The first pair of “raw” denim jeans I saw that were not my father’s Levi’s Orange tabs ($29.95 at Zellers back in 1980) were Helmut Lang’s “Narrow” and “Straight” cuts, which I stumbled across the Beverly Hills Barneys in 1998. The hems of both seemed improbably tight and unfashionable to me at that time, when 16-18” hems were the norm, and the $300+ price was prohibitive to a graduate student without a trust fund.
A few years later, the North American premium denim movement, which started in LA, where the bulk of denim manufacturing is located, began in earnest. My personal favorites were Scott Morrison’s first brand, Paper Denim & Cloth, which was revolutionary for its time; and Levi’s Premium, among the first of Levi’s many attempts to gain a fresh foothold in the new fashion landscape. In the early 2000s Scandinavian brands, led by Nudie, gained a following in North America, helped by representation from the super agency WANT. During my honeymoon in Spain, finding Nudies in Madrid was a major goal, and I dragged my new wife on a several-hour walk just to find the small boutiques I was interested in – I know that more of you sympathize with this than would care to. ACNE (also represented by WANT) were the next to gain popularity in the US. My Norwegian friends told me that in Scandinavia, Nudie were for the douche-bro crowd, and ACNE was the jean of choice for the less objectionable, but my loyalty to Nudie – at this point ingrained – didn’t waver.
These were all gateway drugs to the Japanese denim that had been popular in Japan a decade earlier. In usual form the States were a decade behind, but our interests were stoked by retailers like Self Edge and Blue in Green, who were as much a product of the times as they were the flag bearers. Like everyone else swept up in the trend, I agonized over shrinking, stretching, and the much-sought-after wear marks, which Babelfish awesomely translated from the Japanese as “vertical falling.” Those were heady days for the raw denim crowd. Ultimately, I came to the realization – as did all of my denim-nerd peers – that forcing yourself to wait six months before washing a pair of jeans is madness. I always thought that the sizing-down-so-that-the-jeans-stretch-out stance was a terrible idea, so I didn’t have to learn that lesson at the cost of the months – even years – of testicular pain, that so many others paid.
Today, my denim collection resembles an archaeological dig site that spans the past 15 years and has its beginning with the premium denim trend of the very early 00s. And while I am sure that my preferences will continue to evolve, I’m at the point at which comfort, or at the very least, not-extreme-discomfort, will always be a consideration. This means that the recommendations below have some breathing room through the seat front and thighs, and hit comfortably at the hipbone. Since tapered is still the standard, both are slimmer from the knee down. Generally, I like the feeling of heft in my jeans – no paper-light stretchy jeggings for me – but super heavy jeans are never all that comfortable, so jeans between 13.5 and 17 ounces, light enough to be nimble, heavy enough to have some real power, hit that sweet spot.
If you’ve got big thighs, check out this article on Jeans for Men with Big Thighs
“Slim tapered” jeans from Big John’s “Rare” line have the minimalist trappings of designer jeans – a plain, midnight blue, deerskin indigo back patch, a placketless fly, and no gratuitous branding; and they are cut not unlike the Helmut Lang jeans that I used to think were too narrow at the hem, with a mid-rise and a tapered leg. But they are made from inky “Ransei” denim (meaning “king of denims”), which is the highest quality denim made by Japan’s “first” Americana-inspired denim brand and is designed to fade in an extremely attractive manner. I hesitate to describe them as versatile, since that’s only a few steps away from suggesting that they will go from “the boardroom to the bar,” but I will say that all of the very different people to whom I’ve recommended them have liked them.
The other pair I frequently wear are even more of an amalgam of the trends of the last fifteen years than the Big Johns: a collaborative project (collaborations went from novel to ubiquitous between 2003 and 2006) from American retailer Blue Owl and Japanese manufacturer Momotaro; the very precisely-named (and discontinued) BOM005 (the closest analog is now the BOM008). The “modern,” mid-rise, tapered cut is borrowed from its sister brand, Japan Blue, and the heavy denim appeals to both denimheads and fashion customers alike, with weft threads (the colored threads in a jean) that are nearly black when first worn, and fade to a dark indigo with wear. They also have a black leather patch – plain or tonal patches seem to be popular with the minimalist set these days – and instead of the typical contrast stitching, the thread is tonal save for the single line of pink running along the inseam.
These two pairs take me through most days. Not a decade ago, I would have recommended a much lower rise, tighter jean, possibly in the heavier denim. Those cuts and weights still exist, and there is always a race towards the heaviest possible denim, but as a retailer once said about super heavy (18-ounce and greater) denim, “that’s for kids.” I do have a pair of 23-ounce jeans that I wear when I get nostalgic for the age of sick fades, though. Jeans, after all, are about the memories.
No, it’s not rocket science, and yes, the key is to put the jeans on before your boots, but there’s still more than one way to wear boots with your jeans.
1. The Stack
Simple: do nothing. Put your boots on, pull your jeans over the shaft, let ’em stack up on top of the boots. Ideally, you don’t want wrinkles running all the way up your legs; instead, leave an extra couple of inches to your inseam and you’ll end up with nice honeycomb fades
Works best with: slim denim
2. The Micro-Cuff
Also simple – you know what, they’re all simple. In this case, you turn up the hem of your jeans – but not by much, just enough to leave a sliver of well-worn selvage denim showing. Vary this by accompanying it with a stack, or with a jean hemmed to a shorter length to show off the shaft of your boot.
Works best with: slim-straight jeans
3. The Regular Cuff
Cuff your jeans once. Done.
Works best with: slim, slim-straight jeans
4. The Double Cuff
For a thicker cuff, turn your hem over twice and your jeans should sit just at your ankle. This is an easy option that will look nice with most boots.
Works best with: slim-straight or straight jeans
5. The Triple Cuff
Not too hard – roll it up one more time. It’ll give you a thicker cuff, and although this looks good with heavy boots, I also like it with sleeker silhouette and taller shaft.
Works best with: a straighter-legged pair of denim so that the bigger cuff doesn’t overwhelm the leg of the jeans.
6. The Narrow Roll
Make like you’re rolling a single micro-cuff, and then keep going as high as you like. Wear the hem low to stack on top of your boots, or pull it high for a cool silhouette.
Works best with: straight or relaxed denim.
7. The Railroader
Only for the dedicated: instead of making small cuffs, turn your hem inside out and pull the cuff halfway up your shin. This has the potential to be massively rad or not rad at all – you need to back it up with an outfit that meshes well.
Works best with: stiff, straight-leg jeans and heavy boots (like engineer, combat, or service boots).
The streetwear and denim forum within Styleforum started in large part because I wrote a “10 Best Jeans” post years ago, in the days when “premium denim” was blowing up in LA and the North American Market was just starting to get imported jeans from Scandanavia and Japan. In those days, the threads were named “5 Best jeans,” or “10 Best jeans,” but it’s really impossible to make a superlative list in such a varied category, so I always tried to make these representative of different styles and needs rather than pointing to one model and saying “Yeah, best jeans right there.” I do think that the below is a representative list of “best in class” jeans. Of course, it’s like the 100m dash (or at least, the 100m dash, pre-Usain Bolt). There are many contenders for the #1 spot, and the winner is usually the first among peers.
This is the first such list that I am writing for the Styleforum Journal, so I’ve chosen the below 5 great jeans with a nod to the past and a eye on the future.
Best wearable art – Kapital Cisco Century Jeans, $375 at www.standardandstrange.com
Kapital is perhaps the exemplar of the “mythological folklore by way of Japan” brands, and there are many. It borrows liberally from Native American imagery, old military uniforms, American workwear, the clothing of some tribes that may or may not exist outside Kapital’s famous photoshoots, and mashes them up with Japanese textile traditions like boro patchwork and sashiko stitching.
Kapital’s cinchback “Cisco” jeans are made from Kapital’s “Century” denim that has been dyed using the kakishibu method, with fermented persimmon juice to produce a deep brick color, and then sashiko stitched using indigo thread. They are a good (and not inexpensive) example of the combination of Japanese and American clothing and textile traditions and the brand’s general obsessiveness with their production process. They were first introduced in 2012, but have been popular enough to be kept in the list of “best ofs” that seem to accompany each of Kapital’s collections (other best of Kapital pieces include their moleskin ring jacket and their Old Man and the Sea caps).
Most comfortable heavyweight jeans – The Ironheart 17 ounce straight tapered jeans, $295 at www.selfedge.com
I’ve owned and worn many jeans that range between “heavyweight”, usually defined as 16 ounces and above, and “monster weight”, which is my personal term for anything about 20 ounces (per square yard). To put this into perspective, most military tents are made from 12-14 ounce canvas, and lighter weight stretch jeans are often about 9-10 ounces. It’s rare that I’d call any heavyweight jeans the “best jeans,” but of all of these, Ironheart makes the most comfortable.
Kiya, who owns Self Edge – one of our oldest advertisers – once told me that this is because they use the longest staple yarns, even longer than do luxury brands, which gives the jeans a cool feeling, and because they use a cold water rinse, instead of the usual, hot, industrial rinse, Back in the day, the consensus on Styleforum and other forums was that you had to (physically) suffer for the perfect fit, that the first few weeks of wearing jeans three sizes small was a trial by fire to be endured for excellent fades. Luckily for us all, that insanity is behind us. Also, I am way too old for that now. I need my jeans to slip on and off effortlessly. This is especially important in heavier weight jeans.
Best “Starter” jeans – The Japan Blue tapered model, $220 at www.blueowl.us
If you want a pair of jeans that fits well, is neither too slim not too loose, is neither too heavy nor too lightweight, neither very high rise, nor very low rise, and without features like a drop crotch that will date it easily, and will generally stand up to the test of time, Japan Blue’s “Tapered” model is a good choice.
The cut is mid rise, with a slowly tapering leg. They come in a variety of denim weights and types, and I’ve seen them worn in “full workwear”, and as part of our editor in Chief’s indigo patchwork outfits, and I wear them as part of what was once called my “killer cowboy” style, but that I suspect might be considerably less romantic and cool.
While “versatility” of often code for “really boring”, Japan Blue rescues us by using very interesting denim on any otherwise fairly standard, well made, jeans that lack the bells and whistles of jeans by its sister brand, Momotaro, both produced by the Japan Blue Group.
My favorite are in indigo warp with a black weft, and tonal stitching, made in an unsanforized version of Japan Blue’s “Monster” denim, exclusively for Blue Owl (shown above). They are heavier than most like their jeans, but don’t worry, there are many lighter weight jeans in the same cut.
Best skinny jeans – Saint Laurent Paris low rise slim fit black jeans, $290 at www.ysl.com
I heard a story about Jim Morrison once – that he was a skinny, awkward kid with a crew cut, and that over a summer in California, he grew out his famous mane and transformed into the Lizard King.
This is the revenge of skinny, awkward, teenagers everywhere on the world. According to recent polls, 95% of all models, male or female, report having been “awkward and nerdy” as teenagers. (the remaining 5% were jock douchebags – sometimes life remains the same).
If you still have the chops to look like a young Axel Rose (as opposed to the much less attractive 50-something middle-aged Axel Rose), you might want to go for Hedi Slimane’s (they are still his) Saint Laurent Paris jeans, that make his Dior Homme era jeans look baggy and overly comfortable. How times and our perceptions have changed.
Over the years, on Styleforum, one of the most commonly asked questions, was “What is the best selvedge denim (jeans) for under $100?” For a while, there was not much at that price range. During the era of the $300 jean, you could either go to your local Sears for standard Levis, or you could shell out. Or you could try to get your friend who was living in Japan to buy and send you a pair of Uniqlo selvedge denim jeans.
These days, particularly with the advent of the direct-to-consumer model, there are many more choices, but the under $100 beacon jean for all those years still remains also the standard bearer. Of course, these days, there is no need to wheedle a favor out of a friend visiting Japan. If you can’t get to a Uniqlo in person, it’s only a few clicks away. At $49.90, the Uniqlo slim fit (these days with a bit of stretch) give a good fit and very passable construction. If you want 100% cotton and a more relaxed fit, the “normal fit” is also available for the same price. Both look good on, and age reasonably well.
Are they the best jeans for under 100$? They’re bare bones, to be sure, and all the bells and whistles of the higher end Japanese brands are not there, nor are you likely to develop one of the very distinctive fade patterns of hardcore denimheads, but at just under $5o, you can’t do better.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Dress jeans don’t exist. Stop using this term. They don’t exist in real life, except here, but that’s not the life you want. Trust me on this one.
About 10 years ago, when the NBA elevated its dress code to eliminate jeans, shouts of resistance erupted everywhere, from the players as well as the public. Eventually, the NBA capitulated and allowed the term “business casual” (quotations theirs) which included dress jeans.
“I’ve never heard the term (dress jeans) and it’s a little scary to me,” wrote Jim Moore of GQ. “A jean is a jean. I think that’s a crazy, nebulous term.”
Back in the late 90s, after the grunge look of my high school years faded away like so many Miller’s Outpost stores, I remember buying my first pair of non-stonewashed jeans from JCrew.
As a San Diego transplant living in New York, I abandoned my shorts, Docs, and thrift store flannels and adopted the New England “khakis with everything” look, along with the iconic roll-neck sweater with un-hemmed edges and raglan sleeves. It was fresh, clean, presentable. Things were starting to get dressier.
Shortly thereafter, dark denim debuted on the scene, and ads promoting “dressing up your denim” were plastered all over New York. Mostly with v-neck sweaters and t-shirts. Were men ready to start dressing up again? Oh yes, and with enthusiasm that would rival Gettysburg reenactments, with tweed vests to match.
Fast-forward twenty years, and the term “dress jeans” is universal. But its meaning remains unclear. What are dress jeans? Are they simply new, unwashed, and untreated denim? Do you iron them? Dry-clean them for colorfast-ness?
“DRESS JEANS” DO NOT EXIST. DENIM IS A RUGGED CLOTH.
Specifically, it’s an abrasion-resistant twill that was designed to be workwear – and that’s still it’s most comfortable use. That said, jeans will never go away, at least not in the near future, and it’s fine to embrace that. Will jeans ever be “dressy?” No, they won’t.
But you can “dress them up.” There’s a difference. Here’s how.
Key to avoiding the dreaded “trying too hard” look is accepting that jeans are casual; you can only dress them up so much. Therefore, ties with jeans are out. Don’t argue. Would you wear a tiara with jeans? Of course not. Ditch the tie; it’s reserved for formal occasions. In its place, consider the roll-neck, turtleneck, or open collar button-down shirt. Just no orphaned suit jacket, please – remember that these are jeans, not trousers.
Try a cardigan, or if you prefer a jacket, try the Harrington, trucker, bomber, moto, corduroy, or tweed sportcoat. Jeans are great, and they’re a wonderful, versatile part of a man’s wardrobe. But know when enough is enough. Say it with me: dress jeans do not exist.
If you’re feeling stumped on how to dress up your denim without looking ridiculous, here are a few classic examples (along with a few of my own):
I met John Alburl and Nick Kemp of Jack/Knife Outfitters in their SOMA (San Francisco) workspace when a friend of mine was getting his jeans finished. Tailors for the well-known SF shop Unionmade, and former tailors for Levis, John and Nick create custom jeans from paper patterns for individual customers. While the styles I saw were in the “heritage” and “workwear” vein, they stand the idea on its head. Denim was originally an industrial garment, made purely for utility, and the very idea of unsanforized “shrink to fit” jeans was that a uniform garment could be customized post production. The trend to buy raw denim, and watch it become personalized with wear, is a natural extension. This is in stark contrast with the bespoke garment, a piece made for a specific customer, a one of a kind. Jack/Knife Outfitters makes bespoke versions of uniform garment. I got to ask John some questions.
Fok-Yan Leung: Could you tell us a bit about how and why you started Jack/Knife Outfitters?
John Alburl: Jack/Knife came about as a desire for us to be professionally involved in a space where the only focus was on quality. In an age of instantaneous education, the modern consumer has become more savvy than ever—consumers are interested in the “story”; the who, what, where, and why of a piece made are questions the market demands answers to. Companies tend to make up a gimmicky story that ultimately, over time, loses dimension, but with Jack/Knife our pieces are the story.
All the pieces that have ever received a Jack/Knife stencil were constructed for a reason. The use of heavy selvedge denim came not because the blogs thought it was cool, but because it was the only material that wouldn’t keep ripping on motorcycle rides. Bandannas also were constructed for dusty trips on the motorcycles. Bags came to carry tools, and it grew from there. Consumers are losing interest in the workwear/heritage/vintage trends, but luckily Jack/Knife does not technically lie in any of those categories. The influence from decades past for us comes not in fit or design, but more in the quality of construction and materials used.
Now we operate in a work studio in the old garment district of San Francisco. We take pride in doing everything ourselves and taking our time to aim as close as possible for perfection. These days there are very few operations left that design, draft patterns, and construct all in-house like we do at Jack/Knife.
FYL: Could you bring us through the process of how you work with a customer to get him the pair of jeans he wants? How do you get him to the right denim, the right cut, the right details?
JA: Describing the entire experience for being fitted for a pair of Jack/Knife jeans would be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. So I’ll give the “cliff’s notes” version:
The process for being fitted for Jack/Knife custom jeans begins with the first visit—a tour of our operations, a showing of our selvedge fabric selection, the machines, etc. The goal is to knock out fabric selection, thread color, rivets/buttons, pocket shapes, etc. There are myriad details to go over and each client is given the opportunity to bring forth their individual detail requests as well. Measurements are taken, and we also discuss with the client the desired fit of the finished jean. There is much more that goes into the first fitting, and overall this stage is the most comprehensive.
After all the necessary information has been gathered from the client during the first visit, we begin drafting by hand the pattern for the jeans. The pattern-drafting phase by far is the most time-consuming step of the overall process. Once we have your pattern, we construct your jeans, which you’ll try on during your second visit. When you come to try on your jeans in the second visit, there is no waistband yet. Trying on jeans with no waistband can be a a bizarre experience, but the second visit is simply for us to see how the jeans are fitting up to that point. Based on how the jeans fit during the second visit, we either adjust as needed or move on to the next phase.
Past the second visit, all that is needed is a waistband, belt-loops, and a final hem. We attach the waistband and belt loops once we are past the second visit phase. The final visit from you will be to try the jeans on one last time to confirm that you are happy with the fit now that the waistband has been attached. We also take a final measurement for your hem. The final hem is done during this last visit, as it only takes Nick about 10 minutes or so to hem a pair of jeans. And lastly Nick dates and signs the jeans at the very end.
FYL: Could you tell us a little about the details that sets your jeans apart?
JA: Aside from being completely custom—the entire manufacturing of Jack/Knife jeans is done using hand-worked, single-needle construction. All of our patterns are individually hand-drafted by us in our studio. We use a cotton twill binding on all our raw seams, because in our minds we would be cheating if we used over-lock or cover-stitches. We hand-hammer all of our USA-made hardware to Jack/Knife jeans. The fabric we offer is all selvedge fabric from either Japan or Cone Mills out of North Carolina. We also incorporate the use of selvedge details in the waistband, belt loops, out seam, and coin pocket. Each pair of jack/Knife jeans is hand inscribed, dated, and signed. Oh, and our jeans come with a lifetime warranty.
FYL: What if I have some really specific details I like on my pair? If they are really dumb, how would you tell me?
JA: The only time I would intervene in someone’s design is if the idea lacked a functional purpose. We are all very honest at Jack/Knife, you would be able to tell if we thought an idea fell short of making sense.
FYL: On the other hand, there are guys who probably don’t really know exactly what they want. How do you guide them through the process?
JA: Through a series of dialogue we can guide just about anyone through our custom experience. We try in every way possible to make this this process simple to understand. It is during that first visit that we take the time to play host and develop a sense of understanding of the individual’s lifestyle. There are basic design details that can alter the feel or styles of jeans. An example would be that dressy jeans are different in styling than workwear style jeans.
FYL: Everyone I know loves their Jack/Knife jeans. What would you say is the secret of your success?
JA: Our unwillingness to sacrifice quality. We will always go the extra mile to make the best product possible. In these early days of Jack/Knife we have done everything possible to ignore the standard industry prompts of “selling out.” We have never outsourced. For Jack/Knife, we could never trust an outsourced entity to follow through on a project with the same passion as is practiced in our shop.
FYL: What vision do you have for Jack/Knife going forward?
JA: To continue growing. The introduction of Jack/Knife for women, a series of reproductions from the old mine finds of Mike Harris and Gang (author of Jeans of the Old West), a collaboration with Tellason, Jack/Knife limited edition pieces, and more are all happening just within the next 6months for Jack/Knife. For those coming to the Style Forum 10th Anniversary event, Jack/Knife will be unveiling a yet-to-be-seen limited edition cotton/hemp Japanese chambray shirt.
372 Ritch St.
San Francisco, CA 94107