Selvedge Cloth Talk — Samutaro Interviews Kiya Babzani of Self Edge
Kicking off DENIM WEEK with two denim dudes.
Opened in 2006, Self Edge is a store that specializes in denim and hard-wearing gear, just don’t call it “the workwear store.” After all, their offer comprises everything from buttery-soft Merz B. Schwanen tees, rare Human Made garms, fine jewelry from Good Art Hollywood, and even some denim gear from the dark lord of jawns himself, Rick Owens (also a dedicated Self Edge customer!).
Founder Kiya Babzani has never had a real business plan, buying budgets, or relied on any sort of analytical data to define the future of the company. Now with five stores in NY, LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Mexico (where Kiya and his wife currently live), Babzani says that moving organically as possible has been the best bet.
“We’ve been up every year for 15 years,” he low-key flexes. To kick off Denim Week on HIDDEN.RSRCH (culminating with the release of the HIDDEN jeans), denim expert and enthusiast Samuel Trotman aka @samutaro got on a Zoom with Kiya Babzani to reminisce about the denimhead trend of the mid-2000s, and why Japanese-made jeans remain the best in the world.
Why do you think that Japan was so fixated on creating this repro market?
I think it just came naturally. By the late '70s, the Japanese were buying vintage faster than anybody else in the world. And then by ‘'82 or '83, those were the golden years of Japanese coming to the U.S., renting a van, and driving across the country. I don't think there's a Japanese person I do business that hasn't done that at one point in their life: They’d buy up every bit of vintage, set up a shell company in Southern California, and then have it all shipped back to Japan in containers.
Almost every one of these companies that we know of today —all the Osaka Five— and other companies that do reproductions, they did it out of a pure love for vintage. Everybody from Flat Head to Real McCoy’s were generally ex-vintage dealers They started their companies in the late '80s or early '90s out of necessity: There was no more vintage to buy. Studio D'Artisan was the first one. They're from 1979, but the rest of them were started in a six-year period from 1989 to 1995. Iron Heart is one of the only big ones that started after, but they're more of a motorcycle brand.
To the uninformed, what would you say makes Japanese denim so special?
To me, when people talk about Japanese denim, I like to think about all of garment production as opposed to just the fabric. I think the level of attention to detail that they have in those cut-and-sew factories in Japan are superior to what's available outside of Japan. When you see a Japanese-made jean age over time, it's really difficult to compare that to a jean that's made somewhere else. They really age gracefully, and it's like the whole idea of “wabi-sabi” —as much as that's been beaten to death— is really true when you're talking about denim that comes from Japan. You can see and feel the difference.
When would you say Americans first started taking notice of these types of brands?
Before Blue In Green and Self Edge, I don't believe there was anybody specializing in Japanese repros of jeans. We both started in 2006. Blue In Green started in New York; we started in San Francisco. Before us, there was almost no way to buy any of these brands. We're talking 15 years ago, when it was much more difficult to order off Japanese websites. The reason is because the domestic market was still pretty strong in Japan, and if the domestic market is strong for any product, they're not looking to export.
Then before those two retail stores, there was message boards. Superfuture had a sub-forum called Superdenim. That was sort of the ground zero for these types of brands to really deep dive into their history and heritage. To this very day there is no place on the internet where that type of conversation is happening on that deep of a level. I mean there are conversations happening on Reddit, but it's mostly trash. You're not learning much going there.
But those first four years of Superfuture were unbelievable. It was like a real scavenger hunt for information. We kind of ruined that when we made it more accessible. As someone who was on that forum before those retail stores existed, it was like digging for records pre-Spotify. I used to go to the record store three times a week. That hunt for information played a huge part in giving birth to the underground culture of loving these brands.
Outside of denim, streetwear, and sneakers, you had Helmut Lang, Raf Simons, and Margiela doing crazy things on the runway. Was that on your radar at all?
You're totally right, but I was completely oblivious to that stuff. I knew brands like Rick Owens, Helmut Lang, and Raf Simons obviously existed, but I was aware of them purely through message boards. I got the feeling they were for older people. I didn't know anybody anywhere near my age —at the time I was in my early 20s— that wore any of that stuff. Maybe Rick Owens, but in terms of fashion in that moment, it just seemed like everybody was into streetwear and skate brands, not fashion, which is crazy to think of now.
Around when did you see raw denim and brands like A.P.C. and Nudies become more mainstream?
When we opened, we had Nudies. I forgot about that line. In 2005, nobody had heard of Nudies. We had Nudies serve our gateway jean. They had lighter weight denim, more modern fits, and a wider range of silhouettes. We did pretty well with it, but they sold to every imaginable store within a year or two of us opening, so we didn’t carry them for long.
Around 2010, Brandon Svarc from Naked & Famous was hitting the road hard, selling his jeans everywhere. They were moving thousands of units everywhere from Azalea to American Rag to wherever. By 2011 or 2012 was when we started to have a fear like: “Is this about to get so saturated that it's going to kill what we do?” We hadn't really changed in five years. We just kept selling the same stuff. We picked up some brands and expanded the type of product we carry, but there was still this fear.
Did the Americana trend help or hurt you?
Michael Williams was a huge voice during that era from A Continuous Lean. He was a huge voice with bringing U.S. manufacturing back, Cone Denim, and that sort of thing. That’s when brands like Filson and that watch brand from Detroit contributed to that lumberjack look, which we tried to distance ourselves from as much as possible. But I think from an outsider's perspective, I don't think we distanced ourselves enough.
Even with workwear, I despised it because it was such a strict vision of the look: Red Wing boots, cuffed selvedge jeans, a selvedge flannel, and a Filson bag. I was like: "That's so not fun.” Within the company, we didn't think much of it because we were still selling mostly to skate kids still and forum guys. But from the outside, people looked at us like: “Oh, that’s the workwear store.” We didn’t want that. We didn’t intend that. We wanted to get rid of it.
To what extent does being an educated consumer help people “graduate” to other brands? Even designers like Rick Owens care so much about selvedge fabrics, and plenty of forum heads go from Self Edge to Carol Christian Poell.
That's exactly why we do what we do. The attention to detail in a CCP garment, especially the early stuff, is mind blowing. If one of my customers gets into Buzz Rickson jackets and then he gets into CCP and stops shopping with us, that's totally cool. They went in a great direction. What I would never want, which happens a lot, is people learning about clothing, and then realizing that you can buy selvedge Japanese jeans from Uniqlo for 90 bucks and buying those from now on. That would bum me out. Going up the ladder I'm okay with.
How do you appeal to a younger consumer now? Is there anything that you do in terms of trying to draw them in and educate them?
Well, we didn't realize that Rick Owens would bring in so many young clients. It's unbelievable how a brand so expensive has so many 18-year-olds wanting their shoes and the jeans. I think because Rick Owens is the only "hype brand" we carry on that level, it brings in a whole new client. It has and it's been really cool to see.
That's what I love. When I go over this with the Rick Owens crew, they’re so excited that there's a new customer base buying Rick Owens somewhere in the world. I think that's one of the things that Self Edge brings to Rick Owens: an established clientele that's not used to their clothing. We’re sneaking stuff in. We got Ramones a couple months ago for the first time, and it’s an $800 lacquered denim sneaker. We're pushing it even further for fall, seeing how far we could take it before people stop buying it, but maybe it just keeps going.
What's been most rewarding is how we're seeing people shift from just buying Rick Owens from us to basic Merz B. Schwanen or Warehouse tees. A person might come in dripped out in Rick Owens a year-and-a-half ago and now they’ve got a Flat Head belt on and engineer boots. Only physical retail can do this. That transformation can't happen online this quickly, because you can really stay in your lane online, but if you're entering a store over and over again, you're going to be influenced. You're going to see what the staff is wearing, and you're going to see all the other product that's paired with the stuff you like. You're going to try it, and if you like it, next thing you know you're wearing a Rick Owens jacket with a Warehouse tee and Sugar Cane Jeans.
How would you describe your consumer now?
I mean, we're selling basically to everybody now, which is the thing that makes me most happy. Because it's like you come to us for the highest quality version of a tee-shirt if you want to buy a $175 blank tee that actually costs that because it should cost that not because it's a logo or something, then it's like we have that. We have a jean for you that's the best jean you're going to get and that fit, for instance. As Self Edge evolves, it's like it's become the best basics store you can go to and not the most cost effective in any way, just the highest quality. I think that makes me happy that we're selling to a really wide range.
Guys who buy men's tailoring at Sid Mashburn or Drake's for instance,, if they want a really good pair of jeans, they go online, they do some research, and they come to us. That really wasn't the case 10 years ago. We weren't selling to those guys. The last thing I want is a store where I'm selling to just one type of person. That's not fun for anybody, and it's very volatile. If that person goes away, you're fucked.