Selvedge Shootout: Naked and Famous, Uniqlo, and Neuw Denim
|Naked and Famous Charcoal Selvedge, Neuw Denim Dry Black Selvedge, Uniqlo Black Selvedge|
It's hard to know where to start when talking about denim. Just like a foreign language, understanding the lingo can be a daunting task to say the least. Whiskering, stacking, honeycombing, raw, nep, slub, right hand/left hand, sanforized - the list of terms goes on and on, and I don't blame people for being hesitant at even trying to make sense of it. But I would also be willing to guess that getting into denim is a bit of an eventuality for guys interested in style. It is just too ubiquitous, too much of a menswear staple, and too interesting to be relegated into being an afterthought. So here in this post I'll examine three pairs of black or grey selvedge jeans I've picked up over the last year for <$70.
The first is a pair of Uniqlo slim fit straight selvedge in black I bought for around $30. I started shopping at Uniqlo years ago when I had to take the Chinatown bus from Philly to SoHo just to go shopping there. With Uniqlo expanding so rapidly recently, it's a lot easier for everyone to get in on the action. One area in particular they've made a big splash in is denim. Their first foray into premium Japanese denim many years ago was priced around $80, but since has fallen dramatically. You can now buy a pair of Uniqlo selvedge jeans for unheard of prices (this week they are on sale for $15).
Naked and Famous is a denim brand with a cult following thanks to its approachable fits and unusual quality raw textiles. It also has a wide distribution thanks to it being carried by such stores as Nordstrom and Barneys. The list price on N&F starts ~$140 and goes up from there. Luckily, sales will often drop the price of admission to a more palatable ~$70-80 if you're attentive. Perhaps against my better judgement I ordered a pair of charcoal selvedge jeans in Skinny Guy fit from Gilt Groupe (an online fashion site with a notoriously horrible return policy) when they sent out an extra 20% off promo code, bringing these jeans down to $70 shipped.
I came across the last pair of jeans under review, Neuw Denim's Dry Black Selvedge in Lou Slim fit, while browsing through the clearance at Nordstrom Rack (pretty much the only place I browse there). As soon as I picked them up and examined them I was impressed with the raw denim, construction, and cut, though I'd never heard of Neuw Denim before. Now based out of Australia, the company was started in 2005 in Belgium with the aim of adapting vintage styles and techniques to modern fits. A quick glance at the price tag, a five minute phone search, and a short trip to the fitting room later I left with them at a price of $50 from MSRP $159.
So what makes these jeans so different from each other, and what could account for such a potentially drastic difference in price? I think, as with many things, the devil is in the details.
Uniqlo is annoyingly vague about where it gets its denim. On their webpage details for this pair it just says "100% cotton." However, on its selvedge denim page, Uniqlo boasts sourcing from Japanese house Kaihara Denim Mill, one of Japan's largest mills producing quality denim. I can't tell with surety if this pair is also made with Kaihara denim, but wherever the fabric comes from it is then exported and constructed in China.
The denim is 100% cotton selvedge in black warp with a charcoal grey weft (the warp runs lengthwise with the selvedge and is usually the dyed yarn - the weft is the "filling" yarn and most commonly is white). Weight-wise it feels pretty standard, around 12-13 oz or so. Largely in part to the grey weft, the fabric appears straight black from any distance but up close. In the hand the fabric is the softest of the three and smooth from the get-go. After wearing it for months on and off the quality of the fabric hasn't really changed much. You can see in the pictures there is pretty much no appreciable fading or evolution at all verses a newer pair. Of note, this pair has never been washed (the horror! - welcome to the denim world), though past customer feedback has confirmed that this is not an isolated phenomenon. If you're looking for fades, these are probably not for you.
The detailing overall is pretty nondescript, though that doesn't necessarily mean "bad" in and of itself. Plenty of people don't want a selvedge coin pocket or anything else potentially attention-seeking. I'm not sure I do either, to be honest. Stitching is tonal and solid, the selvedge ID is an almost invisible dark red on charcoal, rivets are all in a dark matte gunmetal, and there is no embroidery or "signature trademark" anywhere to be found. I wouldn't say that there is anything extraordinary to discover in terms of finishing, but neither is their anything extraordinarily negative to note. It's almost as invisible as it comes, for better or for worse.
Naked and Famous
Naked and Famous denim is all sourced from Japan and made in Canada. Unlike Uniqlo's generic and generally nondescript styling, Naked and Famous has built much of its name on extravagant fabrics and textiles, including glow in the dark, scratch and sniff, holographic foil-coated denim, and rainbow dyed warp yarns. Fortunately, they also make an assortment of less wacky jeans, and the charcoal selvedge is an example of this. This pair is made in 12.5 oz raw cotton denim with a slightly wider weave sporting a charcoal warp with a white weft. It is also pretty soft in the hand and doesn't require much breaking in.
|Selvedge and Chainstitch Detail|
As wild as their fabrics can be, for the most part Naked and Famous' finishings are comparatively understated. The jeans are constructed with a button fly and nice branded rivets. The coin pocket has a white and red selvedge line typical of N&F jeans, and stitching is tonal. The company also uses a black leather patch depicting a naked woman I could do without (though at least it's black) and they also skip any unnecessary embroidery on the back pocket.
My biggest gripe is a strange little detail I didn't even see at first - a blue thread woven in at the bottom of the fly. I'm not sure if it's a mistake and I tried to pull it out, but it's really in there and hard to trim. You can see it in the fit pictures if you look closely, but it's there and I can't unsee it. I have no idea what the point of it is, or if it's even intentional. It's like a little sign that says "this is where the penis is." At the end of the day it's a small detail, but like I said, to me what differentiates much of the denim world is the details and I don't like this one.
|Black and White Selvedge Detail|
Neuw Denim sources its raw denim from Japan and constructs its garments in China. The company uses a novel categorization system for its jeans comprised of three levels. Level One consists of minimal modifications, Level Two adds some more unique details and fabrics, and Level Three is the most "revised" with things like hand repairs, patches, etc. This pair is marked Level One, unwashed and untouched aside from fit (and how I like my jeans) in a black narrow loom denim Neuw states is exclusive to them. It is similar in hand to the N&F, on par with some other raws I've encountered, and comprised of a black warp and white weft. I was surprised to find this pair is 98% cotton and 2% elastane, as it has much less stretch than any other elastane garment I've had my hands on. It's got more of visual texture and interest than the Uniqlo pair consequently. Compared to the N&F it is more tightly woven. From a totally subjective standpoint, out of the three I prefer this fabric most.
Neuw takes the detailing a bit further as well, not content with the pocket black and white selvedge line, which is constructed in a slightly different way than the average 5-pocket jeans we see today. Every pair includes a branded metal ring on the front right belt loop, a tribute to a pocket watch their founder's grandfather gave him which was sadly lost, leaving just the metal ring behind. It also has stitching on the right back pocket in a signature zigzag pattern as a nod to historically heavy wear on that side from a wallet. I like the minimally branded black suede back patch, and the back of the legs are finished standard with darting near the leg opening - something I haven't seen on any other brand and something I didn't notice initially. There is also tripled tonal stitching on the side seam down about eight inches, an extra cross stitched into the corners of the back pockets for durability, and the belt loops are much thicker and sturdy feeling than both of the other pairs. All in all, there are a lot of thoughtful little details that don't cry out for attention at first glance but are appreciated on further inspection.
Sizing and Fit
I am 6 foot, 155 lb with a true size 33" waist. I wear mostly a 30 or 31 in most vanity-sized mainstream clothing retailers, but denim companies are notorious for not following sizing convention. Let me first say that pant fits, and jeans fits in particular, are very personal and subject to the preferences and inclinations of the beholder. What I find to be a good fit may not be your idea of it. That being said, here are a lot of pictures of my butt.
Uniqlo Slim Fit
I chose a size 31x34 in the Uniqlo slims, and they fit and drape naturally with 1 3/4" cuffs. The fit on me is slim straight with a modern low rise. The leg opening is measured at about 15", which is good for cuffing but harder to stack with my chicken legs. All in all, it's the most forgiving of the fits found here. I may have been able to strap myself into a size 30 waist, but given that these haven't stretched that much since I bought them I'm happy with my decision.
Naked and Famous Skinny Guy
I originally ordered the Naked and Famous Skinny Guy in 31 (true waist 32" by available sizing charts) thinking they would break in and stretch. I couldn't even zip them up. After trying on a few Weird Guys in size 31, which have more room in the seat and thigh and an extra inch in the waist for an equally tagged waist, I wasn't really happy with that fit. I wasn't able to find a 32 Skinny Guy in person to try on without stretch fabric, so I took a gamble and held my breath on an exchange in the Skinny Guy size 32.
In short, I think they fit great. The seat and top fit well throughout with a medium low rise, a slim leg, and a leg opening of ~14.5" on my pair. Unlike the Weird Guy, which averages a pretty standard 34.5" inseam, the Skinny Guy is the porn star of inseams coming in at 37". I'm a bit torn on the subject as I'm sure it is intended to stack to some extent, but my calves and legs in general aren't brawny enough to support that at that size calf and opening diameter. I could have done with a touch more taper at the leg opening, if I'm nitpicking. Nevertheless, with a little bit of extra cuffing they actually wear well and aren't awkward as I had feared. If you expand the front picture you'll also see that little blue crotch thread I was talking about. Overall, they're starting to fit even better than the original fit pictures which at first had a bit of an odd cuff/leg interface now that the fabric has had a chance to relax a little, and they're really molding quickly to my body. I like where this is going.
Of note, the Skinny Guy is not the skinniest fit N&F offers if you're looking for something cut truly skinny. I've tried on a Stacked Guy and a Super Skinny Guy and liked them both (for different reasons).
Neuw Denim Lou Slim
When I found the Lou Slim, I checked the tag at 29 x 32 and assumed it simply wasn't going to work. I was pleasantly surprised to find it fits me like a glove - slimmer through all areas by a touch than the Skinny Guy but not to the point of testing the elastane. The rise is similar with a leg opening on this size the slimmest at 14" thanks to the subtle darting and cut. Again, the Lou Slim isn't the slimmest cut - that honor goes to their Iggy Skinny fit. However, I've found the Lou to be the pair out of the three that I've wanted to wear the most since I first put them on (the Skinny Guy being an ever-rising second).
Impressions and Value
I think it's pretty obvious that I like all three pairs or I wouldn't have bought them in the first place. As I had touched on before, value in denim (and difference in pricing) quickly becomes more about interesting high-quality fabrics and subtle detailing than simply looking at who stitched the cleanest. It's about finding the "soul" in a piece of clothing, if that makes sense. Like leather, good denim has the ability to evolve and gain unique character as you wear it. In that vein, I don't want my stuff pre-weathered or artificially aged.
Starting with Uniqlo, I will say that they make a solid pair of jeans, and I like this pair. It's no wonder people love them, and you can find them often for ~$30. In fact, a day ago they were selling for $14.90 on Uniqlo's site, though they sold out in a couple hours after I posted it. That price is hard to even comprehend - true rock bottom pricing for anyone, let alone a quality selvedge chainstitched pair without any obvious shortcuts. This isn't my only pair of Uniqlo jeans, and I feel about the same as I do about those as well. While doing everything well from construction to fit, none of those things are particularly outstanding and the fabric is good without being exceptional. On sale they are a no brainer for the uninitiated, but they lack the soul and thoughtfulness of the other two pairs.
Naked and Famous is seen by many as a gateway denim, and I can see why. Once you nail down your fit it becomes relatively easy to explore an arguably unmatched variety of denim. N&F aren't afraid to make a pair of jeans you don't like, and I respect that they don't sit back and make the same pair of raw selvedge in a few fits all the time. The more I wear these the more I love them. I'm not at a place where I'm willing to spend $150 on jeans - I would rather put that money towards leather, outerwear, or shoes/boots, but on sale at $70-80 I think you get a substantial step up in quality over the $50 range with a wealth of more options. At <$70 I would consider them a great value and worth the gamble for anyone. Just make sure you look at sizing charts and listen to advice from other people, as there's a lot of useful feedback on the internet if you look for it.
My favorite and winner of the group was the Neuw Denim Dry Black Selvedge, a pair of jeans that really came out of nowhere for me. Nordstrom Rack currently has them on sale for a bit more than I had paid for mine, and for $50 I think these were a great pickup. To be honest, I don't care for their distressed/washed jeans at all, but I'll be on the lookout for some of their other stuff if I can catch them at the right time - particularly their Black Rope denim, which caught my eye while researching this review.
Things I Liked
Does everything well without a weak point
Solid quality fabric and construction
Inexpensive at retail with sometimes ridiculously low pricing
Things I Didn't Like
Relatively resistant to fading and other natural aging
Lack of much personality (understandably, for better or worse)
There is a version with stretch fabric Uniqlo is pushing now that I did not like at all when I tried them on
Naked and Famous
Things I Liked
Beautiful raw fabric with mostly understated features and finishing
Well standardized fits
Relatively unparalleled denim choices to choose from
Things I Didn't Like
Long inseam on anyone but pro basketball players and circus stilt walkers
What is that penis thread about?!
Naked lady branding on the back patch
Could have taken in about 0.5" further at the leg opening for me
Things I Liked
Great raw selvedge denim with a tight, narrow weave
Subtle but interesting details
Best fit for me out of the three
Things I Didn't Like
Generally not a fan of stretch fabric jeans (though this pair has about as much as my %100 cotton jeans)
Not enough unwashed/nondistressed jeans in their product line up for my tastes
Alternatives (obtainable in real world for <$100)
Levi's Made and Crafted - not all selvedge, not all raw, but can be obtained often around $40 in various fits on sale
Levi's - Rigid Dragon has long been a frugal staple
Gap Selvedge - decent quality raw selvedge that can be found for deep cuts at times
J. Crew - not that impressed w/ the quality of their denim at lower price points to be honest - they tend to fade and wash most of their jeans - even the nicer fabrics
Unbranded - cheaper, more nondescript and Chinese made sister brand to Naked and Famous; can find at Urban Outfitters