Everything is authentic. From sweatshop manufactured sweatpants, to hand-woven Momotaro jeans, to the non-dairy creamer in your coffee, the word authentic is bandied about at will. Yet in menswear, authenticity is an almost universally positive term often uttered in the same breath as ‘quality’ and ‘classic. Authenticity by definition doesn’t speak to whether a thing is good or bad, it only refers to a product being a faithful representation of its origin and purpose.
When dealing with a specific garment in the abstract, degrees of authenticity aren’t nearly as important as what that authenticity stands for. The sweatpants are authentically foreign sweatshop just as much as Momotaros are authentically Japanese artisanal. No company will be seen touting their authentic sweatshop background, however, so invoking authenticity is basically shorthand for invoking something valued by the community. Breaking down the use of authenticity in the raw denim world can show us specifically what those values are and how advertisers use those values and language to their advantage.
Raw denim fans love to fetishize the sources of goods — from which loom, in which mill, in which country was something produced, etc. – and are borderline obsessed with authentic fades. We reject the inauthentic pre-distressed denim in favor of breaking things in ourselves from the raw state to the point that there are dozens of websites founded just to show off personal wear and tear in denim fades and leather patina. We even dedicate a day of the week at Heddels to Fade Friday.
Beyond personal connections, though, we look for perceived authenticity in the physical parts of a garment. Chain stitching is a perfect illustration. The old school sewing technique tends to unravel much easier than modern lock stitches but it looks cool, can lead to an interesting roping fade, and was a staple of vintage denim.
Despite the advantages of modern lock stitching, new jeans in the raw world have to have a chain stitch on the hem lest they be branded inauthentic. The stitch’s appeal is so strong that there’s even a cult following behind the Union Special, the antique sewing machine that supposedly does it best.
So what is a chain stitch authentic to? Manufacturers first employed it because it was the cheapest and hardest wearing way to secure hems available at the time, but that’s no longer the case. The hardy lock stitch makes it impossible for a chain stitch to ever serve its original purpose again. Roping fades and the design of the stitch were aesthetic chaff in early twentieth-century workwear, now those aesthetics are all we care about. The chain stitch is no longer authentic, it’s fashionable.
In this instance, we see that a garment earns authenticity by recreating the techniques of certain eras valued by the community whether they’re still useful or not. Men’s heritage clothing primarily values the style of mid-century American recreation and work wear and thus the products that adhere to those standards the tightest are generally considered the most authentic.
That doesn’t, however, mean that any clothing unconcerned with recreating the manufacturing processes and aesthetics of a given era is any less authentic or genuine. For example, let’s compare a pair of Levi’s Vintage Clothing reproduction 1947 501s with a pair of mainline Levi’s 501s from the mall. The LVC was painstakingly reconstructed in the United States with materials and manufacturing methods as close to the original model’s as possible. The modern mall jean, on the other hand, was made more economically from projectile-loomed denim and constructed in a South Asian or South American garment factory.
It’s no contest that the LVC is a higher quality piece of clothing but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very well made copy and, quality aside, the 501 down at the mall is the genuine article. The original 1947 model was made to provide maximum durability at a minimal cost, which the current mall jean still does. The LVCis an amazing reproduction, but at a retail price of $250 it wouldn’t be the first choice for blue collar workers.
Only a niche market appreciates the details that make the LVC historically special, while the mall jean is an accurate reflection of the times we live in and the purpose denim serves. The Levi’s 501 created in 1947 was authentic to 1947, recreating that piece to the letter sixty years later is aesthetic fashion. Sixty years from now, will LVC be scouring the globe for Filipino seamstresses so they can authentically recreate the 501 from 2013? Only time can tell.
Distinguishing authenticity within a given garment is complicated enough, but the real rub lies in how companies sell these products to us. An otherwise honestly produced item becomes inauthentic when it’s sold via an image dissonant with its origin. That disconnect is fairly obvious with something like knockoffs but the distinction becomes much blurrier with advertising genuine goods.
Let’s look back at the sweatpants and Momotaro. Momotaro‘s artisanal Japanese background happens to be very desirable so the marketers remain authentic to the product’s origin in their advertising. Foreign sweatshops, however, don’t have nearly as much capital with consumers, so the sweats brand creates a backstory that’s more likely to sell, say cotton growers in Georgia.
This invented narrative transforms the pants from being authentically sweatshop to inauthentically Georgian cotton. Advertisers frequently use authenticity narratives like “Georgia cotton” to connect the products they’re selling to an idealized vision of their origin and the past. Authenticity narratives can range from pictures, to music, or even specific language – anything that will evoke the idea of authenticity in the viewer.
But authenticity narratives can just as easily backfire. Wrangler infamously recut the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Fortunate Son” into a 2002 ad. The ad used only the first two lines of the song (“Some folks are born to wave the flag/Ooh they’re red, white, and blue”) to brand their jeans as authentically patriotic and classic rock.
Using only those two lines distorted the song’s original anti-Vietnam message into pro-American pomp. This alienated the very customers they hoped to attract and typified Wrangler as the same “man” that CCR railed against in the song. Hypocrisy is death when navigating the waters of authenticity.
Take Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign with Braddock, Pennsylvania as a case study. Braddock was once a thriving city of industry but shriveled to a bombed-out husk as steel manufacturing moved overseas in the 70s and 80s. In 2010, Levi’s shot print ads and commercials in town featuring Braddock residents as models and donated a million dollars to revitalize the town over a two-year period. The ads ran during the height of the recent economic meltdown and focused on hardscrabble messages like “Will Work for Better Times,” or “Everybody’s Work is Equally Important” with images of Braddock residents going to work in their dilapidated home city. The campaign set out to make Braddock the poster child of industrial ghost towns but at the same time equate that “down but not out” blue-collar American identity and imagery with Levi’s clothing.
The dissonance here is that no jeans are or have ever been made in Braddock. Just like the town’s steel company, Levi’s moved the last of its domestic production overseas in 2004 (six years before the “Go Forth” ads) leaving more than a their fair share of Braddock-esque towns behind. In other words, Levi’s is actually the source of the problem it claims to be addressing and the only connection between Levi’s and Braddock, PA is the ad campaign itself. By definition, Levi’s goods associated with the town are inauthentic because the ads are not a true representation of their origin – foreign factories.
To be fair, Levi’s is far from the worst offender in this arena – moving production overseas was probably a necessity for their survival, and Braddock appears to be doing better with their help. One of the consequences of no longer manufacturing goods in the United States, however, is that it becomes impossible to honestly associate those goods with United States manufacturing.
Instead of advertising via images and places that have little to do with their business practices, Levi’s could show us the people, cultures, and practices that actually produce their jeans overseas. If that truth happens to be unglamorous and unflattering then double authenticity points for them. Authenticity means the decisions of a company directly affect their image as a brand.
Maintaining authenticity as a consumer and as a brand is an incredibly nebulous territory that requires constant choices about who you are, what you make, and what it is you represent. You can’t dodge that with authenticity narratives. To a certain extent, authenticity narratives even negate authenticity itself. As Margaret Thatcher said of being powerful and being a lady, “If you have to say you are, you aren’t.” So many heritage labels obsess over authenticity to their roots and where they came from.
That’s all well and good, but they should place even more emphasis on who they are and what they’re doing right now instead of romanticizing the past. In fashion, the eras and aesthetics the community values are constantly in flux. What’s on trend next year could be 1980s punk just as easily as it could be 19th century vaquero, each bearing a host of chainstitch-like authenticity markers. With every change and reinvention it becomes more and more difficult to keep being authentic.
So the next time you’re comparing Momotaro with K-Mart, the question you should be asking isn’t “is this authentic?” but “this is as authentic as what?”