Denim Dialogues, Vol. I: Finding the Right PairWe kick off our four-week denim series with this helpful guide to tracking down the perfect jeans

IT SEEMS ALMOST UNNECESSARY TO SAY, but for most of us, jeans are among the most important items in our wardrobes. Whether you chop down trees for a living or have a standing invitation to Pitti Uomo, chances are that your legs spend a significant slice of the year encased in denim. The fabric’s versatility knows no bounds, and while every pair of jeans is fundamentally similar—blue, five-pocket denim pants—they are more like fingerprints than uniforms, adapting to and embodying the individual style of the wearer.

Accordingly, we here at Handlebar have decided to give denim the attention it deserves, with an in-depth, four-part series of weekly features that kicks off today. For the first edition, we’ve elected to tackle an age-old problem that all of us have faced at one point or another: finding a great pair of simple, classic jeans that actually fit.

Self Edge NY co-owner Andrew Chen

For advice on the matter, we turned to dungaree expert Andrew Chen, the founder of cherished menswear label 3sixteen and the proprietor of Self Edge New York—arguably the best denim shop on the East Coast, with a wide selection of hard-to-find jeans from reputable Japanese and American brands like Strike Gold and Roy Denim. Andrew was graciously candid and forthright in our conversation, which allowed us to create what we believe to be the most honest, straightforward guide to buying denim ever.

Allow us to preface what follows by stating that if you’re in the market for something a bit more frugal, this probably isn’t the guide for you. There are plenty of economical options out there, but we’ve decided to keep the focus on the well-constructed, hardwearing premium jeans we’ve come to appreciate. They may not be for everyone, but at the very least this guide should help you to understand exactly why they’re so darn expensive and what the appeal is.

Below, we discuss all the minutiae you should consider when buying a new pair, misconceptions about perceived “telltale signs” of quality denim, and Andrew’s recommendations for both neophytes and long-time enthusiasts alike.

The Fabric

These days, the menswear blogosphere is obsessed with pre-washed, Obama-style “dad jeans.” But denim aficionados believe that the only dungarees worth buying are of the raw, unwashed variety. We tend to agree, simply because we happen to think that raw denim jeans look better from start to finish—they begin life clean, crisp, and uniformly dark, and slowly develop a beautiful, unique patina that no amount of sandblasting or factory processing can replicate. “The whole idea is that you get to wear it in yourself,” Andrew says. “You get to fade it out, and the wear is reflective of your lifestyle and what you’re doing every day.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can just pick up any pair of unwashed deep indigo jeans and go on your way. Denim comes in a wide variety of weights, so it’s best to know how heavy the fabric is before you start breaking ‘em in. “We have jeans that range from a 13 ounce sugar cane that’s very light and breathable for the summer, to a heavyweight 21 ounce denim built for bikers,” Andrew says. “People have crashed motorcycles in these jeans and they haven’t torn.”

If you’re new to raw denim, Andrew suggests starting out with 14 ounces. It’ll be a good medium weight to try out and wear year-round, while still being “pretty hefty compared to your standard off-the-rack washed jeans.”

There are plenty of options, as well, in terms of the actual texture of the fabric. “In Japan, a lot of companies are really pushing boundaries with textile development,” Andrew says. “They like to play with different yarns and tensions to create fabric that has a lot of interesting character.” The fabric you choose is simply a matter of taste: if you prefer a cleaner look, opt for denim that’s been singed, mercerized and calendered—this will result in a sleeker, more uniform color and hand. If you like your jeans with a lot of character, you’ll probably enjoy the slubby, loose weave you get from an unprocessed antique loom.

The Fit

Despite what that sketchy department store salesman would have you believe, there’s no easy system to determine what kind of jeans will work for your physique. “There are a ton of these quick-fix men’s shopping guides that say things like, ‘If you’re this body type, buy these,’” Andrew says skeptically. “But you can’t go by that, because it doesn’t make sense.”

Instead, Andrew believes the most important thing is to find something you’re comfortable in. Slimmer fits might be what’s trendy, but there’s no sense in buying a pair if they feel awkward or don’t work with the rest of your wardrobe. “There’s a lot to take into consideration,” Andrew says. “If you wear more substantial footwear, for instance, we try to find something with a decently-sized leg opening that’ll fall nicely. Or if you like to tuck your shirt in, you won’t want something that’s super tight around the waist.”

It’s best to try on a several jeans with different fits to see what works for you. Keep in mind that denim tends to stretch out over time—it’s often wise to buy them a little snugger so they aren’t falling off after a few weeks. No matter what you decide, though, just be sure that the jeans you choose make you feel confident and at-ease. “If something fits you right,” Andrew says,”it makes a big difference.”

The Construction

One of the more significant differences between the high-end dungarees you’ll find at Self Edge and the mass-produced versions sold at the mall is the process by which each is made. Rather than being cranked out ad infinitum by mindless modern mechanisms, jeans from companies like The Flat Head and Imperial Denim are manufactured with care using traditional techniques and machinery.

“A lot of these brands started out by acquiring vintage American garments and inspecting them and seeing how they were put together,” Andrew says. “They try to recreate them in the most authentic way possible.” By doing so, the resulting jeans have a definite leg-up in quality on their off-the-rack counterparts. “They’re meant to wear hard, they’re meant to age well, and they will last a long time if you do care for them.”

The Details

A pair of selvedge jeans with a chain-stitched hem.

When discussing raw denim, perhaps the most common buzzword that’ll crop up is “selvedge.” The term is a portmanteau of “self edge” (hence the shop’s name), which refers to the finished edge of the fabric—the typically white-and-red taping you see when you flip up the cuffs of your jeans. In recent years, many people have taken to checking if a pair of jeans has selvedge as a sign of whether or not they’re constructed from quality denim. But according to Andrew, looking for selvedge alone is enormously insufficient.

“Selvedge is not necessarily the indicator of a good pair of jeans,” he says.”Old Navy has a pair of selvedge jeans. They sell quite a few selvedge models over at Urban Outfitters.” The same problem exists with chain stitch hems, another traditional detail favored by denim heads: “There are some bad jeans out there with chain stitch hems on them, too.”

So while these niceties are certainly good things to look for, they are hardly the be-all and end-all of a great pair of jeans. Instead, Andrew says, “the proof is really in the character of the textile.” If you’re shopping at a good denim shop, be sure to ask the staff about the origin of the fabric and the construction. Hopefully, they’ll be able to answer your questions in an informed manner and help to give you a better understanding of what you’re dealing with.

With regard to more eccentric detailing, denim makers like Sugar Cane often employ hidden features like patterned pocket bags and special back patches to add subtle flair to their products without ruining the overall clean aesthetic of the denim. Although these trimmings are certainly cool, they should be seen more as an added bonus than a primary selling point.

The Value

At the end of the day, the only question that really matters is, “Are they worth it?” Why would you drop a couple hundred dollars on jeans when you can grab a pair for 30 bucks at K-Mart?

Certainly, Andrew concedes, the jeans he sells are a luxury. To the untrained eye, it’s hard to tell the difference between a new pair of cheap jeans and a new pair of expensive ones, and the common argument that the latter will last longer is a myth. “A lot of people aren’t going to be happy when I say this,” he says, “but it’s not really a value proposition in terms of length of wear. You can buy 5 pairs of $40 jeans and I think they’ll last you longer than one pair of $200 jeans.”

The true value of high quality raw denim comes with wear and tear—with the way it ages. Enthusiasts invest in these jeans not only for the unusual properties and construction, but also because they fade and mature gorgeously in a personal manner that speaks to the journey life has taken you on. Cheap jeans will become washed out and break down, and you’ll have no problem throwing ‘em out once they’ve run their course; when a good pair of raw denim reaches the end of the tenure, you’ll want to hang onto them the way you would a finished journal. “I’ve kept all my jeans that I’ve worn in myself,” Andrew says. “There are special memories attached to each pair and they’re going to stay with me.”

Andrew would never perpetuate the fallacy that a pair of $300 jeans will save you money in the long run, but for a certain type of individual, there’s no purchase more valuable. ”If this is something that you’re going to spend your money on,” he says, “buy something that fits you well and will look a ton better in two years. That’s one less thing you’ve got to worry about in your wardrobe.

“I don’t have any choices to make when I’m putting my jeans on in the morningit’s just the ones that I’m wearing. And I like that.”

Andrew’s Recommendations

 3sixteen SL-100x

Ideal for: Raw Denim Novices

Made in America using custom-developed denim from Japan’s famed Kuroki Mills, 3sixteen’s signature jean features a slim straight-leg fit that is the result of a two-year development process. The Tanner Goods leather patch on the rear will age alongside the jeans themselves, and the 14.5 ounce weight makes them the perfect everyday choice for first-timers and fanatics alike.

Iron Heart 634S Straight Selvedge

Ideal for: Badass Biker Dudes

Designed specifically for use on motorcycles, these are built from impenetrable, heavyweight 21 ounce denim that’ll stand up to just about anything—including accidents. Despite its extra heft, though, the fabric is somehow woven in a way that makes it surprisingly pliable and comfortable, without the stiff crunchiness one normally expects from raw denim.

Sugar Cane Okinawa

Ideal for: Those in search of “something special”

The fabric on these babies is a blend of 50% cotton and 50% sugarcane, which’ll look incredible once broken in. If that’s not enough to pique your interest, allow us to turn your attentions toward the details: the fabric in the pockets features a traditional Japanese pattern, and the back patch is made from the skin of a venomous viper.

For more information on Self Edge, visit http://selfedge.com/

Be sure to check in next week for the second installment of “Denim Dialogues” — our guide to breaking in and washing your jeans, featuring Brandon Svarc of Naked & Famous Denim.

All photographs by Yang-Yi Goh.