Fashion fads come and go, but the rugged appeal of classic blue jeans is one of the few fixed points. Take the enduring cool of Marlon Brando’s style in The Wild One, or Robert Redford’s in The Horse Whisperer. And though it’s possible to find genuine vintage examples (Marvin’s Vintage, one of Tokyo’s leading dealers, is currently offering a pair of 1902 Levi’s 501XX jeans for Y3.8m – about £28,000), a number of specialist brands are now focusing on workwear-inspired denim that recreates the details that defined jeans back when Levi’s still called them “waist overalls” – a moniker it only dropped, after almost 100 years, in 1960. Details including selvedge (the often colourful edge revealed by turn-ups, and sometimes in coin pockets and the fly), rope dyeing (when fabric yarns are twisted together and indigo‑dyed before being woven into cloth), chain stitching (a distinctive pattern created by old sewing machines, including the Union Special 43,200G), heavy twill pockets, copper rivets and thick cow- or deer-hide leather patches.
These are for men who reject the idea of “smart” jeans but want a pair for the weekend in an authentic cut, made with as much care as their tailored clothes. Chiefly inspired by milestones in the development of Levi’s 501 model (one of the most popular templates is the 1947 version), they might not pass the dress code of a chic restaurant, but they are beautifully made on old sewing machines and are true to the spirit of denim culture.
Of those brands that set out to faithfully recreate the look and feel of vintage denim, a leader is Bryceland’s, a new men’s store in Tokyo offering own-label jeans (about £293) made in Japan by Conners Sewing Factory. Bryceland’s co-owner and creative director Ethan Newton says the loose-fitting jeans “not only have the same pattern as the originals [1947 Levi’s 501XX], and the same cloth, but also the same method of construction – made on the original machines with the same idiosyncrasies”, from wonky stitching to slubby fabric. The cut is high in the back, reasonably full in the seat and straight through the leg, “meaning the jeans are comfortable and don’t gape when you sit down”, says Newton. In other words, a natural choice for men who like traditionally cut tailoring but wear jeans at the weekend. And importantly, “they aren’t overtly sexy, don’t make a statement and aren’t covered in branding or fancy stitching,” Newton adds.
Three standout UK brands offer styles that buck the ubiquitous slim-leg, low-slung trend. Hiut Denim uses a 14.5oz denim woven on a 1959 shuttle loom in Japan’s Kuroki mills for its five-pocket straight-leg Regular jean (£230). Albam has a workwear style (£115) in 13oz loose-cut, pre-shrunk denim, and Nigel Cabourn has a loose, five-pocket, second world war-inspired style (£300) with button fly, selvedge turn-up and cinch-back belt with buckle.
In its quest for verisimilitude, Full Count, from Osaka, Japan, uses fabrics woven on narrow-gauge looms dating from the 1930s that were sold to the Japanese in the 1980s by American mills who were replacing them with new, wider looms. According to Daniel McKinley of east London denim specialist Son of a Stag, “Cloth woven on these old looms is prone to irregularities, but this gives a greater character that only improves with age.” McKinley also relates how Full Count founder Mikiharu Tsujita “decided to hunt down the cotton that best resembled that used by Levi’s in the 1950s”. That hunt led to Zimbabwean cotton, which is used on Full Count’s 1910 raw jeans (£299) – like most pre-second world war jeans, these have brace buttons and a waistband cinch – and its 0105 jeans (£250), which are closely modelled on Levi’s 501s from the 1950s.
However, rather than reproducing vintage styles for nostalgic reasons, the focus is very much on recreating the quality. “We’re not a repro brand, we look to the past and modify for the future,” asserts Giles Padmore, UK representative of Japan’s Iron Heart. For example, the company’s use of durable polycotton thread – made from a mix of cotton and artificial fibres – would be anathema to those chiefly concerned with historical accuracy, despite its refined strength. And though Iron Heart does offer contemporary fits, for me its standout design is the 1955S (£240) based on the 1955 Levi’s 501, which has a notably high‑rise waist, generous thigh and a taper below the knee. Aside from the cut, the defining feature is the weighty 21oz denim. When Levi’s introduced denim in 1855, the cloth was 9oz.
Similarly, Christophe Loiron, a Frenchman who runs the Mister Freedom brand in Los Angeles, says that while the company’s designs are historically inspired, it prefers to offer jeans that “could have existed”. A distinctive style is the Californian Lot 64 Okinawa ($329.95), a slim, 1950s shape made from a slubby fabric that’s a rare 50:50 mix of cotton and sugarcane fibres and has a soft, mossy feel once the jeans are worn in. One constant, however, is that the denim comes raw, or “loom-state”, as it used to, meaning that the starch used in the weaving process hasn’t been washed out, so that even though the jeans become comfortable with wear, softness is not the initial defining quality.
But why bother with loom-state jeans, given the breaking-in period? Thomas Piercy of London retailer Alpha Shadows says of heritage Japanese brand Boncoura’s raw Z Denim jeans (£224) – which use denim woven on vintage looms that are able to produce only 50 metres a day, enough for about 20 pairs, plus herringbone cloth for the pocket bags – “These jeans are an investment; they will need a few wears to feel like yours, but then they could never be anyone else’s.” Bryceland’s Newton agrees: “Having a garment that can age with me is something I love.” That said, for the impatient, Hiut offers jeans (£230) that have already been worn for six months to break them in.
The first step in the ageing process is the shrinkage that takes place when raw denim is first washed. While some guys wear their jeans in the bath so they shrink to fit, as in the famous 1986 Levi’s commercial, customers would do better to compare a garment’s raw and “rinsed” measurements – or try workwear-inspired Japanese brand Orslow’s 107 Ivy Fit Denim One Wash (£195 from Superdenim), made from pre-shrunk but unfaded “neppy” denim (from which protrude very small white threads).
Although careful laundering – inside out and using a colour-preserving detergent such as The Laundress’s Denim Care (£26) – will help develop a rich mix of blues as the denim fades, in every other way these heritage jeans are made to a long-lasting standard and will come into their own with the kind of tough treatment that accelerates the ageing process. Die-hard denim enthusiasts even post images of their well-worn jeans on social media. The Instagram feed of Melbourne denim repair store Godspeed recently featured unbeatably cool pictures of a customer’s Roy Denim jeans ($255) damaged by flames from a motorcycle exhaust pipe. These are jeans that relish the rough and tumble, rather than the hiss of the trouser press.