One of America's hottest exports just might be old blue jeans.
Vintage jeans, especially old Levi's and Wranglers, have become a highly sought-after commodity. They fetch big yen in Japan.
In America, people are belatedly catching onto the craze. Shops that buy and sell old jeans have been sprouting up in Orange County. They're peddling everything from '70s Sassoons for $20 a pair to pre-'50s Levi's that can sell for up to $2,000.
Of all the pre-worn jeans on the market, old Levi's 501s are the most desirable. People want them because they're genuine Americana, a piece of our fashion heritage. Those made before the '60s have recently shot up in value.
"I thought they had hit a peak three or four years ago, but I've been amazed. This year prices have gone crazy," says Larry Craig, co-owner of Locals Only in Laguna Beach. Craig has been buying and selling vintage Levi's for 14 years.
A beautiful pair of pre-'60s Levi's 501s jeans that would have sold for $400 to $800 a year ago now goes for $700 to $1,200, he says.
Recently a woman took to Locals Only a pair of Levi's she's had since 1949. They were in great condition, and Craig paid her more than $600.
Prices have been driven higher this year by the yen, Craig says. The Japanese love vintage American jeans, and because the value of the dollar is at an all-time low against the yen, they've had the buying power to snap up more jeans.
"They've driven the price way up," Craig says. "We sell most of our vintage jeans to the Japanese. I wish American customers would buy more of them, because most of them leave the country."
Adding to the vintage jeans' value is their growing popularity. Articles in fashion magazines have touted the old blues, while companies such as Levi Strauss have fostered the trend by reproducing vintage styles.
"A lot of people see these in the stores and say, 'We'd like the real vintage jeans,"' Craig says.
As more people buy up the limited supply, vintage pairs become harder to find.
"They're getting scarcer and scarcer," Craig says. "We buy from other dealers, and we don't get as many as we used to." His shop usually has five to 10 pairs in stock, and they start at $45.
Tony Arcurio, owner of the Art of Blues in Newport Beach, makes road trips across the country searching for old jeans to buy and sell to retailers. He recently toured 9,000 cities, visiting mom-and-pop mercantile stores and small retailers to buy up "dead stock"--old, unsold jeans.
"I work my way into the back room and hopefully find vintage jeans," Arcurio says. If he's lucky, he'll find rare pairs such as '40s Levi's that have never been sold. He sells most of his jeans to overseas retailers.
"There's not enough jeans to go around," he says.
Arcurio looks for Levi's with a capital E on the red Levi tag, which signifies that they were made before the '60s. He also checks to see if the jeans have a rivet in the back pocket; that means they're pre-'50s and even more valuable.
"They can go for $2,000 a pair," he says. "Look in your closet. Look at those jeans. Look at those rivets. You might make $500."
Such numbers leave the impression that any old pair of blue jeans will be worth a mint. Actually, it's mostly the older Levi's from the '40s and '50s that command top dollar. Jeans from the '60s and '70s usually sell for far less.
Most 10- or 20-year-old jeans bring about $10 from the area's buy-and-sell denim shops, which turn around and sell them for about $20 or $30.
"There's this big misconception that Levi's are worth thousands," says Dino Katsiametis, owner of Denim Blue in Garden Grove and Anaheim and Awear Clothing Co. in Tustin and Anaheim Hills.
"People get confused between vintage pre-1970s 501s and regular old jeans. Just because they're old and holey doesn't mean they're worth a lot."
Katsiametis carries jeans that are usually 1 to 5 years old, although he sometimes sells vintage pairs. He pays between $1 and $10 for most used jeans and sells them for $15 to $18.
"Teen-age girls like to wear them. They're more comfortable, and they like the fade," he says.
Some kids are even buying the skin-tight designer jeans of the '70s and '80s, says Stephen Keefe, merchandiser for Urban Outfitters at the Lab in Costa Mesa.
"Old designer jeans like Sassoon and Jordache are starting to make a comeback," Keefe says. "But most kids just want a pair of beat-up 501s. They're the most comfortable.
"You don't have to break them in. It's already done for you. It's instant gratification."
People who want faded blues are a different kind of customer than jeans connoisseurs who will pay hundreds for a vintage pair, Craig says.
"If they're paying $800 for a pair of jeans, they want them to look new," he says. "The darker blue they are, the better. The ones that look like new are best."
If everyone loves vintage jeans so much, how come some people are willing to give up their beloved old blues?
"The only reason they give them up is they don't fit into them anymore. It's not for the money," Katsiametis says. "When they bring them in here, they have a hard time parting with them."