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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.