Denim Dilemma


On Monday morning, a friend called with a breathless news bulletin: “Designer denim is over!” he announced. In truth, it was an epiphany, or maybe nothing more than wishful thinking. It would seem that anything as demented as $400 jeans would have to crash and burn pretty fast, but let’s not jinx it. The shelf life of this insanity has already surpassed our expectations.

On Sunday, an article in the Times addressed the philosophical crux of premium denim: Jeans were once rebelliously casual, becoming the “uniform” of anti-fashion in the ’50s. Today’s brands (they profiled a line from Akademiks called Prps) set their sights on the most pathetically elite victims of fashion. “The brand’s target buyer is not the person who rejects fashion but the denim supersnob: the type who studies interior stitching and other things that no one else notices.”

Is this not an exceedingly depressing thought? Denim used to exude apathetic coolness—a cowboy’s armor, a James Dean-style fuck you. At least, a pair of jeans was a unisex blank slate—made sexy, intimidating, or outrageous by the wearer. Now, denim is like everything else that sucks: a status symbol not about personal style but reflecting success in the boringest way possible. Fancy denim is not just about being rich, but being rich and having enough time and energy to be wearing the right jeans before they’re featured in the Sunday Styles.

All bitterness aside, though, who among us hasn’t succumbed to spending over $100 on jeans, at least once? Sure, there are some of you who just look good in everything, and that’s great for you. But most women who have thighs and butts, or who lack them, or are in any other way imperfectly proportioned, have come to depend on the flattering lines of well-cut pair of jeans. After a little stretch, a little hip-hugging, and a slight boot-cut to balance out those hips, it’s hard to go back to 501s, even if you’re not nearly a “denim supersnob”.

But heavily “distressed,” “whiskered,” (meaning lines behind the knees and below the hips have been lightened to fake a worn-out look) and bedazzled jeans have, for the most part, receded into fashion history. The flared legs have been reigned in to a less girly, straighter line, most of the butt-cracks have been covered, just barely. At the end of the day, the irony is that most of us want our jeans to look like they simply fit perfectly, not to be branded with a gigantic back-pocket trademark. If they fit just right, they are once again a blank slate to be embellished upon—just in an updated shape. We want the apathy, the industrial nonchalance, but we want our asses to look good, too. The immediate success of Salt Works jeans is proof enough—they look new (no pre-placed creases, thank you) but fit like they’re old, and best of all, there’s hardly a logo. The only problem is that they cost about $135.

The Gap has launched an aggressive denim campaign, giving hope to the theory that expensive jeans might soon be rendered obsolete. In commercials, the jeans have that anonymous, neutral look—they simply fit perfectly. And right now, they are on sale from $58 to $39.95. Like Joe’s jeans, they have created several lines based on body shapes: curvy, straight, original. There are subcategories, too: stretch, flare, long, ankle; and, of course, several different washes, though very straightforward.

Maybe the thinking wasn’t just wishful, after all. If brands like the Gap, Old Navy, Levi’s, etc. have been studying the designer denim madness, which is undoubtable, perhaps they can pick up a thing or two about the cut, and we will be able to brag about our jeans in a new way. We could respond to compliments by saying, “Oh, these? They were $40 at the Gap.” The effect, of course, would be that we have made the jeans look good, not the other way around.

In the dressing room at The Gap , I tried on curvy and original fit jeans (I know I’m not “straight”) in every color, length, and shape available. I looked like a middle-schooler, a frumpy mom, or, amazingly, a fat old man, in most of them. The crotches sagged, the butt was mushed, or the thighs bunched.

The day may come, but alas, it seems we’re not quite there yet.