How Vintage Denim Became a Thing (… and How It Created Heritage Fashion)

How History Has Shaped Our Jeans (Part 3)

The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the beginning of the designer jeans era in denim’s history. Those years also became the bedrock for the vintage denim scene. And that’s what ultimately led to the heritage fashion we’ve witnessed in the 2010s, which makes it such a pivotal time in the history of denim.

Learn how it all began when new markets started importing old blue jeans from America. Find out how vintage denim became big business. Discover how the seeds for heritage denim fashion were sewn in Japan. And, most surprisingly, read how seemingly small changes in production methods gave birth to a renewed interest in original jeans, which lead to today’s heritage denim fashion and the abundance of brands that has come along with it.

The four parts of the series about how history has shaped our jeans are:

The Start of the Vintage Denim Craze

In the late 1970s, jeans started changing. The Japanese were the first to notice. At the time, collectors like Kenji Hirano of the Banana Boat vintage store in Tokyo had already begun importing vintage denim, which they’d hunt down the homeland of blue jeans.

They were known as ‘pickers’—those who travelled across the American heartland to dig out old jeans that they’d bring to the indigo craving collectors in Asia. And there was an abundance of old stuff just sitting in attics and cellars; ready to be scooped up for peanuts.

One of the reasons it was easier in those early days was that most sellers didn’t realise the value of the pots of gold they were sitting on. On top of that, the older generations remembered the Great Depression, which meant they hadn’t thrown away their old jeans.

This has lead to accusations that especially the Japanese pillaged America for one of their national treasures; blue jeans. Frankly, the Americans just weren’t quick enough, and they didn’t care much about their old jeans at the time.

However, those Americans that did seize the opportunity, like Farley Enterprises, reaped big rewards. For others, the vintage denim craze has been a way to turn passion into careers. Collectors like Mike Harris and Brit Eaton are some of the few denim hunters still out there digging blue gold and making a living doing so. The vintage denim scene also continues to thrive at flea markets like the famous Rose Bowl in Pasadena, which is a vital meeting place for sellers and buyers.

Already in the mid-1980s, the commercial potential for vintage-inspired denim was uncovered.

Commercial Boom of Vintage Denim

During the early 1980s, vintage denim started gaining a foothold in Europe:

There was a boom of vintage stores in Europe selling American secondhand denim,” trend expert, Allan Kruse states in Blue Blooded.

Stores like American Classics in London and A.N.G.E.L.O. in Northern Italy were first-movers. Denim fans would also visit Camden Market and Portobello Road in London and Clignancourt in Paris to hunt for old jeans. Some department stores even started selling vintage denim. The stars were aligning.

The recession of the mid-1980s became the commercial tipping point for vintage denim. Authentic jeanswear, cowboy inspiration, 1950s nostalgia and the washed-down and shredded jeans were everywhere. Hits from Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album became anthems of the time, and the album cover perfectly captured the style too. That’s when designers and makers started realising the potential of vintage denim.

Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A. cover Levi's 501 jeans In the late ‘80s, Paris stores like Charles Chevignon’s Trading Post and Chipie’s Au Vieux Continent refined vintage denim with inspiration from Japan. Following a denim auction held in the French capital in 1992, vintage jeans and denim memorabilia that sold for astonishing amounts (for the time) made the news.

At the same time, vintage-style denim brands were sprouting across Europe. In 1991, Diesel launched their Old Glory collection inspired by the pre-designer era and made from exclusive Japanese and Italian denim. Replay and Chipie too developed authentic selections of jeans that replicated vintage Levi’s jeans. In 1994, Ralph Lauren launched RRL. By then, the vintage denim craze was fading in Europe and the US as sportswear was becoming the next big thing.

Vintage Denim Stalled in the Mid-1990s

In Japan, vintage and heritage-styled denim fashion never slowed down. But, in Europe and the US, sportswear almost choked it. Vintage denim was boiled down to a niche of enthusiasts. By the mid-1990s, the vintage stores in Paris closed down, and RRL became available only in Japan.

At the time, there was a booming supply of domestically grown denim brands from Japan, which was a result of shrinking supply of original American vintage jeans and economic troubles in Asia. As the yen was weakened and the Thai baht collapsed, import of jeans came to a halt. That’s when European and American denimheads started looking to Japan to get their denim fixes.

As a response to the growing competition from Europe and later Japan, Levi’s started developing reproduction products for the niche of denim enthusiasts in 1996. Eventually, in 1999, Levi’s Vintage Clothing and Levi’s RED were launched.

The vintage denim trend gave Levi’s a much needed boost to their credibility and an opportunity to distance themselves from emerging specialised brands like Diesel as fashion opinion leaders were once again wearing the ’original’ jeans,” Allan Kruse argues in Blue Blooded.

Although Levi’s correctly predicted the growing interest in vintage-inspired selvedge denim in the 2000s, they didn’t see it coming in ‘70s and ‘80s. In their defence, none of the brands did.

How Non-Selvedge Denim Started the Vintage Denim Craze

Levi’s is—and will always be—the benchmark when it comes to blue jeans. That’s especially true when it comes to vintage denim. But Levi’s also plays a central role at the beginning of the vintage denim craze.

In the 1970s, Levi’s and their direct competitors were challenged by emerging designer jeans brands. On top of that, production costs were increasing. To remain competitive, new cost-saving production technologies were implemented. For instance, sulfur was added to the indigo mix, and the ring-spun yarn was replaced with fuzzy open-end yarn.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for denim purists was when selvedge denim 501s were phased out in the early 1980s. Mass-market wide-loom denim had been around for decades. But not in the original “original,” the 501.

The move to non-selvedge denim was a matter of economics; it was a rational decision at the brink of an economic recession. To keep up with the explosive demand without skyrocketing prices, makers were forced to implement these high-efficiency production methods. And they welcomed the elimination of what was considered production flaws, such as the slubs of ring-spun yarn and the uneven character of shuttle-loomed denim.

And no one in corporate denim foresaw the booming interest in vintage denim. At the time, hearing consumers talk about how a pair of jeans were sewn or how the denim they were made from was woven was unheard of. No one was keeping track of the changes from year to year in the design or how the garments were made; jeans were a commodity.

Still, a seemingly insignificant but growing group of jeans aficionados noticed. And, as a result, they turned to vintage jeans. In hindsight, it seems inevitable. When you’re the maker of the “original,” there’s bound to be someone who takes notice when you change the ‘recipe.’

While enthusiasts mourned the loss of selvedge 501s in the early 80s, today, we ought to be thankful for the decision to move away from shuttle-loomed denim and the scaling back on quality. Without it and the renewed interest in authentic styling and time-honoured production methods, vintage denim—and subsequently heritage denim fashion—might not have become a viable niche.

Ultimately, that’s what made Japan a leader in denim. And that’s the topic of the next article about how history has shaped our jeans. I’d also love to hear about your experiences with the history of jeans. Go ahead and share your thoughts in a comment below.

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