Meet the Retailer: Kiya and Demitra Babzani of Self Edge

This blog post is an adapted excerpt from Blue Blooded. It was written by my co-author of the book, Josh Sims. If you don’t have Blue Blooded already, you can get it here.

To raw denim enthusiasts, Self Edge needs no introduction. Since the opening of the first store in San Francisco in 2006, the influential retailer—which now has five locations, and a sixth one in the pipeline—has played a central role in the spread of Japanese denim outside of Japan.

Kiya and Demitra Babzani

Founders Kiya and Demitra Babzani (above) went out on a limb when they decided to bring in Japanese denim to shake up the US market, one highly saturated by the likes of Levi’s. Soon enough, the Japanese brands sold at his store began to garner recognition, and a high-risk strategy kick-started a new interest in premium denim.

The fact is,” says Kiya, “you have to convince most people to spend $300 on a pair of jeans from a company they have never heard of. And most people who come into our stores have never heard of what we sell.”

He knows all too well that he serves a niche market: while premium denim may have its dedicated followers, it remains a minority interest.

“And I really had no expectations. I had no idea why we were selling what we were selling,” he laughs. “After all, denim at this level is a difficult product. Most of the jeans run small, the fabric bleeds over everything, it shrinks, the inside leg is 37 inches long—so at least we’re very popular with NBA players.”

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The Self Edge store in San Francisco
The Self Edge store in San Francisco.

The Start of Self Edge, and Its Impact

Kiya might have spent the rest of his life as a copier repairman—he worked in that line, at his parents’ business, for 12 years—had he not decided to open his own retail ventures.

One store sold skate- and surfwear, “which I wasn’t really into,” he says, while the other sold high-end sneakers. And it was that experience—finding that his business was effectively controlled by his big brand suppliers—that made him start again, this time on his own terms.

Ever since he had visited Hong Kong for work, Kiya had been into Japanese denim. He collected examples of each of the brands he discovered, “and bought all those fetish magazines—you know, the type with the little thumbnails of lots of jeans produced in Japan,” he says.

So he figured that that was what he would sell. He visited a number of Japanese brands and asked them to give Self Edge exclusivity on sales in the United States.

Some were just confused,” he recalls. “They said, ‘But you have Levi’s in America. Why do you want what we make?’ They had no sense of the appeal of their jeans to Western markets, having sold only in Japan largely unnoticed outside of it for so long.”

Self Edge was key in changing that, at least in the United States.

Inside the Self Edge store in San Francisco
Inside the Self Edge store in San Francisco.

While New York’s Blue in Green had opened a few months earlier, Self Edge was the first to carry a number of brands outside of Japan, including Dry Bones, Strike Gold, and Real Japan Blues.

To focus on such brands was, he stresses, a high-risk strategy since at the time there was only a fledgeling denimhead culture.

He remembers the San Francisco store’s launch day, and how he wondered whether anyone would turn up. “But we had people from all over the world at the store—people who talked about denim all the time via online message boards like Superfuture, who had never actually met each other finally did,” he says.

Will the Raw and Japanese Denim Bubble Burst?

Indeed, Kiya remains slightly incredulous that his business has grown as fast as it has organically, mutating into more of a best-in-class clothing retailer.

It is, he argues, a testament to the passion that a few—but enough—people have for Japanese denim. And it is, he concedes, a bubble.

Journalists sometimes call up and ask us how we’re coping now that denim is out of trend because everyone is wearing sweatpants,” he says. “But that’s just not our customer—our customer is a more obsessive type.”

And it may well be a bubble that bursts. Kiya says that it is inevitable that interest in Japanese denim will die out, if only because younger generations are driven more by price and community, and less by product.

“But everything moves in cycles,” he says. “I’m a huge vinyl collector and if you’d have told me that demand for vinyl would be as big as it is now I’d have said you were crazy.”

I don’t really think Japanese denim ever went away. It’s not as ‘trendy’ as it was maybe seven years ago. But, when it became a big thing then, I believe people realised it was the most interesting denim out there, and that particular interest hasn’t waned.”

Self Edge in San Jose del Cabo in Mexico
Inside the Self Edge store in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico.

If you want to read more about the Babzanis and Self Edge, check out these resources:

Visit the Self Edge website to see the latest denim they’re offering and to get details about their stores.

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