple in either case and much is left open to our own interpretations of the existential concept of authenticity.