In 1873, a pair of “labourwear” denim trousers with rivet-reinforced pockets was created by one Levi Strauss in San Francisco. It’s a design paradigm that a century and a half later remains essentially unchanged – fitting testimony to what has become a classic piece in the wardrobe canon. But within the realms of nuance and preference, the denim jean holds myriad possibilities. Connoisseurs obsess over a wealth of denim types, specialised and authentic detailing and varied fits and cuts. So it should be thrilling news that a rich seam of superior custom denim services has emerged.
Right at the forefront is Levi’s itself – whose numbers even have cult status (see 501s) – with a bespoke service placing its whole history at customers’ disposal to experiment with. “It’s about giving people the opportunity to create their own classic,” says Elizabeth Radcliffe, Levi’s master tailor. At Atelier Lot No 1 she presides over four other tailors, working on cutting tables, machines and rivet kick presses. It’s artisanal stuff, with each pair (from £500) taking 16 hours to make. Around 10 orders a week are taken, arriving in 12 to 14 weeks. From “fit” jeans in diverse styles, Radcliffe hand-pins, measures, then cuts an original card pattern, deploying skills acquired with esteemed bespoke tailor Edward Sexton.
The atelier’s denims comprise a tome of 8oz-22oz selvedge, including vaunted Japanese mills, many in limited runs. Deep indigos, blue-blacks, stone, bronze, white, even multi-hued slub denims are offered. The precision is remarkable, the details and constructs informed by Levi’s archives. Engaging at this intensely personal level makes for an extraordinary journey – one that includes free alterations and repairs for the first three-and-a-half years as the jeans change and acquire character.
Because jeans develop with wear like no other garment – for some makers, a critical part of their appeal. “Our ethos is to create clothing that people can have an emotional investment in,” says Han Ates of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, which recently launched a new made-to-measure service (from £495). “With made-to-measure, clients invest both time and money, so are instinctively going to better love and look after their finished garment.” Ates offers a lifetime repair guarantee, preferring to repair than sell more. Perfectly tailored fits and a nuanced spec – “additional belt loops for tools, an unusually high waist, or simply a cloth patch instead of leather” – enhance the satisfaction of the experience. BLA can make jeans tailored with high back and brace buttons and authentic antique “flat-feld” seams. The meticulous “build”, fused with contemporary cuts and finishes, produces singular denim. It leads the way in ethical production too, taking a stand on wasteful consumption, local employment, and sources ranging from vertically integrated Turkish organic denim mills to Japan’s vaunted Kurabo mill.
Then comes Thom Sweeney, which has just launched a made-to-measure denim offer (from £395). “Customers wanted jeans to wear with our knits and blazers,” Luke Sweeney tells me. “We didn’t want to go ready-to-wear, so we added [denim] as a custom service.”
Liaising closely with their Italian factory, the duo create styles in keeping with the brand’s savvy tailored look: “Our block, our cut, our denims” is Thom Whiddett’s pithy description. The 20-denim offer comes from Candiani (a niche Italian mill), Blue Selvedge and Olimpias, Japan’s Kuroki, even the historic White Oak Mill in the US; the palette spans indigo raw selvedge through to almost-white, with stretch and stonewashed iterations. Fit jeans are deployed and measures taken; after four to five weeks the jeans are ready for a second fitting. Touches such as extended coin pocket, monogramming and double top stitch finesse the look.
Designers are getting involved too. Paul Smith now offers custom jeans (from £270) with five blocks from slim to classic. As fans would expect, eccentric colour is at play, and Smith’s affinity for all things Japanese is evident in the superior denim, including a West Coast ’70s blue selvedge from the legendary Nihon Menpu mill; there is even a salt-and-pepper denim, raw or rinsed. Custom options include pocket bags in yarn-dye stripes and exclusive prints by artist Neal Fox. Brioni proposes crocodile among its urbane patches; with its smart denims, exclusive rivets and embroidered details, this means distinctly plush looks on the four cuts on offer (from €790). Richard Anderson, meanwhile, was an early adopter of made-to-measure denim in 2012. The brand has just one type – a 15oz selvedge made in Japan using old Levi’s looms – that can be made to any style (from £450).
Clearly today’s jeans can accommodate any number of nuances and are a lasting style statement – one that’s both far from those hardwearing miners’ pants envisaged by Strauss, and not so far off at all.