Jeans are often considered a generic product, so ubiquitous in our wardrobes that they’re the single most widely-worn garment on the planet. As such, to invest in a pair can, to some, still seem a little excessive.
But for those obsessed with jeans – and there are some real obsessives out there – this is to ignore the fact that denim is a speciality cloth which, while easy to mass-produce in basic form, is really an artisanal one when traditional and time-intensive techniques of weaving, cutting and indigo dyeing are applied.
What Differentiates The Best Jeans Brands?
You’d be hard pressed to find a clothing brand that doesn’t sell a pair of jeans. Everything from H&M to Dolce & Gabbana will offer takes on denim, with the price tag varying drastically. But so will the quality. High street brands often look to cut corners when it comes to production, which is how they keep prices so low.
But designer jeans don’t necessarily equate to quality either, as you’ll more often than not be paying for the brand name. When after the best bang for your buck, and a level of construction that is second to none, you’ll want to turn to brands that base their entire collections around denim.
Blackhorse Lane Ateliers
Why bother buying from one of these specialist jeans-makers? Authenticity is one gain: they tend to make their jeans as they were made pre-1960s – when the commodification of jeans really began – using rickety old looms and laborious, typically chemical-free methods.
Selvedge is one such detail the best jeans brands opt for, the result of which tends to make for a vastly superior raw denim cloth, one of greater durability and, over time, character. And such a longer lasting garment is, almost by definition, a more sustainable one. Add in other details: cotton thread, chain stitching, felled seams, copper rivets and these denim specialists’ products can be hard to beat.
The Best Jeans Brands In The World
Founder Levi Strauss was, in effect, the inventor of the five-pocket western jeans style, back in 1873. Today, Levi’s endlessly imitated 501 model is arguably the benchmark style.
Still the best option for affordable jeans, the brand also has its Levi’s Vintage Clothing line, offering more upscale and period-specific cuts. It’s the vintage pairs – denoted by the big ‘E’ on that famed red pocket tag – that denim collectors happily pay sometimes thousands for.
One of the so-called Osaka Five – five brands that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, kick-started the Japanese renaissance in shuttle loom-made denim – Full Count is recognised for its use of Zimbabwean extra long-staple cotton.
This makes for tough but also soft fabrics and, founder Mikiharu Tsujita argues, is closest to the denim produced in jeans’ 1940s and 1950s heyday. The 0105 model is considered its definitive style and, as that numbering hints at, it’s a reproduction of a Levi’s 501 model, specifically the one launched in 1953. Denim-heads are very particular…
Warehouse & Co
Another of the Osaka Five, Warehouse & Co was founded in 1995 by two brothers who’d trained at Full Count and Evisu (with Studio D’Artisan and Denime making the five) but broke away to do their own thing.
That thing is arguably the most wide-ranging exploration of styles from throughout jeans history, from slimmer fitting cowboy styles of the early 1900s to those more typical of factory workwear styles of the 1930s. Its 900 and 1001 styles are among its best.
Although many of the main players in the Japanese denim scene now have three decades of expertise under their belts, the market is still seeing the launch of new players. TCB – as in Elvis’ motto ‘taking care of business’ – was launched by Hajime Inoue in 2008.
On the surface it’s another brand specialising in stitch-for-stitch reproductions of vintage American styles. But TCB makes itself the perfect brand for those looking to get into serious Japanese denim for the simplicity of its offer: it’s boiled down to a handful of archetypal styles, each defined by the decade from which they take their inspiration.
‘Wabi sabi’ is the Japanese philosophy of making things with random but deliberate imperfections, thus imbuing the object with personality and uniqueness. And it’s that thinking that Japanese brand Oni applies in the making of its ‘secret denim’ – and the production method really is a secret.
What it provides, however, is a heavyweight fabric that is slubby, highly textured and certainly distinctive. Oni offers a wide range of styles, from its 612 relaxed tapered model, to – for those who are still into skinny jeans – the 668, probably the slimmest fitting raw jeans on the market.
Established in 2003 and run as a partnership between a Japanese designer and an English manager, Iron Heart is suitably named. Its super heavyweight jeans – there’s a 25oz model, for example, one of the heaviest available – feel like they’re literally bullet-proof, which is why they’re especially popular with bikers who want to forego leathers.
Their initial cardboard-like feel can be dissuasive. But have patience, break them in and it becomes clear why Iron Heart jeans are renowned for producing spectacular high-contrast fades.
It’s British, and it’s co-founded by a woman (in what is quite a male world) – but these aren’t the only characteristics of the Brighton-based Dawson Denim.
Yes, the brand – launched by Kelly Dawson and Scott Ogden – uses Japanese selvedge fabrics for its hand-made jeans, but it’s also refined its own fits, such as its signature wide leg jeans. Its black denim jeans are especially notable.
Another Japanese denim brand obsessed with mimicking styles of yesteryear down to the smallest detail, Sugar Cane has won plaudits for doing what it does at a notably more affordable price point – a product perhaps of it being part of the giant Toyo Enterprises, the clothing company behind the likes of Sun Surf and Buzz Rickson.
This isn’t to say Sugar Cane isn’t progressive: one of its custom denims is a 50/50 blend of cotton and sugar cane fibres, resulting in a stand-out slubbiness.
Founded in 2012 by David Hiett – the man who also founded the environmentally-aware streetwear brand Howies – Hiett was launched with a similarly progressive mission in mind.
When a clothing manufacturer based in Cardigan, Wales, moved production overseas, it left dozens of expert machinists unemployed. Hiett spotted the opportunity to use that talent to establish a company making a British pair of jeans. Hiett even hires ‘breakers’ to wear some pairs pre-sale, so they’re authentically rather than artificially aged.
Naked & Famous
If a classic cut or heritage style of jeans is not for you, Canadian brand Naked & Famous is there to offer something different – a mega-heavyweight 32oz pair perhaps, or a denim blended with linen, or in a simultaneously left and right hand twill that gives a subtle chequerboard pattern.
Some ideas are pure novelty (a scratch ‘n’ sniff denim anyone?), but Naked & Famous pushes the possibilities for denim, and at a good price too.
Considering jeans to be a quintessentially American product, Tony Patella and Pete Searson wanted to create a brand that made what it offered in America – as even the biggest names in denim history have long avoided doing. So, in 2008, they started doing just that, right down to the use of Cone Mills’s famed White Oak cloth.
Minimalistic in style, with signature sizeable rear pockets, Tellason’s jeans have decidedly un-American style names though: Ankara, Sheffield and Ladbroke Grove among them.
Jeans are, at heart, a classic garment – and most men wear styles that reflect that. But that’s not to say there isn’t scope for reinvention, and Dutch brand G-Star’s Elwood model – which borrowed the idea of an articulated knee section from biker trousers and applied it to jeans – is a case in point.
Joss Van Tilburg’s brand has gone on to be among the most progressive in the denim market, notably for its driving the use of organic and recycled denim.
Not all leading raw denim jeans-makers are American or Japanese. If, not that long ago, a respected Chinese denim brand would have been a contradiction, well, here it is.
Red Cloud was founded a decade ago by artist Raymon Ren in Shenyang City but is only now gaining traction in the west. And rightly so: the quality is up there with many Japanese brands, as is the attention to a retro aesthetic, but – this being China – the pricing is, for the moment at least, easier on the wallet.
London clothing factory owner Hans Ates was so dismayed by a pair of jeans he bought that he decided to create his own brand, keeping it small and local, while bringing back some long-forgotten denim construction details, the likes of the one-piece fly.
The company also places an emphasis on transparency – if you’re in north-east London, you’re welcome to call in unannounced and survey the construction process.
Sweden’s little known obsession with denim – it was producing home-grown brands as early as 1966 – is these days best encapsulated by Gothenburg-based Nudie, founded by one-time European design manager for Lee, Maria Erixson.
More fashion-forward than many denim brands, Nudie has also used exclusively organic cotton for its jeans since 2012, and pioneered the idea of offering a free repair service through its shops. When your Nudie jeans really are at the end of the road, Nudie will recycle them into rugs and car seat covers.