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The evolution of male jeans

Most men buy blue jeans purely as a matter of habit. They are entirely loyal to the brand that best suited them when they were 16.
/ Source: Financial Times

Most men buy blue jeans purely as a matter of habit. They are entirely loyal to the brand that best suited them when they were 16.

The cut of the cloth — unlike the girth of their bodies — remains unchanged from year to passing year. They buy a new pair annually on jean-buying pilgrimages to Gap, the Levi’s store or Top Shop, and show an almost prayer-like devotion to the exact same style, regardless of fit and flattery. Buy jeans (the way women do) to make yourself look taller or slimmer or sexier? Bah, never!

Yet recently, everyone from Louis Vuitton to Ralph Lauren, Dior Homme, Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci have started showing denim as part of their men’s wear collections - responding, apparently, to market demand.

“Men’s buying habits are changing,” says designer Tom Ford. “Men now are as vain as women. And straight men really are looking at butts in the shop mirror to see how their pants fit. Sportsmen like David Beckham get really dressed up and get away with it.”

But the question remains: why should men invest over $300 in a pair of designer jeans when they can secure a pair of Levi’s 501s, with 143 years of genuine denim heritage, for less than a quarter of the price? In short, because 501s look bloody awful on most men, especially those with any of the following attributes: short stumpy legs, long skinny legs, even the slightest paunch, a flat bottom, no bottom, a very large bottom, a high waist, a very low waist, muscular thighs, very skinny thighs, or even an ugly face. Time to wake up, face the mirror, and take advantage of what’s out there. The guy next to you probably already has.

How else to explain the phenomenon that is the LA denim label For All Mankind? While labels like Yves Saint Laurent, DSquared, Gucci, Dior Homme and Dolce & Gabbana continue to dominate the top end, For All Mankind has cornered the upper-middle market. Established three years ago as a women’s brand, the label’s sales skyrocketed from $12 million in its first year of trading to more than $64 million by the second, and a men’s line has just been launched for autumn/winter.

The jeans “make you feel better and look sexier”, says Tim Kaeding, one of the design team. “They make you look thinner and taller, no matter how thin and tall you already are. But most of all, they make your arse look good.” You could expect him to be biased, but “my measure of success is other people’s opinion”, he declares. “If someone doesn’t compliment you within the first day of wearing them, then quite honestly, the product is no good.”

“First and foremost, it was the fit that we worked on,” says Kaeding. “It’s what brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana offer, but their jeans cost twice as much as ours.”

Celebrity endorsement has also helped, with Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani and, with the recent launch of its men’s wear line, Brad Pitt and Will Smith, all sporting For All Mankind jeans — ones they were not given but bought. Celebrities, it would seem, understand the importance of having an impressive rear view.

Kaeding admits that the biggest problem when it comes to the men’s market is trying to get guys to try out something new. “Guys in general fall back on what’s easy and what they know,” observes Kaeding. “Which is why they still go into Levi’s and buy jeans straight off the shelf.”

Men are also less likely to get bored with something, and denim has stood the test of time. It has been reinvented since its creation in 1860 and adopted by those who have preferred not to fit in with the mainstream.

Whether championed by James Dean in the 1950s, Andy Warhol’s factory dwellers in the 1960s, Calvin Klein’s Studio 54 cronies in the 1970s, Nick Kamen in a launderette in the 1980s, or Brit bands like Oasis in the 1990s, denim has somehow always managed to appear fresh and rebellious. It’s current incarnation, as designer fabric of choice, has had no less impact on the accepted notions of what constitutes high-end fashion for men.

Although it was Calvin Klein who had the first major success with designer denim in the 1970s, it was actually Austrian designer Helmut Lang who kick-started the current obsession with high-fashion denim when he introduced his first jeans-line in the mid-1990s. It became an instant bestseller and continues to lead the market today.

Recent high-profile additions to the designer denim fray include Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who last year teamed up with Levi’s for his first men’s catwalk collection and produced a collection of witty slogan-printed designs. Fellow countryman Yohji Yamamoto also explored the possibility of desperately expensive denim with a collection of deep-dyed and printed jeans that retailed for more than $500 a pair.

Even the British men’s wear establishment has recognized the importance of denim, with Savile Row tailor Richard James incorporating denim suits into his permanent ready-to-wear collection and Gieves & Hawkes offering jeans as part of both its casual and bespoke ranges.

“We’ve used it ever since we were asked to make a bespoke suit out of denim for a customer,” says James. “We found denim in Japan that’s perfect for tailoring. It’s not too hard so it can do everything a suit is supposed to do. The end result can fit into the most grand or formal occasion. But wearing it means you’re not playing the game.”

James discovered that the suit had fans right across his client base. “It’s not generational,” he says. “Our denim customers range from early 20s right up to guys in their 70s.” Chuck out the chinos today.