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How a San Francisco Family Helped Bring Japanese Denim to the U.S.

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Rue Critchfield wraps a gift at his family’s store, Cotton Sheep in San Francisco on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Japanese denim brand Kapital has a global following that includes A$AP Rocky and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — so what makes it so special?

Thirtytwo-year-old Rue Critchfield explains it to me as we sit on a wooden staircase in the back patio of Cotton Sheep, the San Francisco boutique he helps manage with his mother Eiko Mizuhara, sister Aria Mizuhara and father Victor Critchfield. Their store has carried the brand since 2004 and was the first in the United States to do so.

“The machines [Kapital] uses to create denim are the old looms that Americans used to use. You have to literally watch over them, they don’t just crank out rolls of fabric at the speed that modern machines do,” Rue tells me. “And they use real Japanese indigo. Sometimes it’s even the plant version, not the chemicalized dye.”

“We’re probably the one store where we encourage customers to touch everything,” he adds. “So you can feel the quality.”

A 32-year-old Asian American man in glasses sits in front of a display of high-end Japanese denim.
Rue Critchfield sits for a portrait inside his family’s business, Cotton Sheep, in San Francisco on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Rue speaks with a gentle and understanding tone. He’s wearing a pair of canvas-colored Kapital carpenter pants (he tells me some pairs from the brand have been in his closet since high school), and his dad’s worn-in denim chore coat. It’s vintage, from years ago when his dad was a picker.

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“When I was three, my parents bought a van and traveled through America buying vintage sneakers and Levi’s from thrift stores and flea markets to ship to Japan after they realized the Japanese market was crazy for American vintage,” explains Rue. “I remember I had maybe eight VHS tapes I’d watch on repeat on a tiny portable TV in the back of the van while my parents were picking.”

After a few years of this, Eiko and Victor decided to open Cotton Sheep. Eiko studied fashion at the Mode Gakuen in Nagoya, Japan, and worked as a stylist for TV companies in Tokyo in her youth. With the couple’s experience as pickers, it seemed like a natural next step.

“I think this sensibility of importing from one culture to the other, in order to provide things that one country has that the other wants, comes from my parent’s picking days,” Rue says. “This store is just a reversal of that.”

Two people wearing hats looks at wares in a modern-looking clothing store.
Employee Marco Verdin (right) helps Benny Raygoza (left) shop for bandanas at Cotton Sheep in San Francisco on August 15, 2023. Cotton Sheep imports denim and cotton items from Japan. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Cotton Sheep’s racks are jumbled with tweed coats, patchwork pants, patterned denim, silver jewelry and colorful side-bags from Kapital, Japanese bag-making company Porter, and Japanese jewelry designer Masato. It’s busy, in the way a vintage shop would be. The interior is covered by wood paneling that gives the feeling of a cozy wood cabin. The design of it, Rue tells me, is completely Eiko’s own.

“She had this vision: ‘I want California mixed with Georgia O’Keeffe’s home,” says Rue. “She got these big redwood slabs and flew in two Japanese carpenters. She housed them while they built it.”

Although Cotton Sheep is now known for being the first store states-side to carry Kapital, becoming a stockist for the brand wasn’t easy.

“When my mom first approached Kapital, they actually refused. They said, ‘We’ve never sold out of the country — we don’t know how it’ll be received or how you’ll style it,’” says Rue.

Stylistically, Kapital’s clothing features psychedelic patchwork, asymmetric and exaggerated cuts, and traditional Japanese denim-making techniques — like sashiko stitching and boro distressing — that the U.S. hadn’t seen prior.

Clothes hang on the walls at Cotton Sheep in San Francisco on Friday, July 28, 2023. Cotton Sheep’s merchandise consists of imported Japanese cotton and denim. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Still, Eiko wasn’t discouraged. After several asks, she negotiated a trip to Kapital’s showroom to just look at the clothes without buying.

“Most buyers are rushing during showroom time — they’re throwing things, not taking care. But my mom would button and fold everything nicely again after looking,” says Rue. “So Kiro [Hirata], Kapital’s owner, he’s observing and says, ‘If it’s her, I trust her. Let’s give it a shot — let’s make her our first international buyer.’”

Cotton Sheep found success early, but as Rue notes, it mostly carried what Eiko specialized in: womenswear. That is, until Rue graduated from nearby UC Berkeley and began working at the family store full-time.

“When I started ten years ago, we had maybe a three-foot-wide section of menswear,” says Rue. “Eventually, I convinced my mom to let me go to showrooms in Japan to bring more, and I started curating the men’s side. It’s funny — now that’s most of what we carry.”

Adrian Vicente (center) browses at Cotton Sheep with his friends in San Francisco on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

This is one benefit of the store being family-owned: It evolves each time one of the family members steps in to help manage it, as it did when Rue’s 26-year-old sister Aria took the helm for a period a few years back.

“Aria connected our store — which before had an older clientele — to her aesthetic that appeals to the younger generation who are almost more hypebeast-y,” says Rue. He pauses to laugh: “I remember my mom was so confused. ‘Who are these kids coming in with all this cash? How are they buying $1,000 jackets?’”

Being family-owned also means the family gets to have more intimate relationships with their customers — who include local fashion enthusiasts like San Francisco rap star Larry June.

A close-up shot of a gift box filled with high-end denim.
Rue Critchfield wraps a gift at his family’s store, Cotton Sheep in San Francisco on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

“I’ve got customers I’ve sold to for 10 years. I know everything they own,” says Rue. “Sometimes during a showroom, I’ll text one of my customers like, ‘Hey, there’s some crazy stuff coming in — would this interest you?’ It’s very personal.”

Perhaps most importantly of all — considering father-son duo Toshikiyo and Kiro Hirata run Kapital — being family-owned might be what allowed Cotton Sheep to become the brand’s first international stockist in the first place.

“I think they saw we weren’t a corporation,” says Rue. “I believe they don’t want their products to go to just whoever.”

If being family-owned has one downside, though, it’s the matter of succession. What will become of the store as they age? At least for now, Rue remains unconcerned.

“We can’t all work here forever. But how can you sell something so precious like this?” says Rue. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but for the time being nothing will change. And that’s exciting.”

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Cotton Sheep is located at 572 Hayes St., San Francisco. 

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