What does 'Made in Japan' mean?

ethics heritage john lofgren made in japan the rite stuff workwear

It's been a while, huh? Sorry about the lack of blog posts, but life has been hectic for me these days. I moved out of the city, got a new job, went to Sendai, have been looking to (and signed to) buy a house, and more. So, it's been crazy this past month, but that's no excuse!

Today I'd like to write about what exactly "Made in Japan" means for me, for my brand, and explain a bit more about why working with John Lofgren is so important. 

More than just helping with production in Japan, John helps to make sure that all production, from the fabrics and buttons and tags being used, to the sewing itself is done ethically. Unfortunately, just because something is made in Japan (or the USA for that matter) doesn't mean it's made ethically. In both countries you can find examples of immigrant workers, sometimes illegal ones, working for low pay, forced overtime, and living in terrible, cramped conditions. Basically, not a whole lot better than back in Thailand or Central America.

When John Lofgren set out on his crazy quest in the early 2000s to make his own clothing, he wanted everything made ethically down to the last piece. Much to his disappointment, this was not necessarily the norm in Japan. Ask him anytime and he'll tell you that certain items, from boots to shirts, that are "Made in Japan" aren't always so. Sometimes they're made in China and finished in Japan. Or maybe the soles are made in China, like with New Balance. As John Lofgren mentions in the interview above, Chinese-made custom boot soles are all the rage today, even in Japan. Most people just don't know which brands are using Chinese-made soles. I do, and let's keep it at that.

As a result of all this sort of sleight of hand, John Lofgren made it a point to visit the factories of anyone he was going to do business with. And even multiple visits. He had to see up-close if the workers were being treated well, if they seemed like they liked their job, even what kind of cars they drove. It mattered to him, and it matters to me too. John still maintains these strict guidelines. In the absence of a garment workers' union in Japan, John created his own label, bearing his name, to guarantee to his customers that he took the time and effort to make sure his items were made ethically.

On my end, I will also pursue a slightly different business strategy. With the Heracles shirt, I priced it at a very competitive $160. I did this, because much like John did back when he made clothing, I wanted to put it at an affordable price. However, for such a complex pattern, I bit off more than I could chew. Next year I will introduce a more straight-forward work shirt (but with some new bells and whistles!) to occupy that price zone. Otherwise, I could easily fall prey to something truly sinister. That is, turning to the factory and asking them to lower their sewing costs.

This sounds like standard business perhaps, but making clothing in Japan is a very precarious thing. Gone are the days of huge minimum orders back when clothing factories were making big-time money. No, orders these days are smaller and fewer, and more than one factory has closed down over the years. They're willing to take on smaller brands because they have to. Sometimes bigger brands will try to slash down sewing costs as much as possible so that they can get better wholesale margins (wholesale margins are generally slim, especially for me), and factories will even operate at a loss to secure these orders. In time, they can easily go out of business. This would be a tragedy for all involved, from them and their families, to me, and to you. The level of workwear craftsmanship at this scale is untouched outside of Japan, and losing it would likely be forever.

So, I'm not willing to do that. If it means largely forgoing wholesale to focus mostly on retail, so be it. It might mean raising some prices to keep things afloat as well. If anything changes, it will be a decision that I've considered deeply, and only with every piece in the chain in mind. I could have my items finished in Japan and slap a "Made in Japan" label on them, but I don't. I could force the factory to sell for less, but I don't. I could overcharge customers, only to engage in price-slashing for end-of-year sales, but I don't. I simply want to do what's right for everyone at every step of the way.

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