The Levi’s 501 came out in 1890 and sturdy, rivet-enforced work pants quickly became a staple of the men who built the American West: railroad workers, lumberjacks, cowboys. But, as most of us know, denim didn’t stop there. Jeans have proliferated beyond social-class and nationality. Today, they’re worn every day by billions of people around the globe.
As with many products, materials and construction contribute immensely to the quality of the final product. That said, construction isn’t the problem it once was. “Most factories in the world, regardless of where the jean is made, can cut and sew a jean pretty well,” says Kiya Babzani, founder of Self Edge. So if you’re really looking for a better pair of jeans, it pays to focus on the fabric — who made it, and how?
The U.S., once a major player in producing denim, no longer produces high-end selvedge denim; the country’s last major mill, Cone Denim White Oak, retired its looms at the end of 2017. The silver lining here is that world’s top mills continue to expand on America’s legacy as the birthplace of denim, employing modern techniques and sustainable methods. Here are four you should know.
Milan, Italy: Founded in 1938, Candiani is a family-run business that specializes in sustainably-focused denim. Nearly 40-percent of the mill’s products go to Los Angeles-based denim brands, and the company has an outpost in L.A. called the Downtown Design Center that focused on innovations in fabric and washing.
410 Atheletic Fit Jeans by Lucky Brand $99
Straight – Warren Jeans by Mott & Bow $128
Slim Black Selvedge Jeans by Shockoe Atelier $225
Fukuyama, Japan: In 1883, Sukejiro Kaihara started a indigo kasuri weaving business in Hiroshima Prefecture. The company developed the first Japanese rope-dyed denim in 1970 and quickly grew into one of the biggest denim producers in the country. Kaihara Denim makes 42 million meters of denim per year, the majority of which is stretch. Around three-quarters it is sold overseas, found in jeans offered by Uniqlo, Gap and J.Crew, among others.
The Slim Fit Jean by Everlane $68
Luke Regular Fit Jeans by Saturdays NYC $185
Steady Eddie Dry Selvage Jeans by Nudie Jeans $275
Osaka, Japan: Though founded in 1888 as a spinning company, it wasn’t until nearly a century later that Kurabo started making raw yarn for denim in its Okayama plant. This transition proved pivotal, paving the way for the first-ever Japanese-made selvedge denim, dubbed KD-8. Kurabo has continued to expand, opening plants in Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil. In 1985, it developed the world’s first “uneven yarn,” which adds character and texture to denim.
484 Slim-fit Jeans by J.Crew $98
Wilson 1770 Jeans by NN07 $207
M4 Low Rise Straight Jeans by 3×1 $365
Ibara, Japan: In 1950, Tamotsu Kuroki founded a textile mill in Okayama, and within two decades, the mill was solely producing denim. The company uses the naturally soft water from the region to dye and process its denim, and after production, the water is treated so that it can be returned to the river (which irrigates nearby farmland). Kuroki also uses solar panels to produce 10% of its annual power.
The Democratic Jean by Taylor Stitch $145
Earnest DYO Jeans by Noble Denim $205
ST-100XK Kibata Unsanforized Jean by 3sixteen $230