When the Bubble Bursts: Raw Denim’s Staying Power

The number of new raw denim fans has skyrocketed to the point where the cult of “not washing you jeans” has practically reached mainstream acceptance. All this new growth, however, has lead many to wonder when the trend’s going to break and we’ll look back on raws with the same regretful nostalgia as cargo shorts and JNCO’s?

There are peaks and valleys with everything, and you’d be hard pressed not to anticipate a coming valley–many American raw brands are producing washes and selvedge denim is so ubiquitous that downmarket brands are faking it a few inches up the hem. Despite the doom and gloom in what is undoubtedly the best of times, rest assured: as long as there is denim, there will also be raw denim.

rogue territory washes on denim

Two washes released this season by Rogue Territory.

fake selvedge on cuff of jeans

Fake selvedge stitched to the hem of a downmarket pair of 20Jeans.

I’ve been wearing raw for going on four years now and writing about it for almost two. For a lot of the old salts in the denim game that’s barely enough to fade one good pair, but to the many people who have just started wearing raw selvedge jeans that’s practically ancient.

I started with Unbranded 201s from the first run they did with Urban Outfitters, and I was your typical masochistic fanboy about them: I wore them for six months to the day before my first wash, I froze them when they started to smell, I even did the requisite ocean dip and stunk of low tide for a couple weeks before I reluctantly washed them again in fresh water, and I loved every moment of it.

ocean wash denim in sand

An ocean and sand wash in progress.

Now that I’ve had a few years and a few more pairs under my belt, my opinions on the “right” and “wrong” way to wear jeans have softened considerably. Even though the “raw denim myths” I once ascribed to have been busted repeatedly, I still think they’re a positive way to introduce people into the culture. Despite how stupid some of them can be (I just shit my jeans, do I have to wash them? is a question I hear far too often), these self-hazing rituals bring us together through shared experience and introduce us to how fun it is to try weird experiments on our clothes.

Many fans liken a new pair to a blank canvas, I think of raw denim like having really long hair. Within those locks lies the potential for a mohawk, a crewcut, a pompadour, bleached blonde or dyed purple, top knots, ponytails, you could shave it bald or just keep it long–the possibilities are endless. But every step you take towards one of those styles negates a few others, you can always cut it off but never put it back on.

The same is true with raw denim, it’s a constantly evolving work in progress for you to shape and mold to your satisfaction. You can bleach them, cut them into jorts, wear them everyday for two years, keep a weird piece of cardboard in your pocket, or even expose them to various household chemicals–the choice is yours and your jeans will evolve differently each way.

red core naked and famous fade

A pair of Naked & Famous red core jeans faded with a maple leaf cardboard cutout in the back pocket.

The facilities that distress and wash denim are called finishing houses, and the jeans that come out of them are just that–finished. The denim they produce is relatively static and will look pretty much the same on wear one as they do on wear one hundred, and for many people that’s fine, if not preferable. But for the tinkerers and the DIY-ers who want more customization out of their clothes (if you’ve made it this far down the page, I’m talking about you), raw is always going to be the more liberating option.

Raw denim is just the fabric that hasn’t had anything done to it, and that’s always going to be cheaper and easier to produce than the same fabric that’s gone through extra processing. So when the raw denim bubble we’re supposedly in does burst, some of the more hegemonic rules of wear time and washing protocol might go with it but as long as denim’s around, raw denim will be too.

David Shuck

David is the Managing Editor of Rawr Denim. He currently resides in Denver, Colorado.

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  • DDavil

    Interesting article, and a bit thought provoking. People are always comparing selvedge or denim to all sorts of other things, when it’s really hard to compare to anything. Name another product that has been around as long, that is still appreciated in some of its most original product forms as well as the new fangled designs we see today? Given the number of people there are on this earth who love denim compared to how many are actually wearing selvedge right now and the potential for growth is still staggering. That being said, I don’t think the industry can sustain new brands constantly being added especially when they don’t bring anything new to the table. The problem is, whenever someone tries something new, the peanut gallery is waiting to bash them. New is too risky. It’s so much easier to do a slight variant of a 501 cut, throw it on kickstarter, and add the usual tags…#japanese denim, #made in America, #selvedge, #blah blah blah. I’m not knocking anyones hustle, but there is a definite blue print established for anyone who wants get into the selvedge denim business these days. Too many people are doing the same thing, and whats worse, a lot of companies are charging way too much when the materials, and manufacturing methods simply don’t warrant the price. The worst part is, there are a lot of great companies out there already making denim and have been for awhile, but never got the marketing right, and never went anywhere as a result. Superior products that are basically unheard of.

    Im always an advocate of educated consumers. It takes buying a few pairs of selvedge (and more importantly a few years of wearing them) before a person is really going to figure out what makes a sound quality pair of jeans. Unfortunately, a few people are going to fall victim to crafty ad campaigns in that time. Its all good if you’re having fun along the way. Eventually people won’t be so quick to fall victim to the popup brands, and they will eventually die off and go away leaving the quality Artisan Brands who go about it the right way…either that or the popup brands will continue to feed off of the new customers constantly jumping on the selvedge bandwagon…Things could continue at this rate for a long time to come. Just my opinion.

    • The shibbie’s edge.

      Well said. I could not agree more.

    • Kyle

      “Name another product that has been around as long, that is still
      appreciated in some of its most original product forms as well as the
      new fangled designs we see today?”

      Electric guitars.

      • Dr. Doc

        Since 1873, huh?

    • avilD

      “Name another product that has been around as long, that is still
      appreciated in some of its most original product forms as well as the
      new fangled designs we see today?”

      Cars

  • Damian

    An interesting article and some good points made by DDavil. Regarding his point of not being able to compare denim to any other thing: Personally, I think if you’re going to compare the “connoisseurship” aspect raw denim market to anything else, it’s watches. Like a good pair of Samurais or Irons Hearts, a Rolex or an Omega isn’t going to perform its job any better than most “inferior” products. To the contrary, most digital watches, as well as most battery operated watches of any type, will outperform (i.e. tell time better than) 99.9% of self-winding models. Similarly, buying a “decently made” pair of jeans and washing them regularly will likely make them last a lot longer than a pair or “premium” denim that typically does not get washed more than once every six months. What makes some premium denim and watch manufacturers so highly regarded in the eyes of “connoisseurs” is the attention to craft and detail in their products. Just as the premium denim companies manufacture their denim in-house, the best watchmakers produce a 100% made in-house product by artisans whom are masters at their craft.

  • Model Citizen

    Raw denim’s allure within style conscious subcultures will probably fade (no pun intended) as more and more people begin to jump on the “dad jeans” bandwagon. But as the article alludes to, as long as there are people who value authentic patina over artificial wear and tear, raw denim will have a fan base. While I don’t have any desire to wear pre washed denim, especially anything with simulated wear, there is room for both options for those who are interested in them. While washed denim in general has been around for a long time, it’s only been like 15 or so years since companies started putting out mass amounts of denim washed and treated specifically to resemble authentic wear patterns. I don’t know exactly when that specific trend officially began to catch on, but I don’t remember seeing it much here in Minneaplolis until like 2000 or 2001, which means it had probably been a thing in more stylish parts of the world for at least a few years before that. I remember assuming that you would have to wear a pair of jeans for like 10 years to get them to resemble a pair of pre distressed Diesels. A lot of people know better than that these days. I think raw denim’s relatively quick rise in popularity is more of a reflection on how much impact the internet has had on menswear as whole than anything else.