Fashion

This Local Selvedge Denim Pop-up Store Will Show You The Ropes

Denim Manila has the city’s choicest selection of Japanese selvedge jeans.
IMAGE Denim Manila
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One of the best and worst things about selvedge denim is how hard it is to come by a truly good pair of jeans. Until recently, it was almost impossible to get your hands on any of the real Japanese selvedge denim brands here in the Philippines. You would have had to buy them in the U.S. or Japan, or have them shipped here from wherever else, driving the already-steep prices even higher.

Of course, that’s part of what made them so covetable. But it also kept denim culture within a niche that it couldn’t escape. It was difficult to even begin appreciating the level of craftsmanship that’s celebrated by selvedge denim communities, because you couldn’t even get a pair of real selvedge jeans here in the Philippines.

That all changed when Denim Manila came around in 2012 to supply Filipino denim enthusiasts with the real deal. They started with a delivery from the Japanese brand Momotaro, but have since expanded to become authorized distributors of jeans and clothes by Iron Heart, Fullcount, Stevenson, Porky’s, Railcar, Eternal, Strike Gold, and Dry Bones, as well as leather goods by Vintage Works, Faith Co, Eternity&Co, and more. It’s the single widest range of Japanese selvedge denim brands in Metro Manila, made available through Denim Manila’s regular pop-up stores at a condominium library in San Juan.

But co-founder Kai Huang developed a taste for good jeans long before Denim Manila started bringing them in. He recalls being a “jeans guy” through high school and college, back when the most covetable ones in the Philippines were Levi’s 501s. Later, as Huang became more fixated with the 501s and with all kinds of Levi’s jeans, he eventually racked up a collection of about 30 pairs, including ones that he imported but that didn’t fit as well as he had expected.

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Then by the early 2000s, determined to learn more about where to get good denim jeans and how to handle them, Huang found himself in websites and forums like Styleforum and Superfuture—some of the earliest online venues where denim enthusiasts would gather and discuss. Through the internet, Huang learned more and more about selvedge denim jeans; but also, how limited our options were in Metro Manila, and how little we knew about real denim. So instead, Huang bought raw selvedge jeans in other countries, wherever his job as a photographer would send him. That’s how he learned about denim.

Denim Manila only began to materialize when co-founder Frederick Ong got in touch with Huang, asking for help. Ong had just gotten hooked on selvedge denim himself, and decided that he wanted to bring some into the Philippines, to sell. On a whim, he wrote to Japan Blue and ordered a large delivery of jeans from Momotaro. “He’s a very impulsive guy,” says Huang in retrospect. And since denim enthusiasts were a smaller niche at the time, Ong couldn’t sell the jeans quite as quickly as he had hoped. That’s why Ong turned to Huang, by then a very knowledgeable resource on denim, for help with liquidating the stockpiles of jeans sitting in his home.

Together, they eventually sold all those pairs and decided to build a business from there, acquiring more Japanese brands and selling them on a pop-up shop basis. They started writing to other mills and distributors, and even flew to Japan to attend tradeshows and place orders in person—sometimes through a translator, sometimes using only Google Translate. Then, as more Filipinos learned about denim culture through the internet, Ong and Huang were able to move their products and acquire even more brands.

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Have a great week ahead! Looking forward to our next pop-up this coming Jan 28.

A post shared by Denim Manila (@denimmanilaph) on

Through it all, Huang feels that the attention to their individual customers has helped to keep both the business and the culture alive and thriving. Because selvedge denim is still a niche interest, he finds that Denim Manila does best when they can advise customers and teach them about the ins and outs of raw denim: Does this fit you well? How much will it shrink when you wash it, if at all? Of what cotton was this denim made, and how will it fade? They field questions like this regularly, and as a result, have found themselves in the middle of a new community of selvedge denim enthusiasts. Huang even keeps a record of their customers with notes about respective fits and preferences, so he can better advise them about the kind of jeans they should consider.

Plans of a brick-and-mortar establishment aren’t out of the question, but for now, they still prefer to manage the scale of Denim Manila for lower overhead costs and more personal customer relations. It’s about denim culture, first and foremost, and currently, the pop-up store works best in that regard. With their current setup, Huang gets to hear stories from his customers, like an elderly gentleman who was shopping to feel young again; and a man who commuted from Laguna, bought a pair of jeans, and exclaimed to him, “Its journey starts here.” These are the stories you can count on when you run a business that’s dedicated to its customers and its culture, and when you’re selling selvedge denim, you have to be able to count on the stories.

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Miguel Escobar
Assistant Features Editor for Esquire Philippines
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