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After growing somewhat jaded with the sneaker and wristwatch game, last spring I turned my attention (obsession?) towards the world of fine denim. Much like my hunt for the perfect pair of kicks, my search began in the many boutiques around NYC, looking at and trying on ridiculously over-priced denim.

From there, and as well as online research, I got a sense of the top names in denim. Unlike the sneaker game, which is usually about obscure and/or super limited designs by major companies like Nike or Adidas, the denim game is more about small companies that are for the most part unknown by most people except stylists, fashionistas, and denim-heads. My future posts about denim will spotlight my favorite finds over the last year, but first I feel the need to explain why anyone would want to spend over $100 on a pair of jeans.

So, what makes “premium denim” so special? There are many fine points to consider when discussing denim, but to keep it simple, it’s all about four things: fabric, cut, finishing, and exclusivity.

Get schooled after the jump…

Fabric

True premium denim usually comes from Italy or Japan. Premium Japanese denim is made from organic, hand-picked Zimbabwean cotton, which is considered to be one the finest in the world. For more information on Zimbabwean cotton, check out this discussion on Supertalk. This cotton is refined into a thread that often has been hand dyed using organic vegetable pigments. This is a relatively long and painstaking process usually done by hand, by traditional methods such as using clay vats kept out doors. The number of times the cotton is dipped and what pigments used defines the base color of the denim, and can involve multiple trips into the vat, often with substantial drying times between dips.

This thread is used to create what is called selvedge denim, which by strict definition refers to the selvedge line (chain stitching to prevent ravelling) along the inseam. Generally, selvedge (also called selvage) is the term commonly used to refer to denim that has been produced on a shuttle loom. Since the amount of fabric produced from a shuttle loom is significantly narrower than a projectile (wide) loom, the cotton consumption is higher and the time required is greater. In selvage jeans, you will see the actual edge of the fabric where the weaving stops and is finished by the loom, as opposed to denim woven on a projectile loom, where the fabric has been cut off at the ends. Selvedge denim is especially valued because it can only be woven on machines often dating back to the 1940’s or earlier, the majority of which are found in Japan. For more info on selvedge denim, check out this discussion and also this one.

Low-priced, mass-market jeans are made from cheap denim produced in factories with automated projectile looms. This results in a lightweight denim with a very tight weave, which is then colored using synthetic dyes. By automating the process, they cut out alot of what defines the denim and what arguably gives a unique character. Further, changing the process severely affects the way the denim wears over time, particularly using synthetic dyes over natural ones. To make up for the cheaper materials and colors, makers of these jeans usually add details or artificial wear & tear (see Finishing) to make the jeans seem more special or unique. Thus, the common “worn-in” look of your average $20-70 jeans.

As a result of using such fine quality denim, jeans made from it get more texture and character over time, as pigments from the various ingredients bleed, run, and fade emphasizing imperfections from the old-school methods used to weave the fabric. Many high-quality jeans have little to no artificial wear & tear on them, and are usually advertised as “unwashed” or “one-wash” because buyers want to break the jeans in themselves. Discussions on denim sites often center around the various markings and patterns that fine denim develops over time, which is always unique to the jeans’ owner, due to their body shape and wearing habits.

Cut

I won’t get into too much detail here, since anyone whose ever gone denim shopping knows the wide range of cuts / styles in jeans, from bootcut to drainpipe to baggy, etc. However, what makes premium jeans so in-demand are their often high-fashion styles and attention to detail. Different denim companies are known for their signature styles. For instance, the Nudie Jeans “Slim Jim” is an iconic design that looks better on me than any other jean I’ve ever worn. Other jeans known specifically for their amazing cuts are Cheap Monday and Dior Homme. If all the mumbo-jumbo about fancy fabrics hasn’t impressed you, the way these jeans will make you look will definitely change your mind.

One thing to keep in mind is that because of the special cuts (especially with slim / tight-fitting jeans) that are usually unique to a particular designer, it’s always a good idea to try on these jeans before you buy them. I’ve bought a lot of fancy denim from Ebay over the last year, and around 50% of them didn’t fit right. I always wanted a pair of Rag & Bone brand jeans, but after trying on half a dozen different pairs at Bblessing in the Lower East Side, I had to give up and admit that they just don’t look good on me.

Finishing

“Finishing” refers to anything done to the jeans after they are assembled from the raw denim. This is a whole world unto itself, but generally speaking “finishing” can be different kinds of washes or fades, or the addition of scuffs, patches, holes, embroidery, studs, and logos. Although some denim purists prefer their jeans “raw” with no finishing, it can be a fine art in its own right. Japanese brands like Evisu, Bape, Red Monkey, and Neighborhood are all known for creating spectacularly unique jeans that defined high-end urban streetwear. In addition, the Japanese branch of Levis has created many collaborations with Japanese design houses like Fragment, Fenom / Tab Device, Clot, and Aliengra that all focus on unique detailing and finishing. Their LVC line uses complex finishes and cuts to reproduce denim designs from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s.

Exclusivity

This part doesn’t need much explanation. If you’re rocking a pair of $1,300 Japanese jeans, chances are you won’t see many other people with the same pair. Actually, chances are that no one except other denim heads will even recognize them! Of course, it’s all part of the “game” to get your hands on the best, most unique jeans out there. And unlike the sneaker game, jeans are meant to be worn, not kept in a box in your closet. This is what makes the denim game in some ways more fun than collecting sneakers – premium jeans get better with age, while the more you wear your super-cool sneakers, the more beat-up they will get.

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