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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Pants with a Past

Oct. 26, 2015

Distressed jeans with their unique wear and tear are a hot item in Japan - and they’re helping to revive a local textile industry. A retailer in Hiroshima Prefecture has come up with a unique way to produce pre-loved denim with the help of locals. A range of people, from monks to mechanics, are helping to wear in the jeans that attracting shoppers far and wide once they are ready for sale.

The area around Onomichi City was once known for growing cotton, and that led the region to become a top producer of denim. Local residents decided three years ago to try and revitalize the region’s declining textile industry with the launch of what is called the “Onomichi Denim Project.”

The project boasts 90 volunteers, each of whom is given two pairs of new jeans annually. The volunteers wear each pair for a week straight. The jeans are collected and washed at a special factory in a process that is repeated for an entire year. Only then are the jeans ready for sale.

The project holds get-together every month, where volunteers of various ages and occupations report on how the jeans feel and how the color is fading. Tatami mat craftsman Kazumasa Monden wears the jeans to work as part of the project and says he never thought there would be a boutique market for pre-worn trousers.

“We can’t really understand why work clothes have become a sought-after product,” says Monden. “I feel like I’ve done something wrong when the color fades, but that isn’t the case at all.”

“The jeans can be used as a good conversation starter for my business,” says carpenter Masao Yoshihara. “I can tell people that these are Onomichi jeans.”

Buddhist priest Fumiaki Matsuoka says he wears the jeans “in my daily life”. I sit on my knees a lot, so the color fades a lot around the knees,” he says of how his denim wears. And he is a fan of where the jeans end up: “I’m really grateful that someone else will enjoy wearing them.”

Mariko Hamano, a core member of the project who is in charge of sales, says she hopes customers learn that Onimichi is full of hard-working people. She ensures the story behind each pair is conveyed to shoppers at the project’s store. “This pair is from a daycare worker,” Hamano tells a customer. “You can see the damage on the knees. The jeans tell us that she spent long hours taking care of young children." There are currently 200 pairs of used jeans in stock and Hamano has documented every item.

“When I see denim I can tell...wow, the person worn jeans so seriously,” she says. “By feeling the person through jeans, I almost want to cry. I get really emotional.” Hamano says she feels proud to be part of the project. “I really thought this is what I wanted to do,” she explains. “None of the jeans are the same. Helping to choose pairs for customers, and making the jeans along with local people...all these are things that can only be done here.”

Hamano moved to Onomichi after watching a story about the denim project on television. “I was shocked by the concept,” she recalls. “I sat dumbfounded in front of the TV without saying a word. I was thinking, ‘What is this?’” Hamano drove 12 hours from her home in Kawasaki City near Tokyo to Onomichi and made an immediate decision to settle there and work at the store that sells the pre-worn jeans.

The jeans project has helped her become part of the community, and she sometimes spends her days off with some of the denim-clad volunteers. Some of the participants are over 70 years old and had never worn jeans before, but they are excited to try something new.

She works with other project members to sell jeans at events across the country for people who are not able to visit Onomichi. But they do not sell online, because they want people to see and feel the used denim before buying. Hamano says there is overseas interest in the unique products.

“Each person likes the jeans to be faded or dirty in a particular way,” she says. “When someone finds a pair of jeans that’s exactly how they want them, it’s like fate.” Hamano hopes that as the project becomes more well-known, it will draw more visitors to Onomichi and help them get to know her adopted city.