There’s a lot of mythology and misinformation out there about caring for high-quality denim. Denim-heads evangelize about their high-maintenance techniques, from wearing jeans in the ocean to massaging them with shea butter. This is ironic, really, because few pieces of menswear come from humbler roots than blue jeans. Somehow, over the past 167 years—since Levi Strauss first opened his Sacramento General Goods store—hard-wearing denim pants have found their way into the closets of CEOs, menswear connoisseurs and everyone in between.
Today, the most coveted jeans are made in Japan (generally in Osaka, where a small cluster of brands called the ‘Osaka Five’ use denim from unique looms sold-off by the US in the 1970s) and importing these isn’t cheap. The very best denim is an investment, so it makes sense to look after it, but theories differ on the right techniques for optimal upkeep. Do you wash the jeans or freeze them to kill bacteria? Pre-shrink them or wear them raw? How often should you wear them, and how much fade is too much?
To bring you some answers, we’ve sourced expert advice from two hardcore denim aficionados: Adam Cameron, co-founder and design director of The Workers Club, and Ben Chamberlain, manager of Clutch Cafe London, which deals in world-class Japanese denim. Here’s what they had to say.
What’s the best way to break-in a pair of raw denim jeans?
Chamberlain: It depends what you want to achieve. Some people want to keep their jeans as smart as possible, others like to soften and weather them over time. If you wear jeans raw for six months before washing, they’ll be stiffer but hold their color better long-term. If you give them a wash when they’re still new, they’ll soften up but start to fade more quickly. Either way, it’s important to remember that jeans are workwear—they don’t come to life until they start to show some character.
How do you know when your jeans are broken in?
Cameron: Breaking in raw denim is a slow-burn. If you wear them a few times a week, Japanese raw denim jeans will only really start to soften up after one-to-two years of wear. I’ve got a pair that I’ve owned for five years and only just washed for the third time. They’re still dark indigo in color, but with some lovely fading and “whiskering” where the jeans crease as they’re worn. I’ll stop wearing these every day now, and use them less to keep them in this sweet spot.
On that note, how often should jeans be washed, if at all?
Chamberlain: Only wash them when they really need freshening up. I wash my jeans once they’ve reached a point where they feel quite grubby. That point can take months or even years to get to. The less you wash jeans, the longer they’ll last.
What are some common mistakes made when washing denim?
Cameron: Jeans should be turned inside out before washing unless you’re trying to lighten them. Spin-drying is also a no-no. Instead, wash them on a gentle cycle and hang them to drip dry. If you spin-dry jeans, you’ll damage the fibers in the denim. This makes them less durable, and it gives your denim a fluffy surface texture that prevents it from fading properly. Spin drying can also cause major shrinkage.
Does denim detergent make a difference?
Cameron: Absolutely. Conventional detergent is too aggressive for most denim—it washes out the color. In Japan, you can buy specially formulated denim washes that help to keep the color in. Closer to home, we’ve created our own Sea Salt Denim Wash at The Worker’s Club. It’s gentle and it locks in the dye.
Editor’s Note: Woolite Darks is a more readily available alternative or, for a more luxe option, look to The Laundress Denim Wash.
And what’s the deal with shrink-to-fit denim?
Chamberlain: Shrink-to-fit jeans are a tradition that goes back to the very early days of denim manufacturing. In simple terms, you buy your jeans big and then soak them so they shrink to a size that’ll fit you. There are a few ways to do this: either run them through the washing machine on a cool setting, or put them on and sit in the bath for a few hours. It sounds strange, but shrinking a pair of jeans in the bath is a rite of passage. It’s something every man should try at least once.
Is Japanese selvedge really all that special?
Cameron: Again, it’s a personal thing. There are some good Italian mills today, but it’s not something a purist would go for. In my view, there’s no reason to go outside of Japan for denim—the best looms are there, they use the best raw cotton and there are generations of weaving expertise on-hand.