The denim journey of Momotaro’s Katsu Manabe

30th January 2016

During the Selvedge Run fair, we had the pleasure of talking to Momotaro’s Overseas Development Director Katsu Manabe. Due to scheduling conflicts, we weren’t able to meet up with Katsu when visiting Japan last month, so we were particularly happy to see him in Berlin.

Momotaro is a Japanese premium brand that was established in 2005 in Kojima, Okoyama. In this small coastal town, which is considered to be the mecca of Japanese denim, artisans continue to make jeans by hand, as they have been doing for decades. The brand took its name from a popular Japanese children’s story (Momotaro tranlsates as ‘peach boy'; you can read the story here).

The jeans are made from 100% Zimbabwean cotton, which is considered to be one of the best cottons in the world. It provides better durability than hard cotton and is appreciated for its unique fading, similar to vintage denim looks. Experienced craftsmen still dye the Momotaro jeans by hand. The natural indigo penetrates deeply into the fibres, creating a fade-resistent blue. Since all jeans are handmade, the production is limited with only about 10 pairs completed in a day.

Momotaro today has a variety of labels that cater to many price-points: the Copper label, Vintage label, the Battle label and the lesser known Gold Label, made on hand-operated shuttle looms.

A talk with Katsu.

Could you tell us about your first encounters with denim?
I must have been about 15 when I bought my first pair of jeans. It was a 501 replica, sold as a ‘house brand’ by the local shop. Me and my friends really liked combining denim with sneakers and Red Wing boots, but they were too expensive for us. So we took part time jobs to be able to afford the sneakers and jeans we liked. It was around that time my father, who was working in the textile business, took me to his company to show me what he was doing there. I was really surprised to see him making the same fabric I was buying. I think you can say that this was my first turning point.
After high school, I left for Canada to study English and discovered a new culture and lifestyle. I think it was there that I considered a career in the textile industry for the first time. Back home, I started working as a salesman for hand made Indonesian products and I came back to Japan when my father opened a store and appointed me as the store manager. I was only 23 at the time and I suddenly was given the huge responsability of running a store by myself. It was a real challenge but I’m still grateful for the opportunity.

Do you wear denim on a daily basis? 
I have a lot of them but I don’t wear denim on a daily basis. I try to alternate with chinos and wool pants. We are a textile company, we offer 3000 different materials in our showroom so the possibilities are endless. We have about 500 big brands and 500 smaller brands among our customers.
I am definitely not a denim snob, I also like to wear Uniqlo for example.
MomotaroJeans (27)MomotaroJeans (9)MomotaroJeans (12) MomotaroJeans (16)So when did you start working at Momotaro?
Momotaro was founded in 2005 as part of the Japan Blue Company and has focused on producing top quality denim ever since. Today, Momotaro still produces the majority of their jeans in the Kojima region. I was part of the company from the early beginnings.

It is disappointing, but we notice that even Japanese people don’t always know where Japanese denim is coming from. But they know Momotaro is connected to Okoyama. We thought that if we can get high-quality denim in their hands, made in Japan, it might raise awareness around Japanese denim. Originally, Momotaro Jeans were meant for the Japanese customer.

How can you prevent craftmanship to go to waste?
Working in a factory is boring because you are doing the same thing everyday. Young people don’t necessarily want that, they want to do new stuff, move to a big city. What we try to do among our workers, is to draw attention to the fact that 26 countries are buying the jeans they are making in the factory in Okoyama. We encourage them to take pride in their work.

We also try to connect around the world. We offer courses in collaboration with the Jeans School in Amsterdam and we work closely with the fashion design school in Okoyama.
MomotaroJeans (22) MomotaroJeans (13)MomotaroJeans (5)MomotaroJeans (17)MomotaroJeans (3)How is the brand perceived internationally?
We started out in Europe in 2008 for a niche audience. Only true denim lovers knew about us back then. So we started building up the brand, setting out from Amsterdam and really taking it step by step. We are not a company that is focused on profit first, we want to make sure we produce quality products before selling them. It is not the easiest product to sell either, since the base price for a pair of Momotaro Jeans is 289 euros. And for some customers, that is just way over budget. Our other denim brand, Japan Blue, start at 179 euros and offers the similar quality as a Momotaro original, but with simpler sewing parts and a strong focus on the fabric.

The brand has won high praise abroad, I hear people speak with appreciation for the brand wherever I travel.

The Japan Blue Factory is looking to open a showroom and concept store in Paris in March or April 2016.
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