The secratt of them Pants is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots . . . I wish to make you a Proposition cap that you should take out the Pantent in my name as I am the inventor of it.
—from a letter sent to Levi Strauss by Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor employed by Strauss in the early 1870s
One hundred twenty-seven years after patent no. 139,121 was granted, a worldwide infatuation with rivets, along with leather waistband patches, red tags, orange stitching, and other insignia, can be blamed for the ordinary-looking jacket, lined in cotton scarf fabric sprinkled with the word Gucci, selling for $790 on the men’s floor of Saks Fifth Avenue this spring.
Gucci’s isn’t the only denim Saks has ordered this season. Despite the stern instructions issued by Vogue earlier this year—”Let’s be clear: You know the drill for spring. It’s time to look ladylike; it’s time to go disco”—designer denim is holding its own against pussycat-bow blouses and logo handbags. At Saks, there is denim so stiff it must be dry-cleaned to preserve its firmness, denim pummeled to a state of precocious limpness, denim treated to appear crusty with filth. A dungaree jacket by Anna Sui (limp), trimmed with fake pearls and pink rhinestone flowers, is $445; for $273, there’s a Versus Jeans Couture version (stiff) in dark denim so thin and disreputable-looking it could have belonged to Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. A D&G model, which like the Sui harks back to the home-decorated ethos of the 1960s and has a thick red band of mirrored fabric at cuff and neck, is $247; a similar example, without mirrors, from Helmut Lang, is displayed next to Lang’s notorious splattered jeans marred with white stuff that is supposed to look like pigment, as if you were an abstract expressionist working on a drip painting instead of someone who just spent $195 at a department store. (Gucci has a pair of used-looking jeans in its line too, though instead of gesso stains these have permanent crotch creases.)
Saks may be full of imaginatively conceived denim, but others have explored the subject even more deeply. At Polo Sport on West Broadway, Ralph Lauren jeans and jackets are for sale alongside used garments that come with tags reading “This vintage product has been hand-picked for its unique accompaniment to the Ralph Lauren collections.” The unique accompaniment includes a stack of 30-year-old Western shirts whose prices range from $75 to $495, and a for once naturally faded Levi’s jacket identified as a “second edition” and priced at $1645.
Of course, before you part with $1645, you might want to find out what a second-edition Levi’s jacket is. Seth Weisser, the owner of the philosophically named What Comes Around Goes Around, a vintage clothing store down the block from Polo, is the man to tell you: In 1997, Weisser came across a pair of late-19th-century jeans that had been pulled out of a Colorado coal mine and sold them to the Levi company for $25,000.
“We do sell a lot to Americans, but the Japanese are the ones who are really driving the market,” Weisser explained a few weeks ago, standing under a gaggle of Hawaiian shirts in his booth at the Metropolitan Vintage Clothing Show, an event that rolls into Manhattan several times a year and is the kind of place where you find people who like to talk about Victorian bathing suits and Pucci reticules. “About 10 years ago, people started being aware of the differences in vintage denim jeans—the dye processes, the leather labels, the stitching.” A second-edition Levi’s jacket, as it turns out, is from the ’50s and has two pockets and a big E on its red tag; a first edition from the ’40s has only one pocket and is exceedingly rare. Weisser, a fountain of arcana, can date a pair of jeans from such subtle clues as the lack of a stitched arc on the back pocket. (If it’s missing, it means the jeans are World War Two era, when rationing resulted in an arc that was painted rather than sewn. It wore off with the first washing.)
Vintage clothing dealers can be maddeningly evasive, so it’s nice that Weisser is forthcoming about where he finds his merchandise. “The West Coast, the Rocky Mountains— places where there were a lot of miners and farmers. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, men would buy a lot of pairs at a time—they’d shrink to fit and then wouldn’t fit, so they were just worn once. Sometimes they were even used as insulation. People have been known to pull 20 pairs out of the walls of an old house.”