Why you should care
Because these meticulously crafted, raw denim numbers aim to be the ”purest version of a jean.”
It’s a diminutive shop called Self Edge in the Mission District of San Francisco, a place known for its constant crushing on whiz-bang technology startups and accompanying move-fast-and-break-things culture. Inside you will find men’s blue jeans prized not for their allegiance to the cutting edge but rather for the seemingly incongruous feat of using techniques en vogue a century ago.
Perhaps the most extreme example are the jeans from Stevenson Overall Co., which challenges itself to sew menswear just as it was done in pre-1920s America, only with two important distinctions: its jeans are made in Japan, and they cost a cool $340.
The story behind a pair of Stevenson jeans is threaded through and through with Americana.
If your jaw just dropped, take heart. Self Edge owner Kiya Babzani, whose expansive knowledge of denim is the stuff of legend, even among the most serious and passionate fans of the indigo-dyed textile, has seen it all before.
“They’re like, ‘$300 shirts and $400 jeans? Who’s buying this stuff?’” he says of people who stumble into his shop unawares.
The thing is, people do buy stuff like the Stevenson La Jolla Jean, sewn with a single needle machine using raw, unsanforized selvedge denim woven expressly for the label on vintage looms housed inside the Kuroki denim mill in Okayama, Japan. They’ve bought enough of this and similar items to allow Babzani to open three stores in the past four years and operate in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Portland.
“The idea is that it’s the purest version of a jean, before bar-tacking machines were invented, before riveting was done, before the chain-stitching machine was invented and even before belt-loop-making machines were invented. All these parts of the jeans are done manually with one machine on Stevenson’s jeans,” Babzani tells OZY.
The best stuff comes from Japan not because the Japanese are better necessarily, but they’re more patient when it comes to production.
Instead of sanforized denim you buy and wear immediately, the raw denim used to make Stevenson jeans — as well as many other brands in Babzani’s shop — requires a buyer to soak it at home first, to induce the shrinking that will naturally occur as soon as the fabric hits water — an inch in the waist and up to three inches in length. These jeans also stand out for their individually cut and sewn belt loops, Japanese-made poly-cotton thread, leather-backed buttons and gently curved back pockets. Dedicated wearers of raw denim men’s jeans will often wait months between laundering in order to coax original “wear patterns” or markings to appear. The result is an homage to corn-fed Americana, a hobby and a history lesson all rolled into one.
Not surprisingly, a near-reverence for vintage is at the core of Stevenson, originally an American apparel brand based in Indiana during the 1920s and 1930s and revived in 2005 by Atsusuke Tagaya after meeting and becoming inspired by U.S. vintage collector Zip Stevenson (no relation).
The idea is that it’s the purest version of a jean.
Self Edge owner Kya Babzani
While the story behind a pair of Stevenson jeans is threaded through and through with Americana, Babzani says such artfully produced garments are only possible today in Japan.
“The reason the best stuff comes from Japan is not because the Japanese are better necessarily, but they’re more patient when it comes to production. You can train somebody in the States to make what they do, but nobody has.”
Despite the high cost and time to break in, jeans like these have things other brands don’t: transparent supply chains, well-paid factory workers and environmentally sound production methods and materials. They’re also their own form of art.
Says Babzani, the only brick-and-mortar retailer to stock Stevenson stateside: “It’s like looking at a painting.”