A pair of beloved, time-worn jeans can do strange things to a man. A few months ago I asked a male colleague to check out my posterior. It seemed like the bloke's equivalent of "does my bum look big in this?" but that morning a breezy, threadbare patch in the seat of my favourite Lee jeans had rent itself into a six-centimetre-long tear. I was hoping he couldn't see anything, large or small. I inched sheepishly up the hall under his reluctant gaze. "I can't see a thing," he said, wincing, "apart from your undies."
I shouldn't have been surprised. For almost six months I'd put off jeans shopping in favour of other, more enjoyable activities: four years of tax returns, watching reruns of the Swans losing the 2006 grand final by a point, dusting the blinds. Jeans may be the mainstay of almost every modern man's casual wardrobe but for me, buying a perfectly fitting new pair is as bewildering as quantum mechanics.
Denim's origins stretch back 500 years to two ancient Mediterranean towns. In the mid-16th century, fishermen and sailors in the Italian seaport of Genoa wore a heavy cotton material and its moniker, "Genoese", was over time anglicised to jeans. A few hundred kilometres west,
the southern French city of Nîmes, then famous for its fabric, was producing a heavy cotton twill "de Nîmes" (of, or from, Nîmes), that eventually became denim.
Almost 300 years later, another European pairing would bring denim jeans to an expanding American population. In 1871 in San Francisco, a Latvian immigrant by the name of Jacob Davis put an idea to a burgeoning jeans manufacturer called Levi Strauss, who had come from Bavaria. Davis, a tailor in Nevada, had found a unique method of strengthening weak points in his "Blue $2.50" jeans but lacked the necessary funds to take out a patent on his discovery.
"The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots," he wrote in his proposal for a partnership with Strauss, adding, "I found the demand so large that I cannot make them up fast enough ... My nabors are getting yealouse of these success."
Strauss agreed to back him, the patent was taken out and in 1873 they began making "waist overalls" - as jeans were then called - for working men. By the mid-1970s, thanks in part to post-war popularisation of the fashion by silver-screen heroes such as James Dean, Grace Kelly, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, annual sales of jeans in the US had ballooned to more than 500 million pairs, and trucks full of jeans were third to shipments of liquor and cigarettes as a favourite target of hijackers. Today, two billion pairs are sold worldwide each year, and it's a global industry worth more than $50 billion annually. Davis's neighbours were right to be yealouse.
So the question is: why, in more than a century, has technology not produced the perfect pair of jeans? Two years ago, Levi's introduced new sizings for women based on their curves that sound more like fonts than fits: the Slight, Demi and Bold. Blokes, however, continue to get short shrift. Apart from the cut, we rely on leg and waist measurements for the fit. Which is perhaps two too many things for the male brain to get right all at once.
Gus Carmichael is the lithe, long-blond-haired denim designer for notoriously cool Sydney-born brand Ksubi and it's his job to know what works in denim. The major difference, he says, between men's and women's jeans is the rise - the distance from the waistband to the crotch
seam. "And the radical change in the past 10 years," he says, "has been the skinny jean - the Joey Ramone look - where the rise isn't as big." Men's jeans also have a flatter shape through the seat - "it doesn't cater for the booty" - and the waist band is straighter.
But the switch from what Levi's branded as "Big" in the '90s to leaner styles wasn't a boon for everyone. "If you're too skinny and you wear a skinny cut, it doesn't look great," says Carmichael, "and if you're well built and you wear a skinny jean, it's not great either." For meatier men, he recommends a more relaxed style; for those who gad about on chicken legs like me, he suggests a slim, straight style rather than super-skinny rocker-style jeans. "We're also going to slouchier styles that aren't as hugging and fitting," says Carmichael. "The male jegging was a crude fright that we had to recoil from."
Ksubi's new-season stock isn't as embellished as earlier designs, a sign perhaps that restraint is the new black. "It'll always have the mess and noise component that we're known for," says Carmichael, "but these new styles don't have to tell the world about it. The trend in colours is to a darker, more versatile wash rather than the more casual, more obvious, lighter wash."
Paddington's asphalt catwalk, William Street, is not the first place you'd go for casual, day-to-day wear but it was where the first Nudie Jeans Concept Store in the world opened in 2004 - beating even Sweden, where the brand originated in 1999. In a converted terrace, an industrial sewing machine sits by the counter that floor staff use to tailor, repair and recycle jeans (customers get a 20 per cent discount by handing over their worn-in, worn-out pairs of Nudie jeans, which are then reworked and resold).
I'm here for a new pair and ready to Nudie up. Nick Amezdroz, the tall, ebullient, Nordic-hued chief fitter, rattles off the 10 basic styles (which come in a number of washes) as though he's checking off Jack Sparrow's crew list - "Tight Long John, Thin Finn, Grim Tim, Slim Jim, Sharp Bengt, Average Joe ..." - and suggests the Thin Finn Dry Selvage as the starting point. Unlike pirate crew lists of old, he says all Nudie cuts are for both men and women.
Selvage refers to denim made on shuttle looms that move back and forwards across the "warp" to produce a naturally woven "self-edge" - hence selvage - on the fabric. The easiest way to tell selvage is to turn the leg opening inside out and check the seams - selvage denim isn't overlocked and is often distinguished with white and red or orange-striped edging on the inside seam. And dry means that the jeans are essentially the raw product - dyed, cut and sewn.
For denim junkies, dry selvage is the only game in town. The lengthy breaking-in process (Nudie recommends a six-month minimum before washing) produces personalised distress patterns - troughs behind knees, creasing around the groin and outlines of wallets and phones on pockets - that indigo-stained geeks rhapsodise about in online threads. Even the Nudie handbook doesn't shrink from the presumably rancid awfulness this produces, noting that the smell of "a well-worn pair of dry jeans just before wash ... could most probably raise the dead".
Predictably, the Thin Finns feel as if I've stepped into rigid, waist-high steel tubes (stovepipes, even). Made from a Japanese denim woven on 1950s looms (it takes 10 times longer to weave than regular denim), they're noticeably heavy and the fit is firm across the front and the crotch. For a moment my lower body feels as if it's going into claustrophobic shock and I flail about like the robot from Lost in Space.
Amezdroz, who has fitted everyone from six-month-old children to 80-year-old grandparents - as well as a blind man who told him, "I don't need to be told that these jeans look amazing, I can feel it" - assures me that they'll stretch and wash into exactly my fit. Jeans, like shoes, are "living garments", continually moulding to the wearer. So much so that, in 1996, the FBI even used the individual manufacturing and wear characteristics of jeans worn by armed criminals during a series of robberies in Washington state as evidence in their prosecution. "You have to realise that these jeans are the tightest they'll ever be," Amezdroz says, "but it is hard to convince people to walk out of here the first time!"
I must still look slightly dubious because Amezdroz dashes off, returning with a pair of pre-loved 12-month-old Thin Finns, washed perhaps five times. They're a revelation - gloriously soft, airy and beautifully distressed. If I closed my eyes I could believe I had slipped into silk pyjamas.
At the other end of the Sydney jeans spectrum in Pitt Street Mall, Just Jeans isn't, as the name might imply, just jeans. But it's close. One entire wall has jeans neatly stacked on shelves like a striated blue colour chart, including an impressive selection of Lee Riders, Calvin Kleins and a bank of Levi's from the iconic 501 to the stonewash 504 and the gaudy 568 Soft Shock jean. After trying on mostly skinny jeans, I'm struck by just how much jean there is in a 501. And how dated the straight, untapered style feels. The 511s have a more modern, resin-based raw finish. "A lot of people say that the cut of the 501 has changed over the years," says a helpful salesperson, "but it's just as likely that they're not dealing with their own changing shape."
Continuing the search in Elizabeth Bay, I drop into Meanwhile, which sells only menswear. Dion Kovac sells a curated range of labels from Japan and Europe, mostly in a classic straight-leg cut. "Everything fits a bit differently," says Kovac, "so it's just a matter of trying them on."
A pair of jeans from Swedish brand Indigofera in exactly the same size as I usually wear offers a salient, painful lesson about sizing. The only way I am going to button up these dungarees is to borrow Kate Moss's waist and legs. A 32-inch waist isn't what it used to be - even 47 seconds ago. Kovac passes me a 34 that fits well - with the bonus that I can breathe. I don't like the low pocket with its slight vertical wrinkles, however. All this time in change rooms is beginning to turn me into a denim dork.
But a change room is, by its very nature, transformative. And at the end of a long day's shopping, in the Somedays change rooms, my perspective is about to change. Somedays is a retail store in Surry Hills stocking a range of jeans from the US, Japan and Europe, including Cheap Monday, Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair and Dr Denim. Hanna Magnussen, a bright, cheery Swede, starts me in a Dr Denim Snap cut, a unisex, skinny-fit jean with a colourful, overdyed range that is quite literally running out the door. "They're our most popular item at the moment," she says.
As I heave the denim up my leg, I know it's not going to fit. Magnussen urges me to keep going. I suck in, button up and, well, bulge. For the first time in my life I can see a perfect outline of my kneecaps through the fabric. I feel like Baryshnikov on a bad day. Magnussen isn't as circumspect. "I think they look good," she says. "Some people would think they're too baggy around the ankle."
As she says this, a gorgeous, dimpled girl steps out from behind the curtain of the change room opposite. She peers at my spray-on jeans and wrinkles her nose in contemplation. "Are they the same jeans I'm trying on?" she asks. Magnussen nods. "Why do they look 10 times better on you than they do on me!" she laughs. I blink disbelievingly. Then it dawns that I'm not really searching for the ideal jeans, I'm searching for the ideal approval. I turn to Magnussen. "I'll take them." (s)
Tips for jeans shopping
1- Know where you'll be wearing your jeans. Plainer, darker and simpler washes are smarter and more able to be dressed up with a jacket or a shirt. The more complicated the wash and the lighter the colour, the more casual and restrictive the jeans will be.
2- Understand that the jeans will stretch. If the waist fits, resist going up a size unless it is seriously uncomfortable - denim will stretch in the places of most tension.
3- At the same time, don't buy something that is obviously too small for your leg, hip and waist size. As US talk show host Ricki Lake has said, "Jeans don't lie!"
4- Dry denim will shrink more than washed denim. Be prepared to lose up to a centimetre in the leg.
5- Fits and sizings vary widely, so give yourself enough time to try a number of
pairs at a number of stores.
6- Avoid sitting on white couches and seats in new jeans - the blue dye runs easily.
7- To help retain the colour, wash the jeans inside out in a cool wash and dry in the shade. Some people suggest adding salt or vinegar to the wash to help retain the colour.
Pick of the pants
General Pants Co
Who: everyday denim wearers; brand browsers.
General Pants is the go-to store for everyday denim aficionados. And at its Denim Co store in the Queen Victoria Building is a wall of jeans reaching to the ceiling, from Levi's to Lee and Cheap Monday. Says the(sydney)magazine's fashion director, Penny McCarthy: "General Pants offers a fantastic jeans service [personal denim shopping]. You make an appointment, then they do all the leg work."
Who: sleek-jeans geeks
Acne's signature red stitching has been the proverbial rag to denim lovers for more than 15 years. The Swedish brand is famous for producing unisex jeans and hardcore dry denims. In addition to denim, its Sydney store - which opened in 2009 in a bright converted terrace with predictable Nordic sleekness - sells menswear, womenswear, footwear and accessories.
Who: Nudie tragics; the laundry averse.
The first of the Nudie concept stores, this reworked Paddington terrace houses the sweep of the annual four-season Nudie range, including its "injection collections" and one-off, collector's items from its Selvage Lab that uses Italian, Japanese or US selvage denims, silver rivets and buttons and a coin pocket with a selvage edge.
Who: refined style seekers; 40-something inner-city blokes.
Style doyens Tim Leckie and Dion Kovac stock a beautifully curated range of men's jeans, from Edwin to Indigofera and, as of next season, the celebrated French brand APC. In the minimal, sedate space, they also stock menswear from Rittenhouse, Vanishing Elephant and Dana Lee. www.meanwhilestore.com
Who: urban enthusiasts; cutting-edge Bondi boys.
Started by Sydney party boys Dan Single and George Gorrow, Ksubi (originally Tsubi) is now part of the Bleach clothing group but still offers edgy Sydney style. Its three Sydney stores stock men's and women's denim, footwear and eyewear as well as men's and women's fashion. www.ksubi.com