In the period of 150 years, blue jeans have transitioned from workwear necessity to fashion staple. The uniquely American garment transcends social class, culture and trends. Though the birth of conventional jeans can be traced by to the early days of Levi’s, it wasn’t until the last half century that the number of boutique denim brands began to grow, and until the last couple decades that premium denim became a category. To explain the nuances that led to jeans’ worldwide adoption, we asked Paul Dillinger (Levi’s Head of Global Product Innovation) and Kiya Babzani (co-founder of leading selvedge denim retailer Self Edge) to weigh in on what kinds of construction, fabric and longevity characterize a great pair of jeans.
Think Big Picture
PD: There’s no single element that definitively makes a quality pair of jeans. The composition of a good pair of jeans relies on the relationships between components: a system of variables that are all related.
The one overarching feature of quality is intention. Is the mill committed to weaving quality denim? Is the manufacturer committed to building a quality garment? Have the designers, merchandisers and technical development specialists invested the time to make sure the fit is perfect and the styling and finishing are relevant? Everyone who touches the product — from the field to the factory to the retail floor — must have the making of a quality pair of jeans as their operative intention.
It’s All About the Denim
PD: We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the look of denim; the features that the consumer can touch and feel. We work closely with our mill partners to get the perfect cast of the indigo and the most authentic visual characteristics — also making sure the cloth is comfortable and easy to wear.
Commensurate consideration is also given to features of the denim that can’t be seen or felt, but that are the essential building blocks of a quality pair of jeans. We scrutinize the spinning and weaving specifications, making sure the yarn’s twist and gauge are maximized for tensile strength. We assess the denim’s construction and weight to ensure the fabric can resist tearing and hold up to surface abrasion. We apply tests that simulate the wearing experience: Does the indigo easily rub off and stain other clothes? Does a stretch denim recover and return to its original shape? Does the fabric show strain or weakness at the seams?
All are just a few of the tests that we perform on each denim fabric that we’re considering for our Levi’s assortment.
KB: We recommend unsanforized denim. The reason for this is unsanforized denim is generally treated far less than sanforized denim so you get a type of wear pattern that is more defined, and also you get a little bit more contrast in the fade pattern, and that’s because unsanforized denim holds its shape a little bit better and it also holds the creases a lot harder. So you get a lot more defined fading.
When you’re looking for a new jean and you want it to age well, the things you would be looking for are if it’s pure indigo dyed or if there’s a pigment dye added to the jean, if it’s sanforized, unsanforized, calendared, singed — these are all things that happen to denim before it’s cut and sewn into a pair of jeans. We prefer our denim to be completely loom-state, meaning after it comes out from the loom, nothing is done to it. That really yields the most character in both the fabric when it’s new, and the fabric after a year or two of age.
How Will It Age
KB: We believe all garments should age gracefully, but it’s so important with denim because, inherently, people are used to seeing jeans fade over time and show natural wear patterns from the wearer. If I were to pick one thing that would really be the most important thing with a pair of jeans, it’s how it ages over a period of time. That makes it difficult for a consumer because when you’re buying a new pair of jeans, you don’t know what they’re going to look like in six months to a year.
The internet has fixed that. You just google any pair of jeans and you can see how they’ve looked over time. But when you’re in a store, it’s a little more difficult. We have samples of worn-in pairs from almost every type of denim we sell. If you come in and see a pair of jeans you like, but you don’t know what they’re going to look like in a year, we can show you.
It’s really important to understand what the jeans will look like over a period of time. Because one thing people don’t realize when they buy raw denim jeans — they only look raw for three to six months, and then they start showing some wear, and after about eight to ten months, you start seeing some serious wear on the jean. And then you spend the next few years with the jeans looking somewhat worn-in or showing wear patterns. The period of time you spend wearing the product, where it’s unworn-looking, is so short compared to the lifespan of the product.