Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a temple of denim

An appointment in New York with a professor of denim

Swellboy on… a temple of denim

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 22 2011
Nick Foulkes

A year or so ago in How To Spend It, I wrote about my reconnection with denim in middle age. And it is a story that continues to unfold. On a recent visit to New York I happened to find myself in the Meatpacking district. I try not to stray much beyond the walls of the Carlyle, but occasionally I am called to other parts of the city. While I know that there are some who foster a sentimental attachment to the New York of olden days – when drug dealers roamed the city and casual homicides on street corners were a much cherished local custom – I have to say that recent mayors have done a bang-up job of cleaning the place up, and the enhanced Meatpacking district is just such an example of spick-and-span New York.

Among the many amenities that residents and visitors to this part of the city can now enjoy is a wonderful Levi’s shop. I strolled in and asked casually for a jean in a 14-ounce denim, cut in the manner of the 1950s with a higher than average waist and a leg that, even after shrinking, would be sufficiently long for a turn-up, much in the way that I would request a garment from any outfitter or bespoke tailor.

Instead of being sent on my way, I was introduced as “a gentleman in search of some fine denim” to a very senior and impressive figure. How nice to be considered a gentleman; I suppose they confused the old Huntsman suit I was wearing with the person inside it, but I took the compliment anyway.

This man, Robert Nuovo was his name, was a true professor of denim; an individual so steeped in the lore of Levi’s that he has been put in charge of the vintage section at the rear of the shop; these are not pre-worn jeans but jeans made in the style and with the denim of earlier years and, as luck had it, the weight of the denim after shrinking was of the order of 14 ounces.

As well as being an expert on every last rivet and pocket lining ever used by the Levi Strauss company of San Francisco, he is a man of beatific, almost Buddhist patience as I slowly worked my way through almost every style of 501 made by the company since the time of the California gold rush. What I liked about my new friend was how understanding he was and when I asked to compare unshrunk leg lengths that purported to be the same on the label but which in practice I find vary somewhat, he said that he does exactly the same himself.

And as I tried jean after jean he immersed me in the reservoir of his knowledge about selvage and seaming, rises and rivets. Eventually we stopped this sartorial time machine in 1954 with the 501Z – the “Zee”, as I was encouraged to pronounce it, standing for zip. Yes, that is right, a 501 with a zip – apparently Levi’s wanted to sell on the East Coast and felt that the preppy and Ivy League crowd of the eastern seaboard would feel more comfortable with a zip rather than button fly. I usually eschew zips, but given the eccentricity of this historical anomaly I was smitten, and, what is more, the leg came up so long that even after shrinking them to fit in the time-honoured fashion of sitting in the bath and letting the indigo tint the bathwater I am able to get a decent turn-up too.

This of course leaves me in a dilemma: the Carlyle Hotel is at the junction of Madison and 76th while the “MTPKG” (as Mr Nuovo’s business card reads) Levi’s shop is on 14th Street: I am currently trying get the Rosewood hotel company and Levi Strauss to establish an Upper East Side branch or at the very least arrange for Mr Nuovo to do trunk shows at the Carlyle.