This is hard for me, because I love Levi’s. I’ve owned several different pairs throughout my life, and I currently own — and regularly wear — a pair of reproduction 501s.
The problem is, many of their modern cuts and styles don’t feel the same as they used to. They have a bit more stretch (read: more polyester and more elastane), which might make them more comfortable, but it also truncates their life span. In particular, the crotch blows out after a few months of regular wear. Not to mention, their fit changes. A pair that once accentuated your supple man ass now typically devolves into a sad swamp of overstretched denim within six months.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed either. “It sucks that Levi’s just comes out with the shittiest products compared to like 20 years ago, and they’ll always be around because they’re so rooted in culture,” a subscriber to the Male Fashion Advice subreddit wrote recently.
Worse yet, their price just shot up by about 10 percent. Admittedly, Levi’s is still, by comparison, a fairly inexpensive denim option. But if you’d rather spend your money elsewhere, you’ve got some good options. Such as…
Arguably the best bang for your buck is the denim brand with no name — or branding of any kind. The brainchild of famed denim-manufacturer Naked and Famous, it boasts unwashed denim with no embroidery, no ad campaigns and no celebrity endorsements, which is how they’ve been able to keep the price of their premium denim at around $80 a pair (or so they say).
“Unbranded is both raw and selvage — usually. They may run non-selvage from time to time, I’m not sure,” an MFA commenter explains. “I think they’re usually sanforized, which means they’re essentially pre-shrunk, but still considered raw since they’re not treated/distressed in any way. Though being raw or selvage doesn’t necessarily indicate quality, my experience is that Unbranded is higher quality denim and construction than Levi’s at this point in time.”
Brave Star Selvage is the first premium, all-selvage “Made in the USA” brand. It has a very contemporary American story, too: In 2008, during the financial crisis, it was sold to an apparel conglomerate and put on ice. But in 2012, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the brand was back with high quality, affordable (roughly $118 a pair), selvage jeans made without compromise in Downtown L.A.
As one person on r/RawDenim tells me, Brave Star isn’t only extremely comfortable and well built, but the only real difference compared with higher-end selvage denim that costs $400 a pair is the slightly less “interesting/textured fabrics from Brave Star.” “For the price,” he argues, “you can’t beat Brave Star, especially if you’re just getting into raws.”
The Pepsi to Levi’s Coke, Wrangler is best known for their cowboy-cut jeans, which are $30 each and designed to feel snug around the thighs while gradually flaring near the cuff. “Wrangler rigid wear original fit is close to Levi’s 501 but with a higher rise,” an MFA denizen writes. “You can even find some good fits at Walmart.”
A different MFA’r tells me that Wranglers are comfortable, durable and shapely (often all at once). “I spent all year biking, hiking and fishing in mine, and they still look good,” he personally attests.
Okay, a pair of Tellason jeans will set you back a little more than $200. But the San Francisco-based brand is a favorite not only for their jeans but for their denim jackets as well. “Shout out to Tellason for making amazing quality products,” a r/RawDenim subscriber declares. Another tells me that he’s had his Tellason denim jacket for close to a decade and the construction is still holding strong.
Meanwhile, many on r/RawDenim vow that Tellason jeans are comfortable from the jump. A standard comment along these lines: “I’ve soaked and machine-washed mine, and they’re fading beautifully. For the price and quality, it’s incredible.”
Scoff it you must, but according to those on r/RawDenim, ever since Uniqlo teamed up with Japan’s top denim manufacturer, Kaihara, their jeans are worth a second look. “I can confirm they’re Kaihara,” a subscriber tells me. “I’ve been checking them out every year in-store and also ordered them online just to check. Look inside the right pocket, it will say fabric by Kaihara.”
Another subscriber says that for the value — each pair is roughly $40 — Uniqlo’s jeans “can’t be beat.”
They’re certainly no Levi’s, but in this case, that’s the whole point.