For a garment that is invariably among the most-beloved pieces in any man's wardrobe, denim jeans take a lot of abuse. Worn day in and day out, they are ground down by bony knees, ripped apart by drunken high-kicks, splattered with paint, dragged along the floor by sullen shuffling teenagers, and stuffed full of abrasive things such as wallets, keys, phones, and jangling stacks of loose change. In fact, the tendency of jeans to get really clapped-out, really fast, is so inherent a part of the denim experience that it's become a fashion cliché. Wearing tortured denim is somehow a badge of honour, something that communicates uniqueness and effortless cool. People pay top whack for jeans that, straight out of the shop, are already faded, distressed, worn, patched and ripped.
Which is all well and good, but ultimately it's difficult, and a little chilly in all the wrong places, actually to wear a pair of trousers that, one ironic “Single Ladies” dance routine later, no longer has a crotch. The rise and rise of fast fashion, and the flash-but-flimsy clothes it pushes upon customers, has made this eventuality not only common, but inevitable. And the buy-it, wreck-it, replace-it mindset has diverted us from the idea that what's great about a pair of jeans is not just that you can wear them every day, but that you can keep them, maintain them, repair them, and, like so many things people really get obsessed about, they actually get better with age.
This summer, the Swedish denim brand Nudie is seeking to redress this issue, opening a boutique in Soho, London that will not only flog you jeans, but alter them so that they fit just right, and, when they eventually break, repair them, free of charge. It will be Nudie's first fully fledged “Repair Station” in the world, and “a natural step to take,” according to the brand's co-founder Joakim Levin. “The aim is to try and broaden the [idea] of corporate social responsibility and combine it with a service that makes sense for the customer,” continues Levin, who is keen to stress the ecological benefits of offering a service that simply makes clothes last longer.
From one angle, offering repairs is hardly a new concept – since the beginning of this seemingly never-ending recession, there have been trend pieces about the increased importance of a “make-do-and-mend” attitude towards fashion. We've seen the rise of the trendy east London knitting circle, and tuned into the Great British Sewing Bee. But at the same time, the idea of free repairs from a dedicated, permanent in-store team is an innovative one in a retail environment where free after-sales service is considered a real luxury and as such usually exclusive to high-end brands. Add to that the fact that few people can be bothered to seek out an appropriate tailor or seamstress to get garments mended, while fewer still are inclined to do it themselves. Darning is far less enticing an idea than other, more visibly creative crafts, after all. As Levin points out, “All garments, sooner or later, need repairing, but a lot of people don't know how to do it or don't have the time or interest.”
Having said that, interest in repairing, in making clothes last, seems to be on the up. To take one example, this month sees the culmination of Kickstarter's most successful crowd-sourced fashion project, the US-based brand Flint and Tinder's “10-Year Hoodie”. The jumper in question, a plain, American Apparel-style hooded jumper, is designed to remain intact, as its name suggests, for 10 years, and comes with a repair guarantee if it breaks within that time. Asked to comment on the project's success (it's raised more than $1m), Flint and Tinder's chief executive, Jake Bronstein, is convincingly eloquent about why the notion of keeping and repairing garments has an increasing appeal. “Everybody's making things cheaper and cheaper,” he says. “They're making them nearly disposable, so when you buy something and it isn't everything you hoped it would be, you kind of shrug your shoulders and assume you've got your money's worth.”
Bronstein continues: “Whereas it wasn't always that way. When our parents were young you kind of expected that the person that sold it to you implicitly owed something to you. No matter what it said on the back of the receipt. They owed you the service, they had a reputation they wanted to stand by.”
Within the context of men's jeans, the rise and rise of enthusiasm about untreated selvedge denim has also brought a renewed focus on how products are actually put together, and, as true selvedge aficionados prefer to age their own jeans, increased the importance of their longevity. “I think people are beginning to appreciate things that are well-made and have value,” says Danny Hodgson, the founder of the prestigious selvedge-denim e-tailer Rivet and Hide, which launched last August. “I definitely have customers of widely varying means,” he continues, “but a lot of people say that they would definitely like to buy one thing that will last.”
Rivet and Hide doesn't offer repairs per se. Yet the site, which now has a by-appointment-only workshop in Parsons Green, west London, where customers can browse Hodgson's range of exclusive and high-end Japanese selvedge pieces, does offer a related service. An artisanal “chainstitch” hemming technique using a rare 1950s “Union Special” sewing machine is much sought-after by the new breed of male denim customer, fascinated by the provenance, quality, and vintage authenticity of their purchases. There are few places in the UK that currently offer chainstitching, but the authentic 1950s finish makes for a pleasing, bunched “roping” effect around the hemline, as opposed to the more mass-produced look of the fashion industry's standard “loopstitch”.
According to Mike Pendlebury, a Manchester-based tailor who launched his site The Denim Doctor (thedenimdoctor.co.uk) in the mid-2000s, demand for such details, as well as garment resuscitation and resurrection in general, is on the rise. So much so, in fact, that Pendlebury has ended up hemming, altering or repairing by hand on average 100 pairs a week and receives parcels from all over the UK, Europe and even America. “It's just snowballed, really,” he says. “If you're spending the odd £100 or more on a pair of jeans – they can easily be that nowadays – if you go to that length of buying them, then I think a lot of people don't mind waiting an extra week and getting them hand-done. Getting the right cotton, colour and finish and everything.”
Pendlebury, naturally, insists that specialists like himself are the only people who can give your denim the attention it deserves. With most in-store alteration and repair services, “there's too many things that can go wrong,” he says. “You're relying on the guy who's pinning them to do a good job, then you're relying on the tailor interpreting that pinning in the right way.” However, the prospect of more in-store repair stations in the mould of the Nudie concept still feels like a promising one, particularly because they seem to have thought through the details, such as using specially commissioned sewing machines and, ultimately, the beginning of a service guarantee that seems like more than just a gimmick. There's life in your old jeans yet.