Norm ADAMS, a pale 37-year-old with a shaved head and a large Celtic tattoo on his neck, is explaining just how different two seemingly similar pairs of jeans actually are, if only you know where to look.
Dressed like a mod punk in an old Fred Perry shirt and vintage tan-and-orange striped pants, he surveys a wall of stacked jeans in the back of American Rag, the trendy clothing store on La Brea Avenue where he has worked for the past eight years.
He deftly pulls two pairs from their assigned cubbyholes. To the casual observer they are virtually identical -- both Levi’s, both button fly, both with a dark navy wash.
Adams cuffs a leg of one, exposing the seam. “If you turn over a pair of regular modern jeans and you look on the outside leg seam, you’ll see how it has a rough thread finish,” he says, pointing to the zigzagging thread that binds the edge of the fabric.
Then he cuffs the second pair -- a reissue of a style that Levi’s originally made in the ‘50s. “If you flip this up and you see the red stitching at the end of the blue here, what that is signifying is that this is the edge of the fabric, called the selvage. That means that this jean was made from a very narrow loomed denim, so this is a much more hands-on, quality-controlled piece of fabric.
“In the ‘50s people actually used to cuff their jeans so that it would show the selvage, and it was kind of a status thing,” he adds. “Sort of like, ‘My jeans are better than yours.’ ”
Adams never intended to become such a denim expert. He’s held a variety of jobs -- painting sets, doing construction, designing crown moldings -- and in his free time he works on his anime-inspired art. He fell into the denim business in the mid-'90s when he got a job as a cashier at American Rag.
He didn’t know a lot about clothing at the time, but Adams takes his work seriously. (He became an expert on vacuum cleaners when working in the housewares section of a department store.) So he set about informing himself, asking detailed questions of the denim company representatives, studying the promotional materials that explain the difference between double weave and triple weave denims, learning about the unusual methods used to create various washes. (Levi’s once had a wash that was created by tying rope around the individual jeans, then baking them.)
And he was inspired by the stories that a piece of denim can tell. American Rag is one of the few stores in L.A. that sells Levi’s Vintage Clothing, a line of reproductions that attempts to copy not just the cut of an old jean but the result of its wear as well -- for example, it once copied the look of a 1940s jean that had been buried in a mine for 50 years.
One of Adams’ favorites from this line is a reproduction of the jeans worn by a man accused of a crime in the late 1800s. “Back in the day, he was actually dragged behind a horse-drawn carriage, and his jeans were all bloody and dirty,” Adams says. “Levi’s called it ‘the Dead Man.’ I couldn’t believe they made that one,” he says, adding that they sold well once customers heard the story.
He became assistant denim buyer and now can answer any question regarding denim with a depth of detailed knowledge that not many can match.
Adams is an extreme example, but he is part of a larger movement of informed salespeople who know that the best denim comes from Zimbabwe and can discuss the difference between single stitch and chain-stitch hemming.
Over the past five years, denim has become an obsession among certain groups. A 14-year-old with a collection of 17 pairs of $150 jeans can tell you just how she likes them tailored (a quarter-inch below the heel is perfect), an aspiring television writer living on $27,000 a year will still manage to have three pairs of $178 jeans, and to some women, it is perfectly normal to have 30 pairs in their closets.
“People are seriously crazy,” says James Quirk, who works the denim bar at Fred Segal on Melrose Avenue, where customers are not allowed to handle the jeans before trying them on. Instead, they must ask for them either by name or, if they are unsure, ask the “bartender” what he or she recommends. “There are people who come in every day or every other day,” Quirk says. “I probably have 20 or 25 jeans myself, but that’s nothing. Our customers have way more than that.”
Denim, as formalwear
At American Rag, where on any given day there are 15 to 20 brands of jeans that retail for between $120 and $210, Adams guesses they sell about 100 pairs of jeans a week.
The market in vintage jeans is equally pricey. “It can get a little bit weird and obsessive,” says Brandon Wells, the manager at Ragtime Denim Doctors, a store on Third Street that specializes in selling and mending vintage jeans. The prices at Denim Doctors generally range between $78 and $160, but there are a few rare finds priced between $225 and $400.
As jeans become increasingly acceptable attire for almost any occasion, denim gurus such as Adams, Wells and Quirk are in demand as something akin to celebrity stylists.
Adams recently helped a customer select a glittery top to dress up a pair of jeans that she wanted to wear to a wedding. “Women can throw on a pair of heels and a dressy black top with their jeans and it’s totally suitable for a nice dinner,” Quirk confirms. “Just look at all the pictures of the stars. They’re always wearing jeans.”
Every season several new designer denim companies pop up with must-have cuts or washes, and successful brands such as 7 for All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, Joe’s Jeans and Paper Denim & Cloth are now as likely to be mentioned in the pages of Vogue and Elle as high-style standards Gucci and Prada.
Adams and his fellow gurus help customers navigate the sea of options in jean styles: Will a boot cut elongate the legs or make them look short? (Depends on the size of the flare and the height of the wearer.) How low is too low-rise? (Low waists are still trendy, but watch out for revealing too much skin.)
What wash looks worn in without being too worn out? (Most jeans makers are moving away from overly distressed washes like whiskers around the groin area that are applied through complicated dye jobs or treating jeans with a baked-in resin for a grimy look, but subtle touches like hand sanding the tips of the pockets and the edge of the legs are still popular.)
A few weeks ago, Emily Larned, a 27-year-old book artist from New York, came to Adams looking for a pair of jeans similar to those she was wearing -- white vintage Levi’s from a thrift store. Adams nodded intently as she posed the question and then stared at her pants for a disconcertingly long time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Those are a high-waisted jean; it’s a light weight, colored denim, wide leg. What’s the make?” With Larned’s consent, he flipped over the back of her waistband, but the tag had been rubbed unreadable.
He considered again.
“Marc Jacobs showed some higher-waisted jeans last year, but everything else is still trending toward low,” he said slowly. “Your best bet is Levi’s Ultimate Bootcut in colored denim, which we’ll have in the spring of 2005. I can pull a few things for you to try in the meantime, but I’m not going to have an exact match.”
He selected three pairs: a lightweight stretch jean from Paper Denim & Cloth, a wider legged pair by Citizens of Humanity and a lightweight boot cut of Joe’s Jeans that were totally different. The Joe’s fit her perfectly and Larned had her purchase.
A PhD in jeans
Part of Adams’ education came from the voracious perusal of promotional information that high-end denim companies use to justify the cost of their jeans. He also makes a careful study of all the products that come into the store.
“You know, sometimes people don’t even look at the back of denim,” he says. “Like if you flip it up on the inside you can see that sometimes it is dyed only on the outside. There are a lot of little details. It’s a complex product.”
For a while, Adams had a large personal jean collection. His first pair of expensive jeans were given to him by G-Star Raw, a Dutch label that specializes in raw denim, material that has not yet been washed or pre-shrunk. “It was a really nice jean -- black, slim, straight leg,” he says.
When he became a denim buyer, Levi’s gave him a few free pairs and he kept adding more any time he saw something new he was excited about. He eventually collected about 30 pairs.
He has a prejudice against light, faded jeans so he often buys raw or unwashed denim that is marketed as shrink to fit. The tags on these jeans encourage the purchaser to buy the jeans large, then climb into a tub of hot water and soak for 10 minutes, allowing them to air dry while still wearing them.
But Adams hesitates to do this. Before the jeans are washed, the fabric has a silvery sheen because the dye in the blue threads hasn’t had a chance to bleed onto the white threads, and that is what Adams is after. Even one wash destroys the look.
“What I would do is, when Levi’s had this 1950s reproduction cut, I would just buy them in my size and dry clean them,” says Adams. “I’d dry clean them so much they would almost start to get a smell. It would break my heart to wash them.”
Adams put a lot of work into breaking in his raw and unwashed denim. He once wore a pair of 1920s reproduction jeans with a cinch-back every day for almost six months.
A year ago, Adams became so overwhelmed with thinking about denim that he sold off most of his collection -- even the ones he had worked so hard to break in. Instead, he’s been wearing a lot of black cotton pants, mostly Dickies. And some vintage pants, but those are hard to find. “You have to try on like eight pairs just to find one or two because they fit so weird,” he says.
But the call of denim is luring him back. Just recently, he’s had his eye on a pair of raw denim Levi’s that have asymmetrical back pockets that come to a point on the bottom and a pair of G-Starr’s that have unusual details like black latex around the rivets and the belt loops.
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Stitches in time
Norm Adams has these tips for denim-maniacs:
To keep jeans fitted, buy them as tight as you can get into because the thinner denim used for women’s jeans stretches almost a full size with wear.
Understand the effect of the size and placement of back pockets. Low pockets can make your rear end look flat, small pockets can make you look smaller, but pockets that are too small can make your rear look big.
Look for a waistband that is higher in the back and lower in the front to prevent the revealing gap between your back and the rear of the jean when you sit down.
To wear tight jeans you may have to take it easy with the free weights. Muscular thighs make this style no longer an option.
If you are buying raw denim jeans (unwashed and unshrunk), buy them large and expect them to shrink 2 inches in the waist and 3 inches in length after their first wash.
Look for the return of the mod-style ‘60s fit, but you’ll need skinny legs to pull it off.
Find jeans that make you feel comfortable, then you can wear them with confidence.