Without wishing to do down the great denim names of the 20th century, newer labels from Scandinavia and California are not only building impressive reputations for quality and style, they’re also rewriting the jeans rule book. While the classic five-pocket format remains, sophisticated fabrications – often from Japan – and new fits are the big story.
Denim marques from California are defined by a laid-back, luxe-slouch mood. Predominantly faded and fitted, they evoke Hollywood pool parties as much as Harley Davidson cruising. And there’s often a dash of ranch in the Cali-mix too, or slight hippy accents, such as the top-stitch initial motif just above the right-hand back pocket of AG jeans. This label distinguishes itself by exclusively using denims from Japanese mills, such as the renowned Kaihara. Fits like the Matchbox slim straight (from £178) and Dylan slim skinny (from £198) come in all manner of vintage-esque effects from laser-ageing to custom scraping, convincingly replicating varying years of wear. The dark Matchbox One-Year Harrison slim (£139) and washed-stone Dylan (£197), for example, appear relatively new, while the 14-Years Martiniques (£220) feel well-worn and impossibly soft. They drape wonderfully and look good in looser fits too. This season, AG also introduces flyer denim, constructed from knitted fabrics; it is as soft as textured jersey and as comfortable to wear as sweat pants.
California’s J Brand jeans have a similar jersey/cashmere-like handle. They first proved a success with women who wanted stylish, skinny, unfussy jeans, but the label now caters for men too. Its fabrications work especially well in faded black and greys, standouts being the stretch “terry”-denim Harper (£179) or Virgil (£249). Other hits are the slim Tyler (£168) in washed-out black, the faded straight-leg Kane (£198) and the hand-faded stretch Baker (£219), which has convincing “whiskers” – the accentuated creases that radiate from the fly.
The other major LA label is 7 For All Mankind, whose main fits are the tapered Chad, narrow-cut Slimmy, skinny Ronnie (all from £180) and Straight (£190). There’s no shying away from the fact that jeans have got skinnier over the past 15 years – extreme versions might be reserved for hipsters, but even for the rest of us, narrowed and streamlined is still a dominant look. This trimmer style is significantly helped in terms of comfort and fit by elastane. Historically, denim aficionados considered it sacrilegious, but not so now. Workwear purism has got the boot and stretch is big. 7FAM’s latest collection, Luxe Performance (from £180), has an eight per cent elastane-mix, which it claims gives “90 per cent recovery” – meaning jeans retain their shape much longer than standard denim.
In Sweden, Acne Studios, Cheap Monday and Nudie have helped make Scandinavian denim popular with an international audience. Acne in particular has emerged as a youthful fashion house underpinned by exceptionally executed denim lines, but mature men wear its designs with success too. The brand focuses on modern, narrow fits, and offers varied waistband depths to set it apart. Styles like the straight Town (£190), gently tapered Max (£150) and skinny Ace (£150) are now joined by the super-skinny Thin (£180). All come in an array of finishes from over-dyed blacks to bleached-out retro numbers, but one that looks especially great is the Max Raw (£150) in dark denim.
Meanwhile, luxury brands are diversifying into denim. Matchesfashion.com’s soon-to-launch own-label menswear line, Raey, has some brilliantly conceived jeans (£140). In reasonably slim fits, rich-indigo denim twill is enzyme-washed and stone-tumbled for an appealingly light appearance, while the unhemmed and extra-long cut leaves room for turn-ups.
Berluti’s dark-blue jeans (£420) have long been a superior offering, set off pleasingly with large amber top-stitching and hand-sewn leather trims, but now it’s added a silk-mix option (£510) that has a flattering stretch.
Valentino, meanwhile, has just launched a made-to-measure jeans service (from £690), exclusively from its Paris shop. Crisp Japanese or softer Italian denim can be used in three cuts: chino, regular and slim.
And Ralph Lauren recently introduced denim to its Purple Label – straight-legged jeans in thoroughbred Japanese denim. Saturated black (£295) looks particularly good with dark top-stitching. The Regal (£295) is true blue, grainy and traditional, but with a critical two per cent elastane stretch. More radically, the brand has explored tailored denim with a formal three-piece (£2,595) in 10oz indigo denim. Surprisingly, this style hybrid really works – Wall Street meets True Grit and a world away from the jeans that built America.