SONNY OKAMOTO relaxes in Dehen’s offices on the third day of a weeklong trip to Oregon from Japan. He wears a tan leather jacket, an array of huge rings, and Ray-Bans propped above pulled-back hair, and is fresh from a raid on Pendleton’s outlet store.
The 45-year-old fifth member of the Dehen 1920 team embodies the new-old brand’s most intriguing angle: Japan loves American stuff. The worldwide heritage vogue essentially began there, where American archetypes that are nearly extinct here—rockabilly bad boys, or ’60s outlaw motorcyclists—can rally entire youth-culture movements.
Okamoto has seen the power of this strange global trade niche firsthand. Seven years ago, he helped Wesco, a bootmaker founded in 1918 in the noted fashion hotbed of Scappose, launch its premium motorcycle and logging boots in Japan. He now runs two Wesco retail shops in Tokyo, where stompers built for clear-cutting the Coast Range sell for as much as $1,000.
This spring, Okamoto opened a Dehen shop next door to one of his Wesco outlets. In the absence of any actual Dehen 1920 product, he displayed, under glass, vintage letterman jackets and motorcycle club sweaters. The brand has already started to draw positive press from hyper-hip Japanese periodicals with titles like Hotbike: The Magazine for Human Beings Who Ride Harley-Davidsons.
“They need to turn quality into an identity.”
—Bob Smith, designer
To hear Okamoto tell it, his nation’s cockeyed Americana fixation stems from a desire for styles as un-Japanese as possible. “These things are not Asian,” he said via translator. “The cowboy, the motorcycle rider—these are Anglo-Saxon, not Japanese, images, and they express something that Japanese culture does not.
“But it has to be real American,” he adds. “Dehen is one of the few small American companies that you can say is making things in a real way.”
On the other hand, Dehen’s Japan strategy also leverages a very Japanese ethic: a reverence for family-based craft. In a country where a grand-master traditional musician will take the same stage name used by the past dozen generations of her ancestors, the Dehen saga resonates.
“People will love a company that is still in business, still in the family, and still made in Oregon,” Okamoto says.
“IF YOU STARTED five years ago, you could have done this almost accidentally,” observes Bob Davis, creative director at Lizard Lounge, a retail store affiliated with the small (but acclaimed) Portland-based activewear brand Nau. Clark brought Davis in as an adviser in the early days of Dehen 1920’s creation.
“An old-time company could have stumbled into a new following because people were out there looking for these kinds of products, but the larger world hadn’t caught on,” Davis says. “Now there’s more competition for attention, even in this little niche.”
By fashion’s attention-deficient standards, the heritage trend is already long in the tooth. It’s possible that an unknown Oregon company, with expensive and rather particular products, is showing up at the party five minutes before it ends.
“There will always be an audience for high-quality goods,” Davis says. “But the guys wearing suspenders and going to retro barbershops? I don’t know how long that will last.” Dehen, he notes, isn’t known as a stand-alone brand like Filson, Pendleton, Woolrich, or many of the other “heritage” labels that have prospered of late. When asked to rate the company’s branding and marketing challenge on a scale of 1 to 10, Davis pauses. “They’re in the 7s, for sure.”
Still, as their fall debut looms, Clark and his partners feel bullish. A West Coast sales trip went well, and 1920 landed an invitation to an exclusive vintage fashion showcase curated by Michael Williams, a New Yorker whose blog, A Continuous Lean, has made him possibly the most influential arbiter of old-school, American-made style.
“What they’re doing, as soon as I saw it, I knew it was real,” Williams says. “The product is great, and the story is compelling. It seems like there’s a great partnership. I think they have a good shot.”
The future of Dehen as a whole is far from clear. “My kids aren’t really that interested in apparel manufacturing,” Artaiz says. “I think it’s hard for them to see a future there.” But Clark and the Dehen partners hope they’ve found a way to write a new chapter for a 91-year-old company—and that if they succeed, they’ll join a select pantheon.
“My eyes have been opened a little bit,” Artaiz says. “Now, I see that there are people who make the best moccasins in the world, or whatever. And when you hold those moccasins, you can tell. I think to myself, whoa, I’d really like to do that.
“And then I think—wait, I am kind of doing that.”
Will it work? The market—for clothes that recall vanished eras, for ineffable American cool, for something made to last in an ephemeral world—will decide.