Okinawan Denim – Double Volante’s Yu Kuniyoshi

I’ve known about Double Volante for a few years now, mostly through my talks with Studio D’Artisan, with whom Kuniyoshi-san often has a working relationship, particularly with their always interesting Champloo collaborations. I’ve also admired Kuniyoshi-san’s work from afar via Instagram, where he often posts his newest creations. But Okinawa being so far from Osaka, I’d kind of given up on ever meeting him in person, until I recently heard he was coming up to Kyoto for a week to participate in a special exhibition of Okinawan craftsmanship in the famed Isetan department store. A few DMs later, a meeting time was set and I found myself on an express train bound for Kyoto.

I found Kuniyoshi-san busily talking with two customers when I arrived, guiding them through a dizzying array of options available for his custom jeans. I was initially surprised at how many pairs of jeans he seemed to have on hand in his little stall, but I learned that all but a few pre-made pairs were simply for fitting and showing customers all the possibilities, and not actually for sale. He had an entire binder full of beautiful fabric options, as well as your choice of a wide array of hardware: rivets, buttons, patches, etc. I’d never seen a maker take quite this kind of angle with his jeans business, but I found that if I thought of him more as a half-magician/half tailor, it seemed to make more sense than as somebody who just shows up and tries to sell as many pairs of his pre-made jeans as he could. Excited, I sat down to talk.

First of all, where did the name come from, Double Volante? It’s not your usual kind of name…sounds Iike an Italian drink, or a Bond movie…

Double Volante jeans worn for 9 months by a carpenter.

Hahah…no, I’ve always loved soccer and, this is kind of ‘Japanese English’ I think, but it’s actually originally from Portuguese. In soccer, a “volante” is a defensive midfielder, but it also has another meaning: it refers to a helmsman or a ship’s steering wheel, so it’s the customer and I making the jeans together. It’s a joint effort where we navigate everything as a team, hence the “double” part of the name.

Pretty deep, I like it. Two people on the rudder, steering their way to a perfect pair of jeans. So what was the original impetus for starting up your own denim brand?

You know Kapital, right? I worked for them for 10 years. It was a great company and a good place to work, but eventually after so long away, I just really wanted to return to my hometown in Okinawa, so that’s why I went back there and started up my own denim shop.

So would you say that Kapital kind of showed you the ropes and taught you how to make jeans?

Yes, definitely. I was in the factory for 10 years in Okayama. At that time, Kapital had several factories for making clothes – the one I was in just made jeans. We were making between 150-200 pairs a day then, about 15 of us in total. My job was just to do two or three steps in the whole process. You know, at that time we were also doing sewing for Denime, Samurai, 45r, Hysteric Glamour. I’ve sewn thousands of pairs of Denime. (laughs)

Hope this isn’t a rude question, but are you still on good terms with Kapital?

Yes, for sure. What happened was that I actually went to the States after high school to study abroad for a few years. Lliving in the same area was the son of the founder of Kapital, and we became friends, and he was just like, “Hey man, come back home with me and work at Kapital”, so that’s what I did.

Wow, you just went to the States on your own right out of high school?

My cousin already lived in L.A., so he was like, “Hey dude, you’re kind of stupid, so you need to do something with yourself… Study English. Come to the US.” (laughs). That’s how I got interested in all of the jeans stuff, Levis, the whole “Amekaji” thing. I actually wanted to be a teacher, but after going to the States that all changed. I knew I wanted to do something connected with all this cool fashion I was seeing there. That time really opened my mind to that whole world.

So you went back to Okayama, to Kapital, and started working there knowing nothing about sewing.

Like less than nothing. Have you ever done any sewing?

Not really. Not since junior high economics class.

I didn’t even know that sewing machines could move backwards as well as forwards, like in reverse! (laughs) That’s how little I knew. But of course over 10 years, I learned a ton.

And when you went back to Okinawa you started Double Volante right away?

Yes, right when I got back, in 2008.

Were there any obstacles, setbacks, otherwise hard times at the start?

Not really, actually. I was lucky in that there is nobody else in Okinawa doing this, so the local people (especially the media) really picked up on it and supported me.

Kuniyoshi-san’s workshop in Okinawa.

What about equipment? Machines?

I got all of that sorted before I left Okayama and brought them to Okinawa with me.

How many do you have now?

Nine.

And it’s just you working there?

Yes, just me.

How many jeans would you make in a day? Or in a week?

That’s kind of hard to say actually, because it varies so much. Sometimes three pair, sometimes one, but if I’m doing work for other companies, like order work, then I might just be doing one or two parts in a day to several pairs. So I’m working on several pairs, but maybe not actually finishing any that day. But, on average, I probably do two or three pairs a day. In a year, I think I make about 400-500 pairs.

So you’re making some jeans to sell in set sizes and cuts, plus doing work for other brands, plus doing custom orders for individual customers?

Yes, exactly. I have 5 basic cuts I make, but with the custom order stuff, the sky’s the limit.

Wow, that’s like three totally separate endeavours. How are you different from other denim brands?

Well, almost every other jeans company has more than one person doing everything, so I think that’s unique about what I do. That’s my strong point. And my weak point, I think.

When a customer sits down with you to plan a pair of jeans, how long does that take?

About an hour on average.

Customers can choose from a wide array of hardware on their custom jeans.

Are you good friends with any of the other brands?

Mmm…Studio D’Artisan. And also Deluxe Wear.

Where do you get your fabric from?

It’s all from Okayama. Not only the fabric, but also all the buttons, rivets, etc. It’s all from there.

How many denim choices do you offer your customers?

About 20 I think, ranging from 12.5oz to 16.5oz. I’d say the 13-14oz range is the most popular. I only use raw denim, I don’t make sanforized jeans.

Ah wow, okay, why is that?

Hmmm, yeah, of course I get all the reasons not to use raw denim: it’s harder work with, sizing can be tough, sometimes it shrinks way more or way less than you thought, but…for me, it’s still always raw denim. I just like it better.

Can I ask what mills you use?

Sure. My denim is from Shinya and Yamaashi mills.

Are fades important to you, both personally and in the fabric selection or jeans making process?

Yes, I think they are important. Even if you and I use the same fabric from the same mill and each make jeans with it, the way it fades will be different. And of course the fades are different according to each person who wears them, and their lifestyle. People who move a lot, work outside, they end up with the best fades. I’m at a sewing machine all day, so mine kind of suck. So yes, in one respect I do think fading is important, but at the same time, in the actual making of jeans, it’s not really my number one consideration.

What would that be?

Making jeans that are durable and not going to fall apart. Paying attention to those places where thread tends to fray and break. For example, thread tends to break down first inside the front pockets, at the top seam. I don’t like this so I take steps to prevent this, even though it’s not strictly a ‘vintage’-correct thing to do. I also do a piping in the pockets with a slake or another cloth to make this stitch line much stronger. I even use leather for this sometimes too.

Do you use cotton or polycore thread for your stitching?

Only cotton.

Some nice custom work, including a leather cinch back.

What suggestions do you give people about washing their jeans?

I only say anything if asked, but I personally probably wash my jeans once every two months. People worry about this and how it will affect the fades, but I find that the best fades come from those who worry about them the least.

Do the cuts, shapes, and details on your jeans come from you or from customers?

Both, actually. I like to talk to them directly and see what they’re into. Some of my customers are into the vintage look, others like the tapered look, there’s the denim freaks, and others are just getting into jeans and don’t really know what they like or want yet, so…I like to work this out together with them.

What’s the best part about your job?

It’s stuff like this, what we are doing now. Meeting and talking to people like you. I love the connection, talking with customers directly, making friends.

And the hardest part?

Having no money. You know, my salary is not set or stable at all. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s bad, it’s bad. I can’t sleep sometimes thinking about it! (laughs)

Funnest part of the actual jeans making process?

Back pockets. For me, the back pocket is the ‘face’ of the jeans.

Hardest part?

Lap seam, maybe, like sewing the butt part. And the front crotch and part over the fly…this is hard to get perfect. You can just look at that part and tell immediately if a pair of jeans has been well-made or not.

Do you have your own jeans hemmed or do you roll them up?

Actually, I’ve been getting into the roll-up thing a bit lately. Just a bit though. (laughs)

And this has nothing to do with jeans, but what music do you listen to during the day?

Rockabilly. And Blues.

You’re being sent to a desert island forever. The essentials for life are there, but you can bring a few extras. What’s it gonna be?

A radio. And books. If I have those, I’m good. (laughs)

Do you do any other work aside from making jeans?

Nope, this is it.

What’s the best part about Okinawa itself?

Well, the sea is gorgeous.

Yeah, that’s my image of it.

The people are really nice too.

Okinawa is known for its beautiful sea and white sand beaches.

Are there many non-Japanese there?

Yes. Mostly because of the US air base.

Do they often come into your shop?

Mmmm…every once in a while, but not really. But it’s so weird for me you know…like we have loved American culture and clothing for a long time. I’ve always loved that style. But recently there are foreigners who are totally interested in our culture, in our jeans…it still blows my mind. I just don’t really get it….kind of mysterious (laughs). It’s kind of like flipped around.

Okinawa sounds like an interesting place for sure.

Yes. You know, Okinawa is in such a complicated position. Interesting but difficult history. In the war, with the Americans coming and fighting, but now we get along, I love their culture, but not so crazy about the military base in Okinawa…really complicated. So many opinions in Okinawa, so many mixed feelings. But I love the States as a country.

Okinawa even has a difficult history with Japan itself, doesn’t it?

Yes, for sure. We were like a totally different kingdom until not that long ago, so many Okinawans don’t think of themselves as Japanese at all. So yeah, so many good points and bad points about Okinawa…you should go check it out. From Kobe it’s only like $70 one way, super cheap.

What do you envision or want for the future of Double Volante?

It’s just me, so I’d be happy to be able to just continue as I am. I don’t need to sell thousands of pairs of jeans to be happy…I just love the connections with people. I love talking to people, so yeah, if the number of the private customers who order jeans increases, that’s okay with me.

What do you do in your free time? Any hobbies?

Nothing, haha! I know it’s not good…I’m like looking for something now. Maybe fishing? My job is my hobby, and my hobby is my job. I just can’t get it out of my head! Like even when my hobby was searching out vintage clothing, I’d just be thinking like, “Wow this stitching sucks!”, and start thinking about how I would make it better. (laughs) So I just can’t get my mind away from what I do every day.

Tough one, but how would you describe your personality?

I like to play the Devil’s advocate..haha. I often take the contrary position just because. Maybe moody too. (laughs).

Any other message you’d like to give to anyone out there?

I think that jeans are a form of freedom. They don’t discriminate, and are equal for everyone: rich, poor, male, female. They can be worn by everyone, regardless of your perceived station in life.

Can I take a few pictures of your stuff here?

Yeah, of course.

I also like cameras…they go well with what I’m doing with the jeans thing.

My dad was a photographer, so I’m not crazy about cameras.

Really? What do you mean?

His cameras were so expensive, you know, so like when I was a little kid I didn’t know any better and he would get SO mad if I touched them. So yeah, from that I don’t like cameras. Or my dad. (laughs) He had old Leicas and that kind of stuff.

Lastly (and I should have asked this earlier), how does one actually buy a pair of your jeans? Do you sell them in shops overseas, or people just buy them online?

It’s actually it’s just my little website and blog at the moment, so currently there’s actually no real way for people overseas to buy my jeans. But, I have been thinking about this lately, and I would like to do more to make it possible for people outside of Japan to also be able to get into my jeans. I need to figure something out, but it’s just me and it will take some time. So I’m sorry to anybody overseas who wants to buy jeans from me. It’s something I will work out, but not quite yet. Can you tell everyone that? (laughs) If they want to try and DM me on Instagram, it’s okay, but it might take a while for me to reply because my English sucks. (laughs) Please tell them that too.

For sure, I can do that. So I guess you’re heading to back to Okinawa soon too eh? At the end of this week?

Yes, heading back in a few days. You should come to visit actually – I’ll be there waiting. (laughs)

I might just take you up on that. Well, Kuniyoshi-san, thanks for this great chat today, I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s great to finally be able to meet you.

My pleasure. Thanks for making the trip up to Kyoto and we’ll meet again soon in sunny Okinawa.

Sounds awesome.

And there ended my exceedingly enjoyable conversation with Mr. Yu Kuniyoshi of Double Volante. It was a fantastic afternoon, and Kuniyoshi-san is very down-to-earth and friendly, which always makes interviews a lot easier (and a lot more fun). He doesn’t currently have an online shop (or even a computer), but you can try to DM him on Instagram, keeping in mind that he doesn’t speak much English and a reply might take some time. @doublevolante

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