Shopping for jeans used to mean choosing between Levi's and Wrangler. Now, there's such a dizzying array of indigos and denim varieties that it's hard to know where to start. We began the selection process by sitting down with industry legend Kiya Babzani, proprietor of Self Edge and expert on all things denim, to learn about high-end jeans and to find out what we should look for when we finally splash out on a new pair.
Raw denim makes it from the factory to the sales floor without being washed or rinsed. That makes for a stiffer pair of jeans at first, but it also means that the denim will conform to the shape and motion of its owner. Another benefit? A little thing called the environment.
"Chemical softeners get dumped into rivers and improperly disposed of all around the world when they're rinsing or washing your garment, and they do that so [denim] shows up soft right off the bat," says Babzani.
Free from chemical washes, raw denim can strike those used to factory pre-washed, faded, and distressed jeans as overly vintage in appearance, not to mention scratchy when worn up against skin. But Babzani cautions that these qualities are fleeting – though just how quickly raw denim jeans soften and develop wear patterns such as natural whiskers, back-of-the-knee honeycombs, and frayed pocket edges depends heavily on how often (and how aggressively) you wear them. If the stiffness bugs you, you can give them a good wash, but that will make patterns less personal and pronounced.
When you shop for raw denim, keep in mind that there are two kinds:
Sanforized denim: Most raw denim is sanforized, which means it's treated in a sanforization machine after it comes off the loom to reduce and prevent jeans from shrinking when you wash them. The upside is pure convenience and predictability. There's no need to soak the jeans before wear, as you’ll need to do with an unsanforized pair. "When you get really into denim, sanforized denim does not excite you at all because it's like they've taken the world's best strawberry that you dip in, like, Hershey's chocolate," says Babzani. "You had this amazing thing, and you ran it through the machine and killed it." But the slightly smoother texture and instant gratification that comes with buying a pair you won't have to soak before wearing wins over many a denim shopper.
Unsanforized denim: Unsanforized denim's draw is really its authenticity and how it reflects its wearer's individuality, "which is what makes it fun," according to Babzani. Purchase an unsanforized pair and the resulting jeans will show patterns and marks unique to you, worn into what started as loom-state fabric with no interventions other than your own movements. The first thing that will need to happen post-purchase is soaking to shrink the jeans, a process any good retailer of unsanforized denim should be ready to walk you through using step-by-step instructions.
Credit: Photograph by Talia Herman