From selvedge seams and chain stitching to White Oak cone mills and sanforization, no topic of nerdery is off limits for the denim aficionado. Online message boards are littered with images of denim-heads proudly showing off “sick honeycombs” (the weathered lines behind the knee) after washing their jeans for the first time in 8 months.
Like the limited-edition sneaker market, there are just enough consumers out there willing to spend a hefty sum on just the right pair of jeans. Brands like Japanese maker Momatora sell bespoke denim for over $2000. In Momatora’s case, each piece is made of 100% Zimbabwean cotton, woven by hand on old looms that were traditionally used to create kimonos.
Thankfully, like many trends, the meaningful details have filtered into the mainstream. Details like selvedge seams aren’t simply victims of the everything-made-previous movement (like $5 slices of toast, for example), but actual signifiers of quality. And you need not travel to Japan with $2,000 for a pair, either.
Thanks to the handmade in USA zeitgeist that has taken the market by storm in the past ten years, numerous companies have brought selvedge looms back to the US (most were sold to Japan after WWII) and are sourcing better materials to create some truly high quality pairs of America’s favorite 5-pocket pant. In more and more cases, however, many of the “Made in USA” claims are disingenuous. While numerous companies have ambitiously sewn that most precious of labels on the inside yoke of their creations, laws are beginning to change. Sooner than later, 100% of the product (from source materials through production) will need to be done on US soil, which means that label is going to become significantly more scarce.
If and when the laws are rolled out, one company that won’t have to change a thing is Bluer Denim.
Jeff Shafer, the creator of Bluer Denim, has spent almost two dozen years in the clothing industry. While many of his projects have seen much success (including the Ridgefield-based Agave Denim), this shift in the market several years ago opened the doors to an idea on which he had been ruminating for over a decade.
“A lot of people like knocking things off and pretending they’re doing something new with it. But they’re just trying to get a little piece of the pie,” says Jeff. “I don’t need that little sliver of the pie, and the world doesn’t need another of anything out there that’s already good. I’m either looking for something to actually improve upon, or I’m going to do something new.”
Back in 2009, that “something new” was a jean that was sourced, designed, and manufactured in the USA that was actually affordable for the younger generation that wanted it most.
“Material costs keep going up. Retailers keep asking for higher margins. And all the while consumers want lower prices. This was my challenge.”
It hasn’t always been this way for jeans. For half a decade, denim in the US was a workman’s uniform exclusively. And then the 1960s happened.
“In the ’60s, denim suddenly entered the daily wardrobe of students,” says Jeff. “And, of course, rockstars added it to their uniform. And also around that time, both Europe and Japan started to adopt more elements from the western clothing aesthetic, including denim. So it was suddenly everywhere. The largest maker of jeans at the time, Levi’s, went from being a workwear company to a fashion brand basically overnight.”
But through the ’80s and ’90s, the focus was on driving prices down, which meant outsourcing everything away from the United States. “It’s a bummer to see how many factories have shut down all of their US operations. Even in China now, it’s getting more expensive. Factories have been forced to move to Bangladesh, which now literally have rivers the color of indigo-dye and shores lined with lint.”
It’s generally accepted that production of denim as a textile started in the cities of Genoa, Italy, and Nimes, France. But it was Levi’s in America that made the first riveted jeans in the late 1800s. “So we’re basically the creators of the modern jean. And I’m sitting there in 1992, and the best thing we had in the USA was Lucky. And the fabric came from South America. I thought – why isn’t America making the best jeans in the world?”
A number of companies have taken a stab at it, but Bluer is one of the few that not only gets it right, but does so for under $150. Cotton is grown in Georgia and woven by cone mills in North Carolina. Concepting and design is done in Portland, and final construction made by hand in Los Angeles.
“For the first time, it was viable to create a 100% made and sourced in USA jean affordable to the new generation by selling direct to consumers.” And until the Bluer than Indigo shop opens in Portland on Alberta street later this Spring, the company has done all sales online at bluerdenim.com.
Along with the accessible price point comes a social effort to recycle and repurpose denim for those who need it. You can send in a pair of gently used denim and get a $5 credit toward your next pair.
“Bluer collects a ton of denim this way, and we give most of those jeans to someone in need.” And if they’re not reusable, Bluer shreds and recycles them.
“It’s one small step to repair what my generation did. It’s going to take the next generation to fix the world. The next generation will be better. I want that.”
He pauses. “And I want to make some really great jeans.”