All the available options in the world of raw denim makes for a vibrant and exciting subculture, but if you’re just starting out it can be a bit overwhelming. The fact that Pure Blue Japan and Japan Blue are drastically different companies is intimidating enough. If all three jeans pictured above look exactly the same to you despite the vast difference in price (Unbranded 201 $82, 3sixteen SL-100X $215, and Stevenson Overall Co. 727 $340), then we’re here to help!
In this post, we’d like to break down the many raw denim brands and models into three distinct categories of entry-level, mid-level, and end-level denim that each have their own price points and characteristics. We hope laying some of the groundwork will help you decide what the right pair for your interests and budget as well as get a better picture of what’s out there.
For the raw denim initiated out there, be aware that these are broad categories and that there are exceptions to every rule.
Entry Level (Sub $150)
Entry level represents your basic jeans. If you’ve never owned a pair of raw denim before and want to see what all the fuss is about, you should start here.
What you’ll find in this category is generally mid-weight 10oz.-15oz. (learn more about denim weights here) denim that’s sanforized and possibly selvedge. It’ll most likely be 100% cotton or a 2% stretch.
You’d be hard pressed to find a lot of color variation beyond your basic indigo and the denim will be quite uniform in texture and weave. Milling and construction was most likely done in a country other than Japan or the United States.
You can find a variety of slim, skinny, and straight fits, but not the larger heritage inspired ones. Details will be pretty basic outside of your standard buttons, rivets, and patch.
Our pick at this price point is the Unbranded 201, which is 88 bucks at Nordstrom (see the full review). Other good options include Levi’s 501 STF, United Stock Dry Goods Narrow, Gustin, Gap 1969 Selvedge, and Uniqlo Raw Selvedge.
All of these jeans are of a much higher quality than your standard mall fare and can earn some great fades, the price tag is just low enough though that you won’t be kicking yourself if you size them incorrectly or accidentally toss them in the dryer.
Mid Level ($150 – $275)
This middle tier is where things start to get interesting. Here you can start to see custom fabrics woven exclusively for the brands in question, lightweight (sub 10oz.) and heavyweight (16oz.+) denims, and a variety of colors, textures, and fiber blends. Some of it will be unsanforized, but most will still be pre-shrunk.
Fits in this level are going to be similar to those in the entry level with some more variations on skinny, slim, and straight. You can tune in more closely on the rise, leg opening, thigh size, etc. because there are more options available in this range.
Brands begin to have more character in this level as well, with specific detailing, stitch designs, and pocket linings defining each company’s specific take on the five (or six) pocket jean.
The vast majority of North American denim companies like Rogue Territory, 3sixteen, Baldwin, Left Field, Naked & Famous, and Tellason fall into this category. As do offerings from a couple of the more moderately priced Japanese brands like Japan Blue and Sugar Cane and European brands like Nudie and A.P.C..
Almost all of the jeans at this level will be produced in a first world country–most likely USA, Canada, or Japan–but often contract to a third party production company for cutting and sewing.
Some of our favorite jeans at this price point are the 3sixteen SL-100X, which is a minimalistic jean with an incredibly forgiving 14oz. selvedge indigo denim from Japan’s Kuroki Mills. It’s made in the USA and retails for $215. See the weaving process or pick up a pair at Self Edge.
If you’re looking for something skinnier and darker, try the Rogue Territory Stealth SK. The SK is also made in USA jean (Los Angeles, specifically) with a gradually tapered leg and a completely murdered out black/black sulphur dyed 15oz. Japanese selvedge denim. It retails for $240 at Rogue Territory.
End Level ($275+)
This is when you get to the creme de la creme of artisanal raw denim. The jeans at this level aren’t so much objectively “better” than the ones at the mid-level, they just have details and designs that you can’t find anywhere else. If you’ve got the itch, these are the only jeans that can scratch it.
Almost every single fabric used at this level is designed and produced exclusively for the company in question: Pure Blue Japan has their incredibly textured super slub, Iron Heart has their 21oz.-plus heavies, The Flat Head has their famously fast fading 3XXX denim, the list could go on. Most of the denim will be unsanforized, as that’s the original way denim was made and it arguably has more interesting fades.
Production also happens not only in the first world but almost exclusively in house. Most of the companies at this level are Japanese and have their own employees as well as a connection to a mill. This way the entire creation of the jean happens entirely within the company, with little to no outside contracting.
In the United States, End level denim often comes from One Man Brand operations like Roy Denim and WH Ranch Dungarees. Each of which only has a sole employee and owner that all of the designing, drafting, sewing, and promotion himself.
This is also where you’ll find particular heritage details like cinch-backs and crotch rivets or a particular type of pocket that was only made for six months in the 1890s.
A lot of new raw denim fans may be instantly turned off when they first see the jeans at this price level, and honestly, to most people they aren’t worth the money. It takes quite a bit of education and sophistication as a consumer to understand and appreciate just what makes these jeans so special (and so expensive), but that’s what puts them at the top of the pyramid.
You can easily search through every single jean that’s out there according to your preferred price, fit, color, and more with our handy tool, The Scout.
What are your favorite models and brands at each level of denim? How would you categorize all the options that are out there?