From workwear to $2,000 luxury, jeans tell a quintessentially American story of class aspiration

The new gold rush is cult denim.
The new gold rush is cult denim.
Image: EPA-EFE/Ian Langsdon
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“If we were to use a human term to describe a textile,” American Fabrics magazine wrote in 1962, “we might say that denim is an honest fabric—substantial, forthright, and unpretentious.”

Created for California gold miners, blue jeans have come a long way since 1873, when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis obtained US patent #139,121 for their sturdy, riveted work trousers. Over the next century, denim transformed from workwear to cowboy cool to rebel chic. And throughout this evolution, blue jeans have maintained their aura of Americanness and authenticity. 

But anyone who has ogled $2,000 jeans on Instagram lately might hesitate to use the term “unpretentious” to describe today’s denim. Once a symbol of the US—a purportedly classless country, unburdened by old-world formality and utterly obsessed with freedom—jeans have gone totally global and have been reinvented as a luxury item, loaded with details and embellishments known only to cognoscenti.

Everyone wears jeans now, pretty much everywhere in the world—men and women, adults and kids, poor and rich, rebels and conformists. Last year, 2.7 billion meters of denim fabric were produced worldwide. In 2016, global denim sales reached $93 billion, according to the market research company NPD, and more growth is projected.

Levi's "Made in Japan Boyfriend Trucker Jacket."
Levi’s “Made in Japan Boyfriend Trucker Jacket.”
Image: Levi's

The best denim, however, coveted by a growing cadre of denim purists, is no longer even made in America. The Japanese are denim’s master craftspeople, having perfected this quintessentially American item and taken it to the next level. Japan is home to the world’s highest quality, and highest priced, jeans.

“Japanese denim labels are in a league of their own, managing to be simultaneously under the radar and cutting edge—with a cult following to match,” according to Vogue

Even that original American blue jeans brand, Levi’s, sold a $500 “Made in Japan” denim jacket in its upscale “Made and Crafted” line this summer. It’s patched and zigzag-stitched, and evokes the perfect hand-me-down jacket from an older sibling, circa 1975.

Among the coveted cult Japanese brands are Big John, which entered the blue jeans business in the 1960s and has supplied Levi’s. The Flat Head, which secured the website, selling jeans for $230 and a two-pack of white t-shirts for $99, is also popular.

In June, the Wall Street Journal declared the relative newcomer Momotaro the “hottest jeans” on the market. The company has been around since 2006 and its slogan is “Made by hand without compromise.” The price is indeed uncompromising—a pair of selvedge jeans from Momotaro can cost as much as $2,000.

There are entire blogs devoted to the delicious details of these denim specialists’ creations. Collectors know the telltale red thread of traditional selvedge, a denim created on a now-rare type of loom that few know how to use. The name “selvedge,” or selvage if you’re British, comes from “self-edge” and refers to the finishing at the end of a roll of fabric, which prevents the material from unraveling.

These insiders obsess over the latest craze, the newest perfect fade. They use esoteric vocabulary, “honeycombs” or “whiskers” for example, to describe the creases in a well-worn pair of raw denim jeans (which distinguish it from a mass-market pair that comes pre-distressed or—the horror!—stretchy).  

In 2017, the last American selvedge manufacturer, White Oaks in North Carolina, shuttered after 112 years in business. Items made from the plant’s last rolls of denim were nostalgically snatched up for expensive collectibles by classic brands like Wrangler and Levi’s, as well as by high-end designers.

Discerning denim-heads also seek out vintage jeans, sometimes re-worked by fashion labels such as Vetements, and are willing to pay dearly for them. A pair of such Levi’s can go for $1,300 on Net-a-Porter, the online luxury shopping site. Global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz told Business of Fashion last year that these vintage jeans sell out immediately, season after season, meaning people are willing to pay top dollar to look unpretentious and authentic.

There’s some irony, of course, in the fact that a gold miner’s uniform of yore can cost as much as an an ounce or two of gold today. But that’s perhaps not surprising, when the impossibly wealthy founders of the giant tech companies at the center of California’s new gold rush favor a uniform of blue jeans, t-shirts and hoodies to signal their indifference to material goods. In describing his signature look in a 2014 Q&A, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg alluded to the hardworking, no-nonsense idea that jeans convey: “I feel like I’m not doing my job,” he pronounced, “if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous.”

Is there any truth, however, in this enduring idea of American blue jeans? We are living in a “new gilded age” for the rich, according to economists. In the US and beyond, the divide between rich and poor is increasingly extreme. The eye-popping prices of specialty jeans are this split made manifest.

The quintessential American garment remains a potent symbol, but it’s no longer one of blue-collar grit. Blue jeans are the lie of the classless society, materialized in clothing form. Denim, that once “honest” fabric, has become deceptive.