YOU’VE JUST PICKED UP a crisp new pair of raw denim jeans. The fit is on point, the details are tasteful and understated, and the deep indigo hue still glistens across the immaculate surface of the cotton. So what do you do now?
Beat the living hell out of ‘em, of course!
As we discussed in the first installment of “Denim Dialogues,” much of the appeal of raw denim comes from the opportunity to break it in yourself and make it your own. Worn regularly over time, a proper pair of jeans will mold themselves to your body and age with a striking, high-contrast fade—in short, they’ll become the most comfortable and distinctive trousers you’ll ever own.
This week, we called up Canadian denim extraordinaire Brandon Svarc, founder of the always-innovative Naked & Famous Denim, and had him expound upon the fundamentals of breaking in dungarees. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, When should I wash my jeans for the first time? Should I wash them at all? And what the hell are honeycombs? then this is the article for you.
As an added bonus, we recruited the patina-obsessed gents from the hilariously-titled blog Rawr Denim to curate four of the dopest entries from their weekly “Fade Friday” column, so you can alternately marvel at the sheer beauty of these well-worn pairs and turn away in disgust at how long some of them have gone without being laundered.
The One Rule To Remember
There’s really only one thing you need to know about rocking a pair of raw denim jeans: there are no rules. Think of them as an untarnished canvas, upon which you’re free to do whatever you like. Ultimately, your jeans should be a reflection of you—after a few months of heavy wear, your personality and lifestyle will be evident in every fade, every crease, every stitch. That being said, following any sort of “definitive” guidelines for wearing and washing denim doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Plenty of denim companies and style publications like to make claims about how long to wait before the first wash, but according to Brandon, these so-called rules are totally inadequate.
“Some people say you should wash at six months,” Brandon says. “But if you’re a bike messenger who rides 30 miles a day, or you’re an accountant who sits at a desk all day, of course your jeans are going to come out looking very different after six months, with nowhere near the same amount of fading. It’s silly to listen to anybody’s made-up rules. The whole fun of raw denim is that it’s personalized, and you get to decide when it’s time to wash.”
So how do you decide when it’s the right time for you? If you’re hoping to develop really vibrant, intricate fades, then wear your jeans as often as possible, and try to go as long as you can bear without washing. That might sound a little gross, but studies have shown that donning the same dungarees for over a year won’t cause any excess bacteria growth compared to a pair washed every couple of weeks. The longer you wait before subjecting them to a spin cycle, the richer and more multifaceted the denim will appear.
Of course, some of the more hygiene-conscious individuals out there might balk at the idea of suiting up in the same uncleaned pantaloons for months on end, and that’s perfectly fine. If you care more about staying fresh in the literal sense than the colloquial, feel free to wash your jeans as often as you like—when it comes down to it, the most important thing is feeling comfortable in the clothes you wear.
As is the case with most subcultures, raw denim enthusiasts tend to litter their language with a jumble of peculiar words and phrases, often making it impossible for casual observers to comprehend their reverent, dungaree-fueled conversations. Here, we’ll do our darnedest to elucidate the essential elements of their fade-related jargon.
Lap fades and knee fades are two of the more self-explanatory terms, but they’re also among the most crucial. Also known as “whiskering,” lap fades are the streaks that radiate outwards from the crotch. They’re fairly important since, as Brandon points out, “when you stand up, it’s the first thing people will see.”
Great, high-contrast knee fades, meanwhile, take a lot of effort to achieve. “You can tell how hard somebody works by their knee fades,” Brandon says. “If they’re a skateboarder or biker, where you’ll really have a lot of pressure in those areas, that’s when they look the best.”
Without a doubt, the fades most venerated by denim fans are the combs, short for “honeycombs,” which describe the creases and crosses that develop at the back of the knees. “For the first few days wearing a new pair,” Brandon says, “denim nerds will do squats and jump up and down to get those creases to stay in the denim. I’d say they’re the most prized part of any fade.”
Stacks are similar to combs in concept, but are much less common. These form when the wearer leaves their inseams a few inches long, in order to “stack” the bottom of the jeans atop their sneakers. Over time, faded creases will emerge around the calf and ankle areas.
One of the more polarizing fades among denimheads is the wallet fade, the rectangular fade you attain by keeping your wallet in your back pocket. “It’s funny to think of a denim fade as controversial,” says Brandon, “but people really love it or hate it.” Brandon would never disrespect someone else’s style or tastes, but there is one fade in particular that he himself can’t stand. “The cellphone fade in the front pocket is the worst,” he says with a chuckle. “I mean, whatever makes you happy, but I don’t understand why people want the outline of their iPhones on the front of their jeans.”
Finally, train tracks are a lesser-known fade that occurs along the outseams of the jeans. As the denim ages, the outlines of the selvedge will begin to show through, forming two sets of lines that resemble train tracks running up either leg. “It’s easier to see on heavyweight denim, because the selvedge will be nice and fat,” Brandon adds. “Those ones, you have to earn.”
How To Wash ‘Em
Denim devotees argue in favor of all kinds of complicated maneuvers when it comes to cleaning their jeans—everything from wearing them in the ocean to rinsing them in rainwater. These unconventional methods will certainly yield alluring textures and results, but they aren’t exactly practical. According to Brandon, the best approach is also the simplest: pull them inside out to preserve color, toss them in the washing machine on a cold cycle to reduce shrinkage, and then hang dry.
“Hanging them up to dry is the most important step of the process,” Brandon says. “If you tumble dry, the jeans will get crinkled and the texture will begin to look like the desert or the pores in your skin. Creases will form all over the jeans like spider webs—it’s not a good look.”
Some folks believe in soaking their jeans before wearing them, but Brandon says this is only necessary if the denim is unsanforized, meaning it hasn’t been treated to prevent shrinking. If you’re interested in a pair of unsanforized jeans, be sure to purchase them a size or two bigger than your actual waist, as they’re likely to shrink between 5 to 10%. Place them in a tub full of hot water for 30 minutes to an hour, and they’ll contract down to your actual size.
A Word On Repairs
After enduring several months’ worth of arduous wear and tear, you might begin to notice small holes opening up in certain spots on the denim. The area near the crotch is particularly notorious for blowouts of this kind. While wearing right through the fabric of a garment might normally be a surefire indication that it’s time to part ways, raw jeans are often too valuable—in both a sentimental and fiscal sense—to simply toss in the trash.
Instead, aficionados often choose to get the breaches on their britches mended to extend their life spans. There are two main repair options out there, and which you choose depends entirely on your aesthetic preferences. If you’re proud of how rigorously you’ve battered your jeans and want every stage of the journey to be visible, any decent tailor will be able to patch ‘em up in a straightforward manner that’ll look like the sartorial equivalent of a battle scar. For those who’d prefer a more subtle approach, specialty services like Denim Therapy will reweave your jeans so artfully that you’ll hardly remember they were ever busted open at all.
Brandon’s Most Cherished Pair
“I wore a pair of our 12-and-a-half ounce broken twill jeans every day for exactly one year, and never washed them. That was the longest I’ve ever gone in a row with a single pair of denim, and they’re definitely my favorites. I think they look pretty badass, with a beautiful electric blue fade followed by the white core of the yarn coming out, so I was very pleased. One thing that’s really cool was the fact that I was sitting at my desk a lot, so the back of the knees created these really strange fades—it almost looks like an insect was burrowing into the back of my jeans. I think it might have been a result of the broken twill construction.”
Rawr Denim’s Four Favorite Fades
Jeans: 3sixteen ST-100x
Worn by: Evan G.
Length of Wear: 9 months
Number of Washes/Soaks: 0 washes, 1 soak
Why They’re Awesome: “Though worn for a relatively short amount of time, this battered pair of 3sixteen ST-100x is living proof that raw denim fades as beautifully as it is well-crafted and detail-rich (particularly when made by the hands of those at 3sixteen). How the denim came to achieve these results is unknown. However, judging from the crotch blowout, patterns, and slightly dirty sheen, my best guess would be that they have been through a gauntlet of outdoor and extreme physical activities.”
“The whiskers, honeycombs, wallet, and stack fades of course speak for themselves, but my favorite aspects of this denim are the crotch patches, near-shredded back pocket, and beat up patch. All lend so much character to the denim and give them the personalized touch that many denimheads dream of.”
Jeans: Warehouse x Blue in Green x SuperFuture 660
Worn by: SuperFuture user “was ist los”
Length of Wear: 1 year
Number of Washes/Soaks: Unknown (likely none)
Why They’re Awesome: “In 2007, New York-based denim shop, Blue In Green, teamed up with Japanese label, Warehouse, and denim forum, Superfuture, for a worldwide, one year long denim fading contest. The contest involved 215 participants, and a specially marked pair of Warehouse Dubbleworks 660 was ordered and sent to each individual. Amongst all of the incredible entrants, my personal favorite is the pair worn by the second place winner ‘was ist los.’”
“Take note of the unbelievable contrast between the upper half, midsection, and lower half of the denim. While the area under the knee and stacks seems virtually untouched, the whiskers on the front and atari on the back pockets are as clear as day. What really makes these fades stand out from all others, though, are the razor sharp honeycombs!”
Worn by: Unknown
Length of Wear: 15 years
Number of Washes/Soaks: None
Why They’re Awesome: “Putting the actual look and results of the denim aside, bear in mind how long these have been worn for: a whopping15 years without a single wash! Based upon the contrast between the knee, thighs and backside, it is a wonder how well the denim has managed to hold up despite the length of wear.”
“Look to the strong, clean whiskers around the thighs, front of knee, and coin pocket; and notice how they sit on top of even more substantial faded sections. This is precisely the vintage image that many denim labels strive to create with prewashed and distressed techniques.”
Jeans: Unbranded Skinny Selvedge
Worn by: John Marcelo
Length of Wear: 9 months (and counting)
Number of Washes/Soaks: None
Why They’re Awesome: “I would be remiss if I left out the thoroughly documented fades-in-progress by John Marcelo. Working with a pair of 15 Oz. Unbranded jeans, John photographs his denim every day of the week, and captures every little detail. It doesn’t seem like he’s partaking in any particular activities to accelerate the process, but simply goes about his day-to-day undertakings—a true testament to the notion that all good things come with time!”
“The whiskers, honeycombs, and stacks are undoubtedly well on track for a crisp look and feel, but what I like most about the denim (thus far) is the wallet outline on the back pocket, pen contour on the front right pocket, and various indications of wear-and-tear (e.g. hem unraveling and fraying at bottom). It’s these individual fades and worn elements that make each pair of raw denim so personal and tailored to the wearer.”
All photos by Yang-Yi Goh and Jeremy Wolf of their own jeans, unless otherwise noted.
Previous installments of “Denim Dialogues”: