Denim jackets

Rockabilly flair and historic cachet are the guiding lights for collectors of these icons of cool, says Avril Groom

1970s Big E Levi’s jacket, lined with Liberty silk from Mick Jagger’s 1971 wedding to Bianca, £3,000, from Duke Street Emporium
1970s Big E Levi’s jacket, lined with Liberty silk from Mick Jagger’s 1971 wedding to Bianca, £3,000, from Duke Street Emporium | Image: George Ong

Those who think a denim jacket is a classic piece of utilitywear should, perhaps, familiarise themselves with the Big E and Buckle Back editions. These are just some of the vintage models of basic American denimwear that get collectors very excited – far more so than designer versions, which are often viewed as pastiche by connoisseurs (unless they happen to have been made for a film or rock star).

There are serious denim fans worldwide, says Matt Wilson, deputy editor-in-chief of online specialist magazine Denimhunters. “People across the globe know the value of certain denim models,” he says, “especially in Asia, as Japan is the epicentre of denim culture.”

America, unsurprisingly, is also keen, and the result is a dedicated band of self-confessed denim nerds – 99 per cent male, according to Wilson, who knows those with 5,000-piece-strong collections. “They are passionate about the minutiae of the latest denim fabrics, many of which is developed in Japan, and certain original, mid-20th-century styles that are seen as iconic,” he says.

True rarities, especially those with a story attached, fetch high prices, while the most expensive vintage item was a pair of pre-1900 Levi’s 501 jeans, discovered preserved in mud in an abandoned silver mine in California’s Mojave Desert, and which sold on eBay in 2005 for $60,000. A somewhat more wearable 1931 Lee Cowboy Buckle Back jacket recently made $40,000.

Indeed, for anyone wishing to wear as well as collect, vintage jackets are at the more welcoming end of the spectrum and, with denim enjoying a fashion moment, are currently appealing to men and women. Clare Callan, one half of 1960s silk-shirtmakers Deborah&Clare, famed for its Beauchamp Place boutique that doubled as a hangout for the rock stars of the day, now buys vintage Levi’s jackets from the 1960s to 1980s, which she customises by lining them with the remainder of her company’s distinctive silk prints. Almost all are unique and sold at the Duke Street Emporium, from £295.

From left: late-1930s GWG pleated jacket, £300, from Rokit. 1960s Lee 101J indigo-wash jacket, £550, from Rokit
From left: late-1930s GWG pleated jacket, £300, from Rokit. 1960s Lee 101J indigo-wash jacket, £550, from Rokit | Image: George Ong

“They are often the Big E model [Levi’s changed the capital ‘E’ on the red tab logo to lower case in 1971] and there is a premium on the smaller sizes, as Levi’s only made the jackets for men pre‑1971,” says Callan. “I search obscure American auction sites, but the majority I find are in larger sizes. Normally I buy quite basic models, but I have paid up to £800 for something special.”

Conversely, says Anthony Shakleton, owner of vintage store and website Rokit, “old jackets are hard to find in larger men’s sizes, because people were generally smaller in the past. This rarely worries the Japanese, as they buy to collect, but Americans and Europeans usually want to wear them.”

Like any aspect of vintage, provenance or an association with a personality increases value. Callan has a jacket that belonged to a 1970s rock festival aficionado, which she has lined with the remaining silk from the shirt she made for Mick Jagger (then a friend) for his 1971 wedding to Bianca, and which she is selling, including an original photo of the band, for £3,000. A 1985 jacket created by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie fetched £1,000 at Kerry Taylor Auctions in 2013. A 2008 collaboration between Levi’s, the Andy Warhol Foundation and Damien Hirst produced items decorated with crystal that sell for up to £4,000 on eBay and Yahoo, though they appear rarely.

Even oblique associations with stars can make a difference. Levi’s dominates the market, but the Lee 101J jacket (first made in 1931) is popular for being the favourite of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, and, according to Shakleton, “is a more attractive jacket on many people as it’s shorter and slimmer”. He currently has a 1940s version that is selling for £412.50.

Although there is “a great difference between the needs of the collector and the fashionista”, age and condition are key to both. Whereas a collector might prefer an unworn 1940s style such as those Shakleton has found among dead stock in long-closed Middle American stores, Callan says the fashion buyer favours “a worn but kindly treated jacket that has faded beautifully”.

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Denim writer Paul Travi adds that a “historic collector might search out pieces dating back to the early 20th century, whereas fashion collectors are more interested in 1930s to 1950s styles – pieces that are still wearable”. Only a limited range of models has the right cachet. “Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler rule,” says Wilson, “although only Wranglers from the Blue Bell 1940s to 1960s era.”

These are the targets for collector Johan Honig, a paint manufacturer in the Netherlands. “I began collecting around 20 years ago, inspired by rockabilly music and 1950s films where stars like Brando, Dean and Presley wore Levi’s,” he says. “As well as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler Blue Bell, I collect limited editions of later brands such as Denham. I buy from fleamarkets and online sites such as Marktplaats and Bay, mainly to wear.”

Buying Levi’s jackets is, in theory, straightforward. “Levi’s had three models: Type 1 was made until 1925 and is mostly in museums and private collections,” says Wilson. “Type 2 ran until the early 1950s and occasionally crops up – expect to pay around £1,000. Type 3 is from the 1960s and is plentiful, averaging around £200.” Lee’s Loco or 401 jackets are most prized, while for Wrangler it is the 11MJ and 24MJZ.

Those in the know can capitalise on lesser‑known brands of the 1950s and earlier, such as Big Smith or GWG, which was subsequently taken over by Levi’s. “Many were very good but were later bought by conglomerates or closed,” says Shakleton. “They have rarity value but are inexpensive for the period. I recently sold a GWG model for £2,000.” He currently has a less rare 1930s GWG for £300.

To muddy the waters, however, there is the vexed question of reproductions, especially from Japan where, Shakleton says, “firms have bought original looms and are trying to make old-style denim – the quality is not as good and the finishing less beautiful”.

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Honig says he has “sometimes found a real bargain or a good counterfeit”. For all but the very knowledgeable, however, going to a vintage specialist such as Rokit, Dustbowl Vintage or Tenue de Nîmes in Amsterdam is probably safest. Wilson also recommends the Rose Bowl Fleamarket in Los Angeles. Searching in old mines, farmsteads and boot sales of Middle America might be fun, but is best left to dedicated enthusiasts…

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