“We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?” — Matt Smith as Doctor Who
The lines on our faces. The scars on our bodies. The electric white of worn denim in the crook of our knees. I was reminded recently why I love raw denim, a fabric that hasn’t been treated, prewashed or distressed. My raw-denim jeans start off as a deep, dark blue. As I wear them, a faded line curves along the shape of the pocket knife in my front left pocket. Threads poke out on the seams. An oval of ivory forms on my right knee. My jeans are a story.
That story starts decades ago in Galesburg, Illinois, with two kids running across the lawn of our childhood home. It’s me chasing after my older brother Ara. I’m dressed in his hand-me-downs: a striped shirt and red corduroy pants rolled way up at the cuffs. I’m his shadow. I don’t want to wear dresses. I want to wear what my brother wears. I want to be like him. All these years later, I haven’t changed. It’s jeans and T-shirts for us both.
I’m 365 days into wearing the same pair of jeans. (Don’t worry. I do wash them.) Along with hundreds of others around the globe, I am participating in a jeans-wearing competition called the Indigo Invitational. One year. One pair of raw jeans that started as pure, unadulterated denim.
My pants are surviving thanks to my amateurish patch jobs. I love these jeans and this “denim-head” community more than ever. It’s now the final day of the competition, and it’s bittersweet.
When crotch shots are OK
I’m not a crotch shot kinda person, but on March 22, 2021, I posted one to a Facebook group. I took a closeup of the nether regions of my jeans (I wasn’t wearing them at the time) where a series of faded spots were starting to show through the fabric, threatening to leave unseemly holes in the crotch (known in the denim-head community as a “crotch blowout”). My post asked for help battling the breakthroughs. The denim denizens of the Indigo Invitational Fade Competition Facebook page didn’t bat an eye.
I received a sweet outpouring of suggestions (use old tea towels for patches, find a good denim repair shop) and encouragement. The responses gave me the motivation to get to work on saving my jeans myself. I’m a sewing hack. But it’s working. I’m doing my own repairs and my jeans persevere.
Indigo Invitational co-founder Bryan Szabo, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Budapest, Hungary, has pondered why this diverse international group of jeans aficionados is so darn friendly.
“It helps that denim is such a small-d democratic fabric. Though it used to have strong blue-collar and rebellious associations, those connections have largely faded,” he tells me. “We’re all connected by our love of denim, and I think that the members of the community understand that that love is a beautiful and fragile thing.”
This is the second year of the Indigo Invitational. In Year One, 115 “faders” (dedicated wearers who enjoy watching their jeans fade over time) signed up, and 65 finished. Year Two — which kicked off on Oct. 1, 2020 — had 850 registrants. Dedicating yourself to wearing a single pair of jeans for months on end and then submitting photographic proof every month isn’t easy. There’s a high attrition rate. As of July, there were just under 400 competitors still in the mix for Year Two. I’m one of them, and my pants continue to tell their story. My story.
My brother isn’t participating in the Indigo Invitational, but he’s the reason I am. In 2012, our late stepdad (we called him “Pop”) sent Ara a pair of raw-denim Tellason jeans, made in California. Pop was like that. He was a librarian, who adored research, and had somehow researched himself into the chill little corner of the fashion world where denim-heads dwell.
I saw my brother’s jeans, how they held together, how they faded, how they became unmistakably his, and I wanted that for myself.
This was in keeping with my history as his little sister. I always followed along in his wake, climbing into apple trees, examining colorful rocks on the ground, crawling into caves. He was — and still is — an explorer, a vision of what shy, quiet me could become if I only followed his path. That impulse hasn’t changed decades later. But there was no way short, lady-hips me was going to fit into my grown lanky brother’s hand-me-down jeans, so I had to find my own way into raw denim.
I was tired of fast fashion — cheap, mass-produced clothes that don’t last — and of jeans that fall apart in mere months. My thighs rub together when I walk, and I would burn through jeans by way of crotch blowouts where the thin fabric would just break apart, usually when I was out in public.
My first pair of raw denim was from Canadian brand Naked and Famous. In 2016, I bought “The Straight” in a fabric described as a “12.5 oz indigo rope dyed Japanese selvedge denim, woven on vintage shuttle looms in a right hand twill construction.” You don’t have to know what that all means, just know it was a door into a new world for me.
Sisterhood of the raw-denim pants
Raw denim, which goes against the fashion trends of pre-faded, pre-ripped, pre-softened jeans, would be a lonely place for women if it weren’t for the internet. Most faders are guys, who have a million more denim options to choose from. Only a select few manufacturers make raw jeans for women.
Suzy Marnell is a self-described military brat, who lives in Texas with her husband and three young boys. I know her through the Indigo Invitational Facebook group, where she’s been posting photos of her Brave Star competition jeans and the repairs she’s made to keep them in the competition.
Marnell knows what it’s like to live our double lives as jeans aficionados embraced by an internet community, but with few real-world jeans buddies who share our passion. “I have a ton of online friends I have made over the years through Instagram and Facebook raw-denim groups, but the majority of my friends in real life have no idea that I am such a nerd for denim,” Marnell said.
Like me, Marnell has lasted into the final month of the competition. She credits her fascination with the evolution of her jeans for keeping her engaged. She describes her experience as a woman in the raw-denim community as “entirely positive.” But we can commiserate on the biggest challenges of being women faders: It’s hard to find a pair that fits just right.
“I think that discourages a lot of people, especially women,” she said. But when you do find that right fit, it’s magic. It becomes your second skin, your collaborative storyteller.
One competitor shares a photo to the Facebook group of his legs. It highlights the “stacks,” the pile-up of denim above his boots that happens when the pants are long and not cuffed. He had locked himself out of his car and was passing the time enjoying the white fades developing in the material. There’s a dad in the group who joined the Indigo Invitational along with his daughter. At the start of the competition, they took photos together along a railroad track, arms around each other, new denim crisp in the glowing sunlight.
Szabo estimates the denim-head community is only about 5% female, but he’s seen an uptick in interest over the last few years and hopes denim brands will take notice of a growing following of dedicated women.
“The more [jeans-makers] work on their fits and fabrics, tailoring each to the female form, the easier it will be for us to bring more women into this community,” he said. “Once they find a pair that fits them right, the female experience of raw denim is nearly identical to the male one. It’s revelatory. There’s no going back.”
Revelatory. I can attest to that. It doesn’t matter whether I look cool to anyone else wearing raw denim; it makes me feel cool. That’s saying a lot considering the awkward kid I was: the one wearing oversized Doctor Who T-shirts and begging my mom for a pair of Keds and a Guess bag so I could look just a little bit like the popular girls at school who wore oversized jean jackets, listened to Paula Abdul and had tons of friends.
To wash or not to wash
But enough about my history. Let’s get into how this whole one-jeans/one-year thing works. For starters, yes, I absolutely have worn the same pair of jeans every single day since Oct. 1, 2020. I’ve worn them to band gigs, while planting summer squash in the garden, while climbing the ladders at Bandalier National Monument, while fossil hunting in the Manzanita mountains, while standing at my computer for hours and hours.
I have worn these jeans so much that I’m now sewing patches into the crotch and stringing thread into the thin spots. Others in the competition are doing the same. I see updates on Facebook, where some of the most dedicated members are women posting their pants progress across the months. At this point in the competition, our jeans are showing the strain of so much time and motion.
It’s not a requirement to wear your Invitational jeans every day, but most competitors strive to log as much time as possible. Some sleep in their pants. Some don’t wash them. At all. They lay them out in the sun or spot-clean them to keep the funk-odor at bay. It’s a way to get high-contrast fades that show the stark difference between the dark blue indigo and the white weft hidden in the threads. These are showstopper fades. Desirable fades. Real lookers.
The whole “to wash or not to wash” question can be a heated topic.
Here’s how Szabo does it: “I try to make it to around the 200-wear mark before washing them for the first time, but making it this long isn’t exactly easy in the summer, when I’m more active and tend to get my hands (and jeans) dirty.” His ultimate advice is perfectly practical: If your jeans stink, wash them.
I’ve washed my Care Label jeans eight times so far. I do not have electric fades. Mine are what are called “vintage fades,” where there’s an overall lived-in and worn look to my pants. This will have an impact on my potential performance in the Indigo Invitational, where an international panel of eight judges (denim bloggers and influencers) and community voting will decide who has the best pants at the end of the year.
“It’s hard to ignore high-contrast fades. They’re difficult to achieve, and they really jump off the screen at you,” Szabo tells me. He expects those sort of fades will perform well this year, where one of the top prizes is a week-long trip to Japan, a country famous for raw-denim manufacturers and brands. That reward is sponsored by denim makers Soso, which is putting up $1,500 for airfare and a hotel stay. Other sponsors have pledged gift certificates, jeans, jackets and custom denim for winners.
I ogle eye-popping fades and think “Wow!” But I wouldn’t trade my beat-up, lake-blue, multi-washed jeans for anything. I’m not here for the prizes. I’m here for the camaraderie, to know I’m not alone in this, and for the incentive to focus in on a single pair of jeans. And I’m here to be like my brother, and to be a cooler kid now than I was back when it felt like popularity mattered.
I’m taking Szabo’s advice: “We urge all competitors to run their own race. Don’t try to match your fades to those that appear to be the frontrunners. Tell a story that is yours and yours alone.”
Listen to the pants
My jeans have something to say for me. They talk about how I keep my Google Pixel 3A in my back left pocket where it leaves a faded rectangle. They talk about how I like to be prepared, as you can see by the pocket knife fade in the front left and the cylindrical fade of a tiny flashlight on the right. The hushed tones of my right-knee fade speak of me kneeling in the ground, pushing morning glory seeds into the dirt. A UK public-libraries pound coin in the coin pocket etches a secret white circle into the fabric, telling of my love of reading and writing
“Denim is a storytelling fabric like no other,” Szabo said.
When you buy jeans that have already been blasted or pre-faded or distressed, you’re wearing someone else’s tale. When you put on a new pair of raw-denim jeans, you’re holding the pen and it’s the first word in the first sentence of the first chapter of a yarn of your very own.