Denim Darwinism: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cheap Raws

It’s not getting any easier to stay in the black in the increasingly saturated market of raw denim. We at Rawr Denim report on a new brand producing raw selvedge jeans or a new store selling them almost every other day, and each one of them represents at least a dozen others we didn’t mention.

Everyone and their mother is making 13oz. Cone Mills made in USA denim, so what’s left for a new brand to do? The trend for the past year has been to remake the same jeans everyone else already has, pepper them heavily with Americana, and cut the cost via Kickstarter; sort of like what off-brand Dr. Thunder soda is to Dr. Pepper. A lot of the more established players are threatened by this move, as well they should be. But for consumers it’s a beneficial consequence of the growth and evolution of the raw denim market.

denim leather patch mosaic

A small selection of raw denim companies started in the past 18 months.

For the canonically established brands (the ones in the sidebar), Dr. Thunder jeans present a double edged sword. They help by creating more potential customers but at the same time they’re nipping at the heels of every known label to take their place.

The cost of admission for made in USA selvedge raws is half of what it was five years ago. Consumers who wanted to try raw denim but didn’t want to risk several hundred dollars on jeans they didn’t entirely understand can now take the plunge on a sub-hundred dollar model that’s a similar experience. Sure the product might be bland and generic, but it’s most likely worlds better than your standard mall brand offering. And once someone’s bought in to the world of raw denim, they’re much more likely to become a convert, explore other options, and upgrade to a pair from one of the higher-tier brands.

The drawback, however, is that Dr. Thunder jeans can be similar enough to be confused with the higher end brands themselves. This isn’t really an issue for denim nerds, but for the mainstream consumer often the only thing separating a high-end jean from something half its price is the label. Our favorite brands have to constantly and consistently put out good product at a decent price to prove they deserve to be at the top of the heap.

But for denimheads, the plethora of choice and competition Dr. Thunder jeans instill in the marketplace is a very good thing. The growth of the community and the creation of new brands means a much wider selection and availability of whatever jeans happen to suit your needs. Our readership has nearly tripled in the last two years and that upswing shows no signs of slowing down. As much as we’d like to believe that’s due to our unparalleled analysis of crotch fades, it’s undeniable that more people are buying and wearing raw jeans than they have in decades. We even created a tool to catalog and search through all the models. Plus, raw denim is nowhere close to an exhausted market–there’s still a massive pool of people not wearing them who potentially could.

Furthermore, the competition amongst brands means the established ones can’t afford to rest on their laurels. They have to innovate new fabrics, details, fits, and construction methods every season to separate themselves from the hordes of cheap copycats. Denimheads are getting the very best each company has to offer because there’s no reason to patronize something that falls below the curve. It’s Denim Darwinism in action.

GUSTIN Denim Review

There’s a lot of shit talk in the world of raw denim and Kickstarter brand Gustin has been a popular whipping boy in trade circles. It’s easy to deride them, they took in close to half a million dollars with a two minute video and a bunch of zeitgeisty heritage-speak without making a single pair of jeans. Even I jumped in on the ridicule. No one would argue that Gustin’s jeans are superior to those of a cult Japanese brand like Flat Head, but they’re providing a good value proposition for a different kind of consumer.

Forget all their “we cut out the middleman” and “bringing jobs back to America” crap and Gustin makes a decent entry level pair of jeans at a reasonable price. There’s nothing wrong with that. Because of them, thousands of people tried raw denim who probably never would have. They’re not stealing customers away from companies like Flat Head, they’re creating them. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them. Don’t buy them enough and they’ll go away.

We may be quick to condemn brands that seem unsophisticated, but it should be a no brainer for anyone in this business that more people wearing raw jeans–any raw jeans–is a good thing. And for the exclusivists lamenting, “it’s not cool if everyone’s doing it”, a bigger market only means more opportunity for tiny brands to develop. Veteran denimheads can be quick to forget how difficult it is to learn the complete landscape of brands, stores, and price points. We were all there before and there’s no shame in ignorance, but now the barrier to entry is a little lower. Hell, making it easy to learn about raw denim is the explicit purpose of this website.

Maybe our favorite brands will have to work a little bit harder to stay on top, but that’s a good thing. Working hard gives you better fades.

David Shuck

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

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  • Chris

    Good article. Very well balanced.

    • Steve

      A rising tide lifts all boats.

  • Young

    nicely done!

  • japanese denim nazi

    Sooo…. what makes flatheads sophisticated wereas gustins are not? Oh oh…. i know… they have a price tag that says “im a 400$ pair of hipster douchness jeans”…

    • Brent

      Brah if you don’t drop a weeks pay on jeans you must be a peasant. This reminds me of what some brands do. Charge an enormous amount over something else and people think it must be better because it costs more. Cost does not alway equal quality.

      • goldushapple

        Like with every niche item, there are enthusiasts whose brains kinda seep out of their skull – not because there are so many ideas flowing, or a big brains means any kind of wisdom, but because it’s swollen with ridiculousness and naivety.

  • Nathan

    The new less expensive denim companies are “starter” or “entry level” but you offer no explanation on where they fall short of the established, higher priced brands. What I’d really like to know is why you would buy basic pair of 3Sixteen @ $220-240 versus a pair of Gustin for $80-90.

    • David

      I suppose a good analogy would be a Timex watch vs. a Rolex watch. If you’re just looking to keep time, then by all means buy the Timex. But the materials, methods of construction, and to a certain extent the cachet of higher end watches apart from cheaper alternatives. The same thing can be true about both ends of the spectrum on denim.

      Movement fabrication would be equivalent to denim fabrication. Cheaper watches generally use the same off-the-shelf movements (what makes the watch tick) as everyone else. So even though the watch may look unique on the outside, it actually has the same guts driving it as hundreds–if not thousands–of other watches. High end Swiss watchmakers like Rolex work for years to perfect and construct their own unique movements for the watches they produce. Whether this movement is better is subjective, but what’s undeniable is that you’re getting something you can’t get anywhere else and was specifically engineered for the product.

      In the same way with denim fabrication, companies like Gustin use off-the-shelf fabric to produce their jeans, which can be found in dozens of other models across dozens of other brands. Some American brands and most Japanese brands develop their own fabrics in house to work specifically with the cut and the details for their specific models. They weave denim with a specific slubbiness, indigo, hairiness, selvedge ID, etc. to fit their specific designs. Therefore, the jeans you buy are unique not just in the shape and the construction, but down to the very fabric that makes them.

      Back to watch, cheaper brands like Timex generally do not own their own means of production, and contract out to independent factories to produce their products. Many of these factories are capable of producing quality goods. But Rolex keeps all their construction in house, so they can control every aspect of production and maintain their own team of skilled artisans who only make Rolex watches.

      Pretty much all entry level denim companies (including most mid range American ones) contract the construction of their jeans out to independent factories. This is fine if they’re able to maintain the same level of quality control, but changing factories can wildly change your product. Brands like Flat Head, Railcar, and Strike Gold who keep employees on staff to make their jeans who only make jeans for that specific brand. This generally ensures a much higher quality product.

      These factors finally add up to cachet. The cheap watch company really only produced a watch design and then paid for everything else to be done by third parties, while the Rolex equivalent produced the design, the parts, and the construction of the entire watch. The Rolex brand means more because every single aspect of their product was conceived and constructed by them and them alone. This process is obviously much more expensive because it ignores the benefits of economies of scale by eschewing mass production. Whether that’s worth several thousand dollars is entirely up to you, but to many it is.

      Brands like Gustin produce a fine product, but they only really produce a pattern themselves. Every other aspect of the jeans is farmed out to other companies who also produce for other jeans, so the product itself is only unique in it’s design and not in its construction or materials. High end Japanese brands do all designs, denim, and construction themselves so the jeans they produce are wholly and uniquely theirs. This process is also more expensive, but many people believe jeans built with an uncompromising unique vision in all aspects of production are worth the price.

      Some American companies have in house manufacturing (Roy, WH Ranch, Norman Porter, Railcar, Rising Sun) and some have unique denims (3sixteen, Baldwin this fall), but not many have both. This is why they generally occupy the mid-range tier and are still more expensive than the ones produced with stock denim and contracted manufacturing like Gustin.

      • Guest

        And the $400 Japanese jeans are jus

      • Nathan

        The Timex/Rolex comparison is silly. No one is returning the $35 Timex to Target because they just dropped $10k on a Rolex. They both make watches, but it’s hardly the same market. Obviously you’re more of a denimhead than I so I’m not going to nitpick my way through the response. Suffice it to say I understand you point but think your perspective is overblown by a good bit. I realize this is an editorial but if the point if the piece was to discuss the market interaction then all of the bitchy comments about the new manufacturers wasn’t necessary and clouded the intended purpose.

      • Matt

        Except in this case Gustin is using the same Denim (movement) as a lot of the pricier brands, and manufacturing them in the same factory as a lot of the pricier brands, and including a lot of the kinds of details you’ll find in pricier brands. If you are looking for specific details they don’t include, or a different cut, or if you object to the time it takes to recieve a pair, fine, but the argument that they are similar to a mass produced item is specious.

      • Brent

        David explain to me your thoughts on Orient watches?

      • discuss

        good. keep busting 400$ on overpriced japanese jeans…. silly!!!!

  • Chris

    This article has some truth about entry level being a good thing. I bought a pair of Kickstarter jeans (RPM West) which opened my eyes to the world of raw denim. Since then I’ve bought a couple of pairs of Iron Hearts.

    • boogie with stu


    • discuss

      a sucker is born everyday

  • boogie with stu

    Love to hear from someone who has actually been wearing Gustin and higher end jeans for real comparison. Isn’t the price difference mostly wholesale vs resale?

    • Greg

      I don’t have a pair of Gustins (yet), but my first pair were Unbranded UB101s, and I’m currently wearing Pure Blue Japan XX-010s which I’ve had for a bit over a month now.

      I love my Unbrandeds. They were my first raws, and they’re perfectly broken in and extremely comfortable now. That said, they’re not in the same league as the PBJs. The Unbranded fabric is much more uniform and feels less sturdy. The pockets aren’t deep enough, and the construction isn’t as good in places.

      The PBJs have the details which I really like (the purple weft, the hidden rivets, the nicer material pocketbags and leather patch, etc. but the real calling point is the denim. Quite simply, the amount of slubbiness, neppiness, and hairyness that the PBJs possess is on an entire other level from the Unbrandeds. It’s simply a higher end, more interesting fabric.

      • Jimmy Cap

        Unbrandeds are made in some sweatshop in Macau. Gustins are made in San Francisco.
        Same price point. No brainer. Go get some and report back….in 2 months.

        • Greg

          Gustins also take 20 years to get, and are known for not having the best build quality (plenty of people report rivets falling off shortly after getting their jeans). I’m sure I’ll like my pair when they arrive, but not as much as I like my PBJs.

          • Gustin Von Gustingustin

            Gustin, when you get your Gustins and if the Gustin rivets pop off your Gustins, just give Gustin a call at Gustin and Gustin will come right over and Gustin a gustin to the gustin for ya.

          • discuss

            would you like a gustin with your gustin?

          • Gustin Gustin Gustin

            Gustin gustin gustin gustin gustin. Gustin gustin gustin, gustin. Gustin, gustin gustin gustin…..gustin.

            Gustin Gustin

          • discuss

            that is a whole lot of gustin!

  • Gustin ruined my life

    For the last four years I have been buying jeans for about $300 and I was the absolute balls. I was in an exclusive club with all my other big spender denim nerd friends and we were all gettin’ sick fades and touching our balls and….
    Now….anyone with $90 can order up a pair of Gustins….
    I need to make sense of this….

    • Brent

      Money and clothing don’t make the man. The man makes the clothing.

  • breeze on the bag

    Will the ball bag area blow out on Gustins as fast as the 400 dollhair jawns I see on this here? I hate blowing fat stacks on Japanese denim only to have me sack a dangling after a few months. I could just buy 4 pairs of Gustins and rotate them so this doesn’t happen. Right?

  • D.S.L.

    One of the best parts of this article is the allusion in the title to “Dr. Strangelove…” Equating raw denim to the nuclear bomb is pure genius. Go ahead. Extend the metaphor.

  • Brent

    Gustin is cutting the middle man. Gustin did make boutique jeans that sold for $200+. Gustin provided high quality denim at a lower cost. Gustin also uses the same quality denim as a lot of these “rolex” brands. The watch argument doesn’t make sense to me. If anything Gustin is a small private brand like Rolex or AP. Not a huge company. Also I am pretty sure that we have all accepted the truth that cost does NOT equal higher quality in all situations especially in clothing and cars. $500 jeans carry the prestige factor not exactly higher quality.

  • Yong-Soo Chung

    There are a lot of good points made in this article. Yes, the Kickstarter community exposure to raw denim has increase interest in raw denim, thus raising awareness of other brands, no doubt about that. However, your point on Gustins is absolutely wrong. They’ve been in the business of making high quality jeans for over 8 years. The statement: “they took in close to half a million dollars with a two minute video and a bunch of zeitgeisty heritage-speak without making a single pair of jeans” is just plain wrong. They sold their jeans along with other high-end brands BEFORE their Kickstarter campaign. Would you write the same article about Momotaro, Railcar, or Iron Heart if they relaunched their brand through Kickstarter, with the same business model as Gustin? “These decent quality entry-level Railcar’s fill a nice niche for those looking for a more affordable option… and there’s nothing wrong with that. These people would never get into raw denim without that entry level pair of Railcars.” I just don’t get it.

    • Grandier

      honest question from an oblivious reader:

      if they’ve been in business of making high quality jeans for over 8 years as you said, why would they start a kickstarter campaign? did they work under different brand during that 8 years and started Gustin on kickstarter, or are they trying the new business model using kickstarter? i’m confused =s

      • Yong-Soo Chung

        Yes, that’s exactly right. They’ve always been Gustin, and sold all their premium jeans at a markup of $205+ at boutique stores. They wanted to get closer to their customer base, and thought that it’d be better if they sold direct to the consumers themselves, based on a crowd funding model. They don’t spend much money on marketing to sell jeans that sit on shelves (inventory) because they match supply with demand up front.

        I’m sure the other “premium” denim companies have mark ups in price that factor in marketing, inventory cost, retail stores, etc. The small team at Gustin have essentially “cut the fat”, passing the savings onto the consumer. It’s a disgrace that the original writer of the article, Mr. David Shuck, fails to realize this fact.

      • Brent

        Trying a new business model.

  • Joshua Klassen

    So all these people on here talking about how Gustin is just as good should just shut up and buy Gustin as opposed to trying to down grade brands like flat head, momtaro, Big John, roy, nobel and even Levi’s themselves who sell $1000 pairs of jeans. if you want to stick with the entry-level stuff do so, but bitching about the editorial is stupid, to me basically all you are saying is that you can buy a suit at Walmart that is just as good as Saks Fifth Ave, or made by Armani… lets get serious and stop being silly here folks. Im no denimhead by any means, do i love raws, yes, do i own more cheap brands than expensive, yes, and my naked and famous are great, but does that mean i would ever dare to say that they are the same quality as a pair of momtaros that it takes 3 months to make due to the fact that they weave the denim on a hand operated loom which can only weave a yard of denim every 8 hours, no, sorry im not stupid.

    • Nathan

      You don’t get it. Read it again, then read the comments and try again.

      • Joshua Klassen

        Certainly got it bud, maybe its you who should go back a get a little better comprehension regarding some of the whiny ass comments that say gustin uses the same material and process as the more expensive brands. Then try and acutally try again by expressing your

        • Yong-Soo Chung

          Joshua, I know where Gustin makes their jeans and it’s the same people who make some other notable denim brands. Some of the materials they use is actually exactly the same as these other “more premium” brands… but they are usually 50% (or more) less expensive because they cut down on a lot of overhead costs such as marketing costs, retail stores, leftover inventory costs, etc.

          Your analogy of buying a cheaper suit at Walmart vs. a nicer one at Saks Fifth or Armani is inaccurate.

          • Brent

            Another horrible comparison. A better one would be a Armani or Versace $2000 suit vs a $400-$900 Suit Supply suit. Which in a different way is reinventing how to buy suits.

        • Nathan

          My point of view is that your response is an ill-informed and infantile reaction that really has little to do with the actual editorial or the counter points laid out in the comment section. You’d do well to read more about Gustin before coming here an exposing your lack of knowledge with off handed comments and insults, Bud. The piece is titled “Denim Darwinism: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cheap Raws”, yet the author goes on to take needless cheap shots, some mis-informed, at Gustin. I have no problem with the higher priced brands,and if you’ll actually take the time to read as I suggested earlier, you’ll see that. I don’t think anyone here is saying that a pair of Japan Standard Gustin jeans are superior or equal to a $1000 pair of denim by a high end manufacturer.

          Here’s the “Cliff Notes” version in case you’re still having a hard time: Gustin makes a high quality product that is at least equal to a lot (but not all) higher priced denim brands. Other denim brands also make high quality products. There is no need to disparage either.

    • Brent

      Josh but you lack the reason why Gustin is entry level? What makes them “low end” and “entry level”? Is hand spun Momo denim a better denim and why? Oh and Rolex isn’t really considered a high end watch company. Look at VC, AP and PP. The only thing most of these snobs can say is Gustin is entry level because it’s accessible because of the price point. The offer over 108 fabric choices since 2011 and many features that are on your high end denim.

  • YungDollaz

    where is Devin to make sense of this

    • Tron

      im scared to death, I don’t want to dance. I might have some questions that devan cant answer right now..

    • Devan Prithipaul

      I was actually on a bit of a vacation, in terms of the whole Gustin thing, what Gustin does not have is the brand identity/philosophy that most people enjoy about the raw denim culture. Gustin doesnt really have a “story” or something you can talk about. I like my Oni denim, and even if Gustin makes a super slubby denim, its not the same as Oni. Oni has story, depth, it has that coolness factor. In terms of the denim, its so subjective, almost like wine. You can like a 5$ bottle of wine or a 500$ bottle of wine, its up to you. Quality wise, I dont see why we need to compare Gustin and other high end Japanese brands, they focus on different things. But to me, the main issue with Gustin is that they try and downgrade other denim brands. By offering the same fabrics and pushing their quality propaganda, they’re making all the other denim brands look bad. Thats not very nice. Let Oni have slub, let Momotaro have peaches, and let Gustin leech off of their success.

      • boogie with stu

        I haven’t read where Gustin is “downgrading” other denim brands. Got a link?

        • Tron

          you read from devan, and that’s the most official source.

        • Devan Prithipaul

          Its because of how explicitly they point out their similarities to the other high-end denim brands, while emphasizing the difference in price. N&F and Unbranded do not do this, though their denim may come from Kaihara or Kurabo, out of courtesy to the high-end brands that do, they never disclose the actual mill which they get from japan. I much prefer that business model to the more aggressive and predatory Gustin model.

          • Goober Goo

            Gustin does not disclose where they source their Japanese denim either. (But almost positive Collect Mills is one of them.)
            Gustin also does not disclose what shop sews up their jeans. (Although it is common knowledge Tellason also uses the same shop.)
            They only point out that their business model allows them to sell their jeans at wholesale prices if you are willing to wait for them.

          • Nathan

            Ha ha! Predatory! That. Is. Rich. I think what you’re talking about here is called “making a sales pitch” or “selling your product”. I’ve heard it’s commonly done by pointing out why your product is superior to the competition. I could be wrong though, I don’t have a MBA or anything.

      • J. Davis

        Oh for God’s sake, not the “story” thing again. Is your life so empty that you need the fictional narrative of a high end denim maker to give you meaning? Just how does the origin story of say, Momotoro jeans, give you direction and purpose? And if you think that owning a pair of slubby Oni jeans has more coolness factor than a pair of slubby Gustin jeans, then you are a complete poseur, and a fool to boot. The kind of jeans you wear has nothing to do with how cool you are–that’s an inside job. And if you’re really smart, sell your Oni jeans, buy a pair of Gustins and then invest the difference in a retirement account. Now that’s cool.

      • discuss

        by identity you mean stealing and copycating Levis, Wranglers and Lees????

      • Irenarch

        You seem pretty desperate to rationalize just *liking a brand more than another*. It’s fine to like something for arbitrary and intangible reasons, but trying to pretend it’s some grand issue of legitimacy is just patently absurd.

        Most of your comment is just circular logic – i.e. ‘they don’t have a story because I don’t think they have a story!’ Gustin’s got a story, same as every other brand, but you pretend they don’t in order to justify your arbitrary preference — since it does seem to be completely arbitrary. I have no problems accepting that Oni and Momo make better jeans than Gustin – but this kind of shit just makes you look like a laughingstock.

  • Fadeawayjay

    This is an interesting article and interesting discussion. I have 2 pairs of Gustins, I’ve also worn Naked and Famous and some other high end Japanese companies, like Edwin, Kamikaze Attack. I’ve had Nudies and a lesser known brand called Kicking Mule. I’m kind of all over the board. Overall I think Gustin makes a pretty nice jean, I only have their regular fit so I am not sure how their slim fit would feel. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy again and like others have mentioned on here they use the same fabric that other companies use for their jeans. I like that they can put out various production runs on certain fabrics. I’m not a denim nerd by any means but I do like nice fitting jeans and Gustin’s are pretty decent.

  • Mr_Plastik

    Well said. Awesome article :-)

    Mr P

  • sencha

    Even a pair of samurai’s or skulls will yield a blow out or busted inseam thread( cotton thread construction). So the argument needs to shift away from “will entry level jeans last as long as high end jeans?”

    The debate is useless. Most high end japanese brands prefer insane little details which you will never find on gustins, paleo denim, naked and famous, etc. One example that comes to mind is the custom iron/copper rivets on a pair of strike golds, which rust over with time. Hell, the strike golds might fall apart before the gustins do, but they’re gonna age and fall into retirement much more gracefully. The same goes for a pair of PBJ’s, they’ve spent so much time perfecting and honing their fabric, that it is now legendary. And it just might wear out before the gustins. Its not about the end result my friends, its about the journey. Being able to see other parts of the jean age, and not just the “fades” is the philosophy behind high end denim. And honestly, I seriously doubt if rogue territory, left field, or 3sixteen lose customers to these new guys. They all have very loyal customers and all of them have a good market niche.

    • discuss

      seriously… you denim nazis need to get your heads screwed on…. you talk about detail and detials and details… what fucking details?? what? what are those details you people talk about? it seems to me you are seing unicorns!!!! for fuck’s sake!!!!

  • santos

    jeans made in China and other so called ” third world countries” , brands like Red Cloud, Sauce Zhan and so on are just equally as good as most of American made jeans. People just can’t admit the fact. It is true that Flat Head, Samurai and other Japanese brands did a amazing jobs. But i just can’t accept that idea like ” we are American made, we are Japan made we must be good. We have a history.” Bullshit Crap.

    • goldushapple

      And most of the time the American brands – their makers dress almost alike: Some kind of 1950s haircut, a handle bar mustache, tattoos or a tattoo sleeve, horn rimmed glasses and boots. Despite the whole “Be yourself,” and “Be an individual,” they sure found a mirror image of themselves in their business partners.

  • Dexter Bel

    I’m surprised that the “managing editor” would write such a naive, trite piece, considering the sophistication (at least in terms of denim) of much of his readership.

    This idea of Gustins being entry level or starter jeans is ridiculous. It has been mentioned several times on this site (see previous review of Gustin loomstate). Always without specifics…I have been wearing SAMs, flathead, momo for years and love them. Also have multiple Gustins and love them too. Quality is actual better on the Gustins, though I am a sucker for the Japanese mystique and will continue to buy both. Gustin will not impinge on these high end Japanese companies. Both have their place. The companies that should be worried are the likes of tellason, Imogene, Baldwin etc.

  • discuss

    what i love the most is how Samurais and Momo’s look like they are falling apart in one year and in the heads of denim nazis, that is quality!!!!!

  • Mercy

    I love this article and all but I’m new to this whole raw denim thing… I got into it because I was jealous of my brother’s jeans and how they always looked good and expensive and just better quality than mine.. They also last longer than mine, but the more I search the more I realize all these blogs and sites and companies themselves are catered more to guys than us girls. I’m sorry I’m slow to the bandwagon but I’m looking to join but can’t really find the door.