There are lots of people around the world these days who collect vintage denim. Not so many years ago, that wasn’t the case. But there were enough of them in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Yosuke Otsubo earned a living finding sought-after denim in Southern California and exporting it to buyers in Japan, his homeland.
At the time, the Japanese native lived in Los Angeles. And for several years, virtually every day, he’d withdraw money from the bank, hide it in his socks, and go “treasure hunting,” as he calls it.
It was important, he says, to pay cash—to not only be able to purchase the items he wanted, but to build trust with those who would become his regular sources of vintage denim.
Yosuke would visit older dry goods stores in and around Los Angeles, looking for “dead stock”—old merchandise that had never been sold or worn. One of those stores was Greenspans in South Central L.A.
The store was so big, and its inventory so large, that Yosuke returned day after day. He’d spend hours finding items to buy, pay for them with cash from his sock, and ship the clothes—including many pairs of Levi’s® jeans—to his customers in Japan.
Over time, Yosuke developed a relationship with the storeowners—Mr. and Mrs. Greenspan—and they invited him to look in parts of the store not open to other shoppers. Among his finds, a pair of Levi Strauss Koveralls (kids overalls) dating back to the 1920s, a pair of Levi’s® 501s®, and a pair of Levi’s® 701s™.
Yosuke paid $10 each for the finds. He sold the jeans for $20 each. He estimates they’d sell in Japan now for between US$3,000 and US$5,000. He hung on to the Koveralls and still has them.
As time passed, Yosuke’s treasure hunts broadened, to thrift stores, flea markets and other sources. And in the early 1980s, as he faced competition from a growing number of denim collectors, he took yet another approach.
If Yosuke saw someone on the street wearing something he knew was collectable, he’d ask to buy it right then and there.
“I’d go up to them and say, ‘sell me the jean jacket you’re wearing,’” Yosuke said. “People would usually refuse. They’d say ‘well, this is from my grandmother, grandfather, sugar daddy,’ any reason.”
“Then I’d start to make offers. ‘Would you take $20, $50, $100?’” he continued. “When people heard $100 back then, they’d say, ‘yes, I’ll take it!’”
Eventually, Yosuke moved on from collecting, but he didn’t stray far from high-end denim. For the past five years, he has worked in Tokyo for Levi Strauss & Co. He handles sales and marketing for our best lines: Levi’s® Made & Crafted and Levi’s® Vintage Clothing.
And Yosuke draws upon his years collecting denim in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California to speak knowledgeably about the two lines.
Levi Strauss & Co. has a long and amazing history in denim. After all, this company invented the blue jean back in 1873. And it’s people here like Yosuke, who also have a long history with blue jeans and Levi’s, who help bring that history to life for LS&Co. and you.