Jeans: In the Raw

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 3:07 PM

Why are some guys wearing the same pair of $200 jeans for six months? The answer lies in the story of raw denim.

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Like my first kiss, I'll never forget my first pair of raw-denim jeans. I'd been thinking about them for months. The anticipation was huge.

When I finally tried on a pair, the feeling was slightly awkward, almost uncomfortable. Still, the rush was undeniable. I know this all sounds ridiculous. But I'm not alone.

The raw-denim jean has finally gained a foothold in the Twin Cities. It's part of a larger menswear trend -- utilitarian workwear as fashion. Think: Red Wing boots, Duluth Pack bags, Tanner Goods leather. Devotees of these high-end, handcrafted jeans are drawn to the breaking-in process. The pre-made "distressed" look is out. The best denim is made from high-quality cotton, woven in Japan on vintage shuttle looms or made here in America (yes, we still make things!). The time-consuming details and long-lasting quality result in a higher price tag, with most jeans selling for between $125 and $300. These jeans are an investment. (Or maybe a commitment?)

Raw-denim enthusiasts are very particular, maybe even a little obsessive. Comic-book geeks have nothing on these guys.

Everyone wears jeans, but I've never heard anyone talk about them like Satchel Moore does. He manages BlackBlue, the St. Paul men's shop famous for outfitting Justin Vernon of Bon Iver with a tweed suit for the 2012 Grammys. The small store specializes in raw denim, carrying eight brands of jeans. Here, Moore is like a denim philosopher, extolling its virtues: I think (about jeans), therefore I am.

Moore, 26, calls raw denim "a living thing" meant to be worn for months without washing. Gross, you say. I thought so, too, at first. But after wearing a pair for half a year, I agree with Moore that this allows the jeans to distress naturally and contour to the body.

BlackBlue's owner, Steve Kang, wore his first pair for seven months without washing them. His final move was wearing them as he jumped into the ocean on a trip to Mexico. Water seems to seal the process, with most denim lovers eventually hand-washing them in a tub of cold water and then hanging them up to dry.

After selling a pair, Moore will often tell the customer: "Come back in a few months and tell us the story of your jeans."

My first poignant entry into my "Dear Denim" diary began with a pair of A.P.C. jeans from BlackBlue. They're a starter pair, less expensive than Japanese-made denim (shame on me). Still, after I bought them I wondered: Could my jeans really tell a story?

The art of jeans

Raw denim is not new. Up until the 1970s, the world's most iconic jean -- the Levi's 501 -- was raw and made with selvage denim. Selvage jeans are distinguished by an unfrayed strip of fabric along the seam (with colored stitching) that's visible when rolled at the bottom. Aficionados turn their cuffs with pride.

"It's like seeing a signature at the bottom of a painting," Moore said. "It's a sign of craftsmanship."

As Levi's production ramped up and the mass market grew, the company moved to faster, projectile looms that lost the hallmarks of traditional jeans-making. Leave it to the Japanese to adopt the old looms and bring crafted denim back. Levi's is back in the game, too, with its Levi's Vintage Clothing (LVC) line, which produces jeans with the old specifications in mind.

"People always say, 'They don't make them like they used to,' but now there is someone making them like they used to," Moore said.

From Japan with love

In today's mass market, bedazzled pockets and embroidered jeans still have a foothold in men's fashion (think: "Jersey Shore"). Raw denim lovers are all about details, too, but details of a different sort. Kurt Kueffner, owner of MensDept. hair salon in Minneapolis, is a denim junkie. He's old enough to remember when selvage Levi's were the norm. He won't buy a pair of jeans unless they are raw, selvage and have hidden rivets. The weight of the cotton fabric is important, too (the heavier the better). And he keeps all of his jeans, even after retiring them.

"They each have memories attached to them," he said.

Kueffner prefers Momotaro, a Japanese brand woven from Zimbabwe cotton ("the best in the world"). They're dyed with natural indigo. Using antique looms, the company makes only about 10 pairs a day. He bought his last pair in New York. You can buy them at one store in Minnesota: Askov Finlayson. The shop, owned by Andrew and Eric Dayton, sells four cuts, the top pair going for $295.

Another men's boutique, Martin Patrick 3, recently began carrying 3sixteen, an American brand made with Japanese denim. Manager Sam Fehrenbach said he admires the romanticism of the raw-denim craze. But he admitted, it's better business to have customers wearing multiple pairs, instead of one indefinitely.

"It's a cool notion," Fehrenbach said, "but it is acceptable to not wear your jeans for six months, too."

As for my pair of raw A.P.C. jeans, I'm still working on them (like any good relationship). The patina isn't quite right. Plus, they're still a little stiff. But we're in it for the long haul. It's a process.

  • Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909
  • Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen
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