What’s big , blue and holds endless appeal? The trend of raw denim among the fashion-savvy. Once the domain of Americana enthusiasts and traditionalists, raw denim has seen a resurgence in youth fashion. Levi’s remains the ubiquitous denim brand, but discerning shoppers are also paying attention to those with vintage appeal.
What is raw denim?
Raw denim refers to denim that sees zero treatment. Right off the loom, the fabric retains its natural dyed state. One of the most popular and ubiquitous forms of raw denim is the selvedge jean. Selvedge jeans are denim pants that have been woven on a shuttle loom with the self-binding edge (AKA self edge) left intact. Not all selvedge jeans come from raw denim (and vice versa), as the latter is more a matter of the state of the fabric rather than its construction.
Why raw denim?
Raw denim is often stiff and “crispy” to the touch, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing to wear. This is especially true with heavier fabrics 18 ounces and above. Depending on the frequency of wear, raw denim can take months to properly “break in”. So why the preference?
The answer lies in the appeal of personalised clothing. Due to the unwashed state of raw denim, gradual loss of the indigo dye occurs over time. This comes with daily movement and general lifestyle habits such as cycling, walking, kneeling and squatting. The areas that see the most amount of stress (e.g. knee, upper thigh) will have a higher degree of indigo-loss. While it will be hard to notice at first, the fades and streaks will start to become more apparent over time (after six months or 180 wears, whichever comes later). The body and lifestyle of the wearer thus contribute to a unique appearance.
Coming at a cost
Of course, something with such a significant “cool” factor doesn’t come cheap. While most off-the-rack jeans can be bought for as little as $50, raw denim starts as high as $250. By all accounts, raw denim is an exorbitant investment. While the price may be steep, it is not the jeans or the fabric itself that is responsible for the bulk of the cost.
Shuttle looms are no longer in production since the advent of more output-driven projectile looms. As a result, maintaining these machines is significantly costlier due to the scarcity of parts, expertise and the looms themselves. Working a shuttle loom is also an acquired skill that few people possess and is much more time-intensive (10 times more so).
Finer details will end up swelling the cost as well. Dead stock fabrics command a small premium due to either a halt in production or shuttering of a mill. Other things like proprietary fabrics, custom/heavy duty hardware, reinforced pockets and belt loops, thread type and stitching will have an incremental effect on the final cost of the product. Some companies like Companion Denim even offer bespoke services for raw selvedge jeans designed from the ground up. Those of course, will usually end up costing the most.
Japan’s dominance over Americana
It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, but the Japanese now lead the raw denim industry. Denim historians will be familiar with the Osaka 5: Studio D’Artisan, Denime, Evisu, Fullcount and Warehouse. These forefathers of the raw denim movement are responsible for shaping it into what is today.
According to Leslie Lim, founder of local raw denim boutique The Denim Store, it all started with a fervent desire to recapture the authentic experience of the American jean. “Japanese mills acquired these old shuttle looms in the late ’70s when American denim mills were busy replacing them with modern projectile looms to increase the production output, cope with demand and increase profit margins,” he says.
Merv Sethi, owner and founder of Tokyo-based boutique Okayama Denim believes another contributing factor is one of culture. “Japanese people hold their craft to the highest pedestal. They are dedicated to their vocation, learning the ins and outs of every aspect of a trade. Construction is incomparable with other denim-specific regions and countries around the world. A connoisseur would agree that Japanese jeans are constructed in a meticulous way of which similar quality is very hard to find anywhere else in the world.”
In the end, it was Japan that set the pace and standard that would soon be followed by other American raw denim brands. Despite the jean being an American icon, it is the Japanese who continue to command the lion’s share of attention. “I will say that Momotaro, Pure Blue Japan and Japan Blue are very well-received,” Leslie adds.
Modern VS Repro
Raw denim selvedge jeans mainly fall into two sub-categories: modern and vintage-inspired. Modern style utilise more contemporary cuts for a slimmer and more streamlined silhouettes. However, the commitment to fabric and construction quality remains unchanged. The great thing about modern-styled jeans is that it doesn’t take much to dress things up a little. You won’t have to worry about looking like you stepped out of a Western either. Modern brands tend to be more experimental with their designs. For example, Canadian denim manufacturer Naked & Famous is known for doing zany things such as “scratch ‘n’ sniff” jeans.
Vintage-inspired raw denim is where things start to get interesting. In terms of fit, they tend to be more period-correct with their straight and boxier fits. Of course, the cut is only one aspect of a jean. Things like the feel of the denim (inside and out), stitching and hardware are often painstaking reproduced for maximum authenticity. You can even find zippers that are custom-made to exact specifications. It’s all about crafting a pair of jeans that’s indistinguishable from a pair that was made in the late 40s and early 50s. In the case of one such brand (Sugar Cane), the fact that original 1947 Levi’s 501 utilised a blend of 60% American/40% African cotton fabric was also taken into account and reproduced in their 1947 model.
Of course, it’s not so much a case of which is better – modern or vintage-flavoured denim. “The differences between these two schools of thought and design is that the vintage-inspired brand stick to an ethos of making everything exactly as it was in the past. So much so, that specific machines to replicate stitch pitch are employed to mimic vintage production. That is the charm with the purely vintage brand that we love and admire. It is brand new, but built to the exact specifications of a pair of Levi’s purchased in the 50s,” says Merv.
“You also have more modern brands who constantly adapt and innovate fabrics, details and fits to keep denim fresh and interesting under the lens of the vintage (but not bound by its constraints). Natural dyes, variants of indigo, traditional Japanese sewing techniques and fabrics all come together to produce the perfect balance of Japanese sensibility meeting Americana.”
Picking up a pair
Grabbing a pair of raw denim jeans isn’t as straightforward as one might assume. Even something as simple as sizing requires care. Apart from the different standards of sizing between brands (vanity VS true-to-size), there is also the treatment of the denim to consider.
Raw denim comes in either sanforised or unsanforised forms; the latter being the original format of denim jeans. Unsanforised denim has a tendency to shrink when exposed to heat and moisture. A warm soak is the usual treatment before the first wear. Of course, this means going with at least a size larger (sometimes even two) than what you’d usually buy, lest you end up with an unwearable pair of expensive jeans post-soak.
To minimise sizing mistakes and guesswork, some brands also offer a “one-wash” option to remove most of the shrinkage beforehand. Despite the added work, unsanforised denim has its fair share of fans. Unsanforised jeans tend to boast a greater amount of uneven texture (AKA “slub”) and hairiness than its sanforised counterparts, the exact amount varying from pair to pair. This tends to appeal more to those who desire a more unique-looking pair of jeans.
Other considerations are slightly more technical in nature. Factors like low/high tension weaves, fabric weight and left-hand/right-hand/broken twill will affect the feel and fade of the jeans. Leslie believes that it is important for the buyer to be cognisant of their preferences before purchasing. “For instance, if a customer prefers comfort over fading, we’d recommend low tension at lighter weight. However, if more aggressive fading is the priority, then high tension, heavier weight denim may be more suitable.”
Caring for raw denim
Due to its cultural status, it’s not surprising how raw denim comes with its own set of myths and beliefs. Hardcore purists would say how jeans only require a hanging outdoors for it to freshen up (like “in the old days”). Others would recommend sticking your favourite pair in the freezer (no joke) to minimise odours or putting off washing for as long as possible in order to get “sick fades”.
As with most things in life, the key lies in balance. Washing your raw denim jeans too often can have an adverse effect on its texture and feel. However, not washing them at all will result in abrasive dirt particles wearing away at the fabric and increase the risk of tears and blowouts. If you’re wearing your jeans on a near-daily basis, it is best that you wash them once every six months. There are also laundry detergents that are formulated specifically for coloured clothing and even denim.
“You can flip raw denim jeans inside-out to wash it to reduce indigo-loss. I’ve also heard of people soaking their jeans in white vinegar to prevent the indigo from fading, although none of us at The Denim Store have ever done that!”
Brands to look out for
- Any one of the Osaka 5
- Sugar Cane (for vintage reproduction denim)
- The Flat Head (known for its fading properties)
- Roy Denim (literally a one-man show)
- Kerbside & Co. (workwear-inspired pieces)
- Biro Company
- Journal Projects (custom denim apparel)
Honourable mention: Iron Heart (UK-based; one of the toughest/overbuilt raw denim jeans on the market)
Like leather boots, raw denim has its way of telling a story. Aside from the lifestyle of the wearer, it’s also a testament to a craft that has lasted decades. Durability and greater overall value are the hallmarks of raw denim, although the exact appeal of it differs from person to person. Some prefer it due to how well it complements their personal sense of style, while others are naturally drawn to it as part of a larger sub-culture.
There are even those who enjoy the juxtaposition of luxury on something that couldn’t be any more blue-collar. Whatever the reasons, raw denim has definitely cottoned (pun intended) on. In a time when fast fashion has supplanted the majority of the clothing industry, it’s reassuring to see that there are still manufacturers out there focusing on high quality garments, as well as folks who are willing to invest in them.