A Guide to Blue Jeans

James T. Murray

Nearly everything you need to know about the all-American denim you love.

“Blue jeans are the most beautiful things since the gondola,” Diana Vreeland, the redoubtable former Vogue editor, gushed to The New York Times in 1980. Vreeland was more than a little partial to bombast, and her grand pronouncements should usually be taken with liberal amounts of sodium chloride. However, while skeptics and hard-line aesthetes may take umbrage with the high priestess of style’s anointment of this most essential of garments, few would argue that jeans are the single greatest American contribution to the contemporary fashion vernacular.

From their lowly origins as a utilitarian staple of the American work-wear industry to their subsequent Hollywood glamorization and climb to the top of the international fashion totem pole, jeans continue to mean all things to all people. And few items in the canon of modern connoisseurship have generated so much attention, devotion and obsession. (Just as a linguist can spot a person’s origins by his or her accent and inflections, a denim enthusiast can usually place a person’s hometown by the cut, color, thread and details on a pair of jeans.)

In its many iterations over the years, the blue jean has not only become emblematic of America (it is, after all, as American as Coca-Cola and orthodontics) but also a measure of the changing cultural landscape. Often with very small tweaks applied to the basic five-pocket design, jeans have reflected wholesale shifts in popular culture, acceptability, sexual identity and politics. It’s not for nothing that during the Cold War years, American denim became a hot contraband item, a symbol of hope from the divinely decadent and free West. These days, at a time when contemporary glamour is betwixt two extremes (the perennial dance between high and low), the jeans market is, not surprisingly, more polarized than ever. Denim remains synonymous with affordable universalism (witness the popularity of jeans by fast-fashion labels like Uniqlo), but as evidenced by the American labels featured in these pages, it is also a source for the veneration of design heritage and manufacture associated with the red, white and blue.

Double RL

Over the years Ralph Lauren has continually doffed his Stetson to the anti-urban West. The rugged individualism and blue-collar integrity of Western style has informed many of his men’s and women’s collections—not to mention his signature personal style, a luxe take on ranch dressing. His Double RL denim collection, essentially a tribute to his Colorado ranch, walks a similar line, managing to suggest manly free-spirited cool and a modern fashion sensibility that respects but is not tethered to the past. Not surprisingly, the painstakingly hand-finished collection of selvage denim woven on vintage shuttle looms includes a cattle call of authentic work-wear touches, such as indigo hues produced by suitably rugged-sounding rope dyeing, and chain stitching on seams and waistbands, as well as hand-set back pockets with internal rivets and hinged bar-tacks for extra durability. The same emphasis on permanence and authenticity is evident in the collection of denim and chambray shirts inspired by classic styles, with triple-needle chain stitching, vintage fish-eye buttons and reinforced cuffs—all being lassoed into the fashion arena. Jeans start at $240; shirts, $195; 379 W. Broadway, New York; doublerl.com.

3x1

Devotees who genuflect at the altar of vintage-inspired premium jeans are making the pilgrimage to 3x1, a denim temple in New York’s SoHo that sells and produces its own collections under one roof. Founded by Scott Morrison, the denim expert formerly behind Earnest Sewn, 3x1 sells limited-edition styles for men and women, which are available off the rack or can be modified to your specifications (there are more than 85 bolts of selvage denim to choose from, and the kinds of buttons and rivets are up to you). There is also a bespoke service starting at $1,200, suggesting designs that salute the pre-1960s Levi’s styles have been truly elevated to the luxury arena. “I wasn’t setting out to design $1,200 jeans,” says Morrison, “but we want to make the best product, sourcing the best materials. And it had to be produced in an environment where everything was out there for people to see, right down to the machinists in the workroom. You can’t just put a hefty price tag on something and expect people to take your word for it. Today’s customer is too smart for that.” Amen. Jeans start at $195 for women, $295 for men; 15 Mercer St., New York; 3x1.us.

Raleigh Denim

Denim’s future has never been more focused on the past, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing modern styling for unfiltered nostalgia. Just ask Sarah Lytvinenko and her husband, Victor, the couple behind Raleigh Denim in North Carolina. “We draw heavily from the past in terms of construction methods and materials,” says Sarah, “but we aren’t looking to make a reproduction jean.” It’s a contemporary artisanal approach that has recently generated a lot of buzz for the label, which is becoming known for its 12.5-ounce denim (sourced from nearby Cone Mills, then sewn on a single-needle machine) and its finespun details (each pair is numbered and signed, and an image of a hip joint is screen-printed on the inside front pocketing as a cheeky nod to the relationship between garment and wearer). The Lytvinenkos also run The Curatory, a store/showroom located behind the Raleigh Denim workroom, which sells a selection of other labels, including Band of Outsiders and Robert Geller. Firing up a few plates at the same time is second nature to Victor, who used to work as a line cook at Nobu. “To me, cooking and running our shop are very similar,” he explains. “I’m taking ingredients I’m drawn to and respect, and prepare, combine and present them in a way that is fresh and special.” Jeans start at $250; 319 W. Martin St., Raleigh, NC; raleighworkshop.com.

Levi’s Made & Crafted

Levi’s is to jeans what Steinway is to pianos. Since it hung out its shingle in 1873, the company has become the benchmark for denim and, not insignificantly, a universal dress code for men and women. At every turn in its storied history, Levi’s has been synonymous with quality, comfort, innovation and youthful sophistication. So it is fitting that at a time when the denim market is more heritage- and vintage-fixated than ever, it continues to set the agenda. “We already had the lead in history and expertise and decided to put everything we have learned to make a bridge into the future,” says Miles Johnson, the creative director for the premium brand du jour, Levi’s XX (which includes Made & Crafted and Vintage Clothing). “We analyzed what quality means now, at the beginning of the 21st century, and our Made & Crafted line of denim fits takes all the best things about our construction methods, patterns and fabrics and adapts all this to craft modern, well-executed styles.” The spring collection includes not only denim pieces that riff on the 1960s Levi’s archives but also tailored work wear for men and women that harks back to the spirited San Francisco take-no-prisoners’ cool of Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bisset in Bullitt. Jeans start at $175; 300 Post St., San Francisco; levismadeandcrafted.com.