Trouser Tuesday: Selvedge denim, how low can you go?

This review is a tricky one. No doubt about it. There comes a time when you’ve written a few reviews of denim trousers, spending time finding out what is different or special with each pair, describing, measuring, considering. And then you come to a pair like this, where there is almost nothing to say. You find yourself struggling, flailing even, looking up, looking down, turning the trousers inside out, searching for that elusive “something” that will inspire.

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What we have here today though is a pair of selvedge denim jeans from Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo. There are two main distinguishing points that come to mind: They are made using authentic Japanese selvedge denim. And they are the cheapest selvedge denim jeans I have been able to find.

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Design-wise they are standard 5-pocket jeans with no bells or whistles, no fancy details, no special hardware, no artisan touches, and absolutely no voodoo story to go with them. In fact, they are almost refreshingly blank. Not even an arcuate on the back pocket. This is design stripped to the bone. Yet, let’s see if we can’t find something deep in there.

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For starters, the denim. If you’re going to have a proper pair of jeans, they have to be made of proper denim. Uniqlo did this right, going to the Kaihara mill in Japan for their crisp 13.5oz fabric. And the denim is inded splendid, blue and flawless. Whether it’s dyed with natural indigo I don’t know at this point, that will await my super-special indigo post this weekend.

But for now, let me interject here that denim basically comes in two flavours: quality and distinctive.

When I talk of quality I mean fabric that is highly evolved technically, made using modern machines that are both efficient and exact. The resulting fabric will have an even surface, be uniformly strong and there are no little surprises.

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When I talk of distinctive we get into the world of nep and slub, of unsanforized, hairy fabric, with differences in warp and weft. This will probably have been made by some guys tweaking and hacking old Toyoda looms with the goal of creating denim with unique and different properties. There is a world of difference here, guys!

Last weeks Tender jeans were an example of the latter, where the fabric and the dye process are a big part of the story. Uniqlo are modern, professional makers of clothes. Mystery and wizard fade properties play no part in their specification, here it’s all about filling a demand by sending a properly made product to market.

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And they are properly made. They are well cut (if a little low rise for my taste), the stitching is straight and even. As mentioned before, there are no design tweaks, so the level of “different” is at the different end of the scale from Tender.

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The only point where they are bucking the norm is in having a zip instead of buttons for the fly. That’s it.

Now, having dealt with denim and design, we’re left with the elephant in the back pocket: How the heck can they sell jeans like this so much cheaper than everyone else? The fabric alone must cost around as much as what other makers are buying it for. Granted, Uniqlo probably have plenty of muscle and volume to get low prices on their denim, but that alone can’t account for a retail price under half of what others are asking?

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Well, another part of it is that they are of course made wherever it is possible to have them made at the lowest possible price. In this case they’re made in China, and I’ll say nothing against the folks in China that have put stitched to fabric. They’re flawlessly made.

So, in summary, what we have is a perfect pair of jeans, made from perfect Japanese denim. Are they perfect? Well, yes, they are made as well as they could be, so by that definition alone they must qualify. Do they have the extra added voodoo, the nep and slub, the potential for awesome fadez and the limited edition kudos? No, not at all. Possibly with an exception for the fadez, but that is something that remains to be seen.

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For under 40 pounds of my own hard-earned money though, they are a pair of selvedge jeans in genuine Japanese denim, and for that reason alone they are something of a game changer. Do I pull them on with the reverence I feel when selecting one of my more esoteric (i.e. “special”) pairs of jeans? No. I think Uniqlo has sort of spoiled the “special jeans” feel with these. While they are by almost all accounts as technically special as my other jeans, and in many cases actually better trusers, by removing all semblance of “different”, or even “soul” if you like, they have also removed almost all the fun and ceremony from them.

So, yes, they are a pair of jeans made from Japanese selvedge denim, and yes, you can cuff the hem to display the selvedge colours, but they have no magic at all. That said, they are a decent pair of trousers, and given the quality denim and excellent sewing, they’re quite a bargain.

Just don’t expect them to give you “that feeling”. And I do realise how silly that sounds. We are talking trousers after all.

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So, I’ll leave you with a question to ponder, and feel free to comment on this: Given a pair of competently made trousers, made from excellent material, but made using low cost labour, would you rather pay very much more for a similarly constructed pair of trousers, made from a more distinct fabric, sewn by labour that was paid more (primarily due to being paid a rate appropriate to their geographic location)?

I notice that to further mess with my mind, these jeans are available online now at a discount. I refuse to provide a link to them. You’re on your own from here on out.

Measurements to follow (I’m on the road at the moment, sorry!).

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