How often does that perfect pair of jeans come along?
Aside from a regrettable period from 21 to 23 when I had to wear "slacks" every day (all of which have since been ritually burned), I've spent most of my life in jeans since around the time I was in fifth grade. And I've worn a lot of different jeans. The technical number: a shitton. You know how they put people on all kinds of different drugs for being crazy, and that just makes them more crazy? For the last 15 years, that's how I've felt about buying jeans. I've owned JNCO, J. Crew, A.P.C., LVC, Jean Shop, among some of my more regrettable choices. And yet, I've only had three pairs of jeans I've actually been satisfied with:
1. 1999's Diesel Spider X ($125)
Yeah, I saved up and dropped $125 on a pair of jeans at the end of 8th Grade. What of it? (Actually, what of it: "I didn't discover weed for another two years" is still the official excuse.) But this was long before Diesel ever became the denim du jour for traveling Eurotrash and their awkward American aspirants. The '99 Diesel line had denim that felt practically weightless, smooth, perfect and unlike any denim I'd seen in my 14 year-old life. This was in the post-JNCO era, when pipe fits grew to comically large proportions and were less the provence of skaters and more that of pacifier-sucking, Vicks-breathing ravers with giant splotchy MDMA holes in their brains. The Diesels were just baggy enough to still shame me when considering them. The thinness of the denim was a tradeoff. For one thing, I'm pretty sure there was a tag that ominously screamed "DRY CLEAN ONLY." I tried to stunt on everyone when I brought them to summer camp that year and they came back looking like they'd contracted denim's version of leprosy.
2. 2005's Paper Denim & Cloth Straight Fit ($150)
The PDC straight was a low-rise, straight-fit that looked like a skinny jean and didn't break in around the top knees, where jeans tend to go wrong after a few months. (And, again, this is before we all became crazy and decided that never washing our jeans was a better idea than walking around in denim that had lost some color but was also, you know, not a bacterial culture.) The PDCs got worn nearly every day for the better part of three years on weekends, and got a crotch blowout I never got around to repairing. The brand disappeared for a few years and relaunched, like, twice: Once as failed #struggledenim dressed as premium product, and, now, again at the over-premium price point. Both nu-iterations front on the original brand, depressingly.
STATUS: The PDCs are still in my closet, folded up, waiting for a triage trip to Denim Therapy I'm probably never gonna follow through on.
3. 2011-2013's Levis 511 Slim Fit ($58). Kinda.
Because I didn't even really love them, apologies to the Menswear Americana Industrial Complex. But Levis are cheap and they can be easily replaced when they get crotch-rot after a year. That's around when they fall apart in all other places. And besides which, after three months, they're dad jeans, anyway.
STATUS: Had a pair in rotation at all time for the last three years, and had resigned myself to them. Until now.
That perfect pair of jeans—even now, given all the choices—remains elusive. Every line that was once good is gone, and now, everything is overpriced, indistinguishable and you're being suckered the moment you fork over more than $75 for something that's ostensibly high-grade, but actually totally standard. And I'm not asking for much here: Jeans that look, fit and feel the way great motherfucking jeans should, jeans that break in well and get better over time and stay good, and that I'd trust enough to buy again and again.
By now you know that I've found that pair of jeans. And I'm wearing them right now. And they're glorious. They're perfect. They feel like they were built from my DNA. They don't make me feel like a million bucks because they make me feel like six-Steve-Austin-million-bucks. And yes, glory comes with a price, but it's a price I'm gonna pay fairly soon. They've restored my faith in great jeans. We can build them. We can rebuild them. We can make them better. We have the technology. They're denim as enlightenment or, more accurately, the bodhi tree to my ass's Siddhartha. The Shambala of denim, which I found not in Japan, or on some Himalayan mountaintop, or on some rustic, South Carolina farm that looks like it was built specifically to be photographed by William Eggleston. No.
To say the best jeans in the world are well-hidden would not be inaccurate, given that everything around them looks like pathetic imitators. They were found in the same place so many hyperbolically praised but rarely worthwhile sartorial pursuits are found in 2013: A SoHo storefront, right above Canal, on Mercer Street. And, of course, in a manner of speaking, I'd gone back to where I'd started.
3x1 is the brainchild of Scott Morrison, who, as it happens, is denim's Wizard of Oz. He was the vision behind the original iteration of Paper Denim & Cloth in 1999, and, later on, Ernest Sewn, when he wasn't helping rebrand Japanese denim giant Evisu. The company is named for, as Morrison once noted, the "three-by-one right hand twill, left hand twill, or broken twill" construction most denim is made under. (There's also the crib sheet answer: It's the third company he's founded).
Walking into the Mercer Street space is, at first, underwhelming, and then—the moment you realize what's around you—intensely overwhelming. The two-floor loft is dedicated to all things denim. In the back of the room is a sewing workshop encased by giant windows. It doesn't bustle like a factory line; if anything, the opposite. If most workshops are driven by a furious panic to flip product as quickly as possible, this one is a monastery by comparison, as the men and women inside quietly hum away at machines and tables with scissors, tape, threads—all of it.
To the immediate right is an inauspicious rack of denim, above which hangs in fiberglass boxes different fits of 3x1 jeans, almost a shove-off to the idea of mannequins: Why waste a perfectly incredible piece of clothing on a plaster form when it can hang with dignity? It's a little intimidating, but it doesn't have shit on what's to your left: The Wall.
The Denim Wall—or, The Great Wall of Denim, or Holy Fuck Look At All That Denim, as it should be listed under on Wikipedia—is exactly what it sounds like: giant spools of denim, of different textures, colors, treatments, coatings, origins, lined up. For you. YOU.
I'm standing in front of it like a primitive hominid in front of a monolith, mouth agape, possibly drooling, unsure of if it's actually the thing I think it is. Before I can approach and do something uncivilized, like start chewing on it, or hugging it, or climbing it and straddling one of the spools a la Dr. Strangelove, I'm greeted by Alana Branston, who works as 3x1's VIP client services liaison, an ambassador to a better life. Of jeans.
Branston, who worked a hedge fund prior to 3x1, is nice enough not to laugh at me or any of my stupid questions that I immediately begin to pepper her with. Can I touch the denim? Do people know what they want when they come in here? What gets bought? What doesn't? How can anyone actually make a decision? Am I being incepted right now? What the shit is actually fucking happening?
Most of them will get answered in due time, but last thing's first: I'm going to be okay. I'm getting a pair of jeans. But like everything else at 3x1, even the matter by which you buy your jeans is a choice. You can buy them off the rack, easy street. 35% of all 3x1 customers, I'm told, go with this. Then there are the other two options...
On the far end of the spectrum, you can go full bespoke: The priciest option, but the one for those truly about that life (see: LeBron James). The bespoke program at 3x1 starts with custom measurements, and then, a custom fit decision, and finally, wilding out on all the options. They keep your specific fit on file forever, and you can basically order your own special, completely unique jeans for the rest of your life, in which you never get a pair of jeans tailored again because you are wearing jeans not just picked out by you, but built specifically for you. It's basically the supermodel sex, uncut Columbian iceball of denim shopping. You need to be able to afford to never buy any other kind of denim product every again for the rest of your life because everything else is going to be ruined for you forever. You could probably get a pair of Siberian selvedge drop-crotch jorts for your labradoodle, if that's what's up. And yes, they will be the best Siberian selvedge drop-crotch dog jorts anyone will ever make. The workshop is right there. They'll do it. That option is really real.
And then there's a third option, the order of the day: The custom 3x1 experience.
A pair of custom 3x1s are a step removed from completely bespoke jeans, but not even remotely in the same solar system that is buying off the rack either. Customs start with one of the six fits that already exist. Everything else is up to you, or as the case was here, me. Which is, as you can imagine, equal measures thrilling and intimidating.
Picking a fit was easy: The M3, or a slim-straight. From there, I tried on a few different sizes in their dressing room, which is, of course, obscured by a selvage curtain. The fit of the jean itself was perfect, exactly how I remember the old PDC jeans: a mid-rise that sits right on the waist, stays slim down through the leg, gathering a little more at the taper. Most jeans don't gather so well at the bottom. They either come in too tight, and make you look like you've got a straight leg jean on top and a skinny jean at the bottom, or break too loose. Picking a fit was easy.
But then it's time to face The Wall.
From only a few feet away, it looks compelling. Up close, it's dangerously inviting, a similar sensation to standing in front of a full bar of the best booze in the world with an empty glass in hand, being told to pick one. Except, instead of booze, they're gigantic spools of denim. And, no, we're not just talking about simply choosing a color. You're choosing shades of those colors. You're choosing weight. There were spools that felt like silk. There were spools that felt like heavy, raw denim that was more taut than any raw denim you've ever seen before, the kind of thing you might need to go ice climbing in to even being to break in. There were spools with red lining that starts to show through in specks when worn. There was denim with sheen. There was denim with shine. There was khaki denim, camo-print denim. At any given moment, 3x1 has 78 to 80 different spools of denim living on The Wall. They've seen over 250 types of fabric—plenty of them exclusively made for 3x1, many of them personally sourced by Morrison—from all over the world. I broke out into a sweat.
How does anyone even get past this part? I could've said it to myself, or murmured, nearly catatonic. Didn't matter. Realizing we could be standing there all day, Branston took the initiative: "Pick a color. Start from there." I didn't want to. I was standing in the middle of the greatest space-time quadrant of jean shopping anyone will ever be in, and I didn't want to leave it. Infinite possibility can be unfathomably inviting.
"What kind of jeans would you wear a lot? Are they any you don't have that you want?" There we go. Winter was coming, and like every other New Yorker, I deal with it by wearing a ton of black and subtweeting people who live in LA, and yet, somehow didn't own a single pair of black jeans.
There were blues so dark you could've mistaken them for black, and we looked at a few of those. But sitting on the very corner of The Wall was this particular roll of black denim. It was, as I was told, "XX133" or The Perfect Black Denim.
The Perfect Black Denim comes from Kaihara, Japan, but that's not why it's different. This one has a resin coating, giving it a slight sheen. As it wears in, the resin chips away, giving it a fade like blue denim often gets, but something you almost never see on black jeans. It was the Hattori Hanzo steel of Black Denim. It was the denim I was going with.
The difficult part was over. Not only did I confidently have the fabric I was going with, but moving forward, I had a piece of advice echoing in my head from a co-worker, the last thing he said to me before I left on my Seal Team Six mission of buying a pair of jeans:
"RESIST THE URGE FOR EMBELLISHMENTS."
It sounded like inane, sage babble until I actually started on my specifications. These are, in no particular order, the options you have to choose from when you are getting custom jeans at 3x1:
-Back-pocket selvage tabs
-Belt loop width
-Center-back belt loop type
-Type of fly
Most of these are binary answers, as in, yes or no. Do you want a front pocket? Do you want back pockets? Do you want a belt loop? But once you answer any of these questions in the affirmative, it then becomes: What type of front pocket? High, or low? Cut straight? Large or small? If you want rivets, you gotta double-down and decide what kind of rivets.
Now, there are going to be plenty of people who have put a ton of time into dreaming up exactly what kind of rivets they would put on their jeans—and where, exactly, they would put them—given the opportunity. I am not one of those people. All I know is the one guiding piece of knowledge I have with me, which has suddenly turned on, like a light, scattering the cockroaches of infinite denim option insanity away momentarily as I make my choices.
Front pocket? Yes. Belt loops, I'll need those. Medium-width. The skinny ones? A little too "metro." Don't want the thick ones either. These aren't Wranglers. Yeah, back pockets. No lining. They'll be in the cut. Coin pocket? Yes. High up. YEAH, the hidden option. It looks like it's meant to stash something far more illicit than silver dollars. Won't ever use it, but—FUCK—it's so baddass. Button fly? Nah, I hate button flies. Wait, you have a zipper that can lock? YES. That one. Grey-near-black stitching. Pocket lining? Why not. It'll be my little secret. Blue. A blue pocket lining. My sweet, secret rebellion.
Almost done, but I had two more choices: a front button and the selvage tab. The selvage tab pokes out of the back pocket—your choice of side, of course—and is the tiny trademark of 3x1 jeans. I didn't want to insult my hosts, but remember, I wanted to go minimal. No selvage tab. They were not offended.
The button: Again, I had so far resisted the urge for any kind of embellishments. There was a white button available. It could be my only embellishment. But it was too white, too much, even if it was to be my jean's one freak flag. I instead opted for matte black that, as it fades, turns up a rust underneath. There was a nice symmetry between the button and the fabric, and their intended dilapidation—a pair of jeans already looking toward their third act. Not just broken in, but worn in. And yet, I still hadn't made my mark on them. I was concerned that they were a little too minimal. And while I wanted black jeans, I didn't want to relinquish the opportunity to do something...different.
At this point, I should probably note that you could probably learn as much from a person buying a custom pair of jeans as you could by watching them on a therapist's couch.
We had finally come up with my one dalliance: A sole selvage lining on the top of the back-left pocket. I can't tell you why I wanted it there, or that many people even see it. They don't. But it was there. And it was mine.
We keyed in all the details and went over them once last time. With a click of a button, we'd sent my jeans off to be made. The 3x1 shop produces about 300 pairs of jeans a week, with each pair of custom or bespoke jeans overseen by a single craftsman, top-to-bottom. I looked vaguely in the direction of the workshop and wondered who'd be working on mine.
I'd be back in three weeks to pick them up.
It was a long three weeks, but going back to the shop was the quickest and most painless part of the process. We chatted as they grabbed my jeans, and as myself, my photographer and Branston made conversation, I felt like I was about to meet something between a new car and a mail-order bride. Or, better yet, a new building of which I'd been both the architect and the intended occupant. And we were all about to find out how well I'd designed the thing, and whether or not said occupant looked good standing in it.
You already know how this one ends, right? I put them on and they're perfect. They're not perfect because I want them to be perfect, they're perfect because they are perfect. The hem needs to go up a little higher, but that could be fixed, and was in about a moment. The denim felt incredible. It had give, but not too much. I knew it was going to wear in well. I, a grown ass man, almost skipped out in them. Our photographer laughed at me and also, seethed with jealousy. She later, true story, told my girlfriend I was talking about my own ass, as they pertained to their incredible positioning in these jeans. Bury me inside the 3x1, is basically the point, here.
A few weeks in, and the flecks under the resin coating are beginning to show, bit-by-bit. They are the perfect jeans. I own them. You never will. Surely, your perfect pair of jeans is not mine. Even my perfect pair of jeans isn't mine, and surely that moment will be discovered, by me, when I can cough up the cash for my next pair of custom 3x1s. Surely there's some Zen koan out there about enlightenment and how everyone finds there own. Just know that perfection does come at a premium. Unless you have the fortunate ability to work and socialize without pants on (in which case, vaya con dios), if you're anything like me, you'll spend more time with your jeans than maybe any other single inanimate object over the course of your life. So, again, I ask: How often does that perfect pair of jeans come along?
15 Mercer Street
New York, NY 10013