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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 Heddels 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.