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Vintage Jeans, Part II
What to ask and where to start when buying online.
If last week’s letter introduced the basics for buying vintage jeans online, today’s is a more advanced lesson in how and where to shop for Levi’s, specifically.To prepare, I spent months vetting vintage sites by contacting sellers and ordering many, many pairs of jeans, 3 of which I really love and share here. Honestly, I often felt overwhelmed by the amount of stuff there was to sift through. And even knowing all I know about how to identify authentic pairs, I still bought some suspicious Orange Tabs (keeping reading to see what tipped me off).
Generally, fashion people don’t like to share their vintage denim sources. Consider what happened when Jenna Lyons posted about Jean Genie Vintage Co. on Instagram last week – the social media shopping fiends wiped seller Meg Younger out. Everything, gone within hours. But if Meg has been slow to restock, it’s mainly because carefully measuring and photographing every jean individually takes time. “There are plenty of vintage Levi’s in the world,” she assured me.
This simple fact, combined with the reality that one person’s dream jean is another person’s pass, and vice versa, makes me feel less inclined to keep my cards close. After all, if Jenna can spill her beans, so can I…
Patrick Watkins, a denim designer with decades of experience in the Los Angeles jean scene and abroad, runs this expertly curated Etsy collection, offering rare finds with price tags ranging from $50-$400. I splurged on a pair of 1982 redline (aka selvedge) 501s using the search methods I outline in Part I, and couldn’t love them more.
“A lot of people get confused about the measurements,” Patrick told me. Remember, for Levi’s you have to go up 3-4 sizes (I wear a size 25 in contemporary jeans, but a waist measurement 28 or 29 in vintage Levi’s, for example). “Levi’s have an anti-fit. People are used to curved rises, but vintage Levi’s have a straight rise, which sits further away from your body,” he explained. “It takes some getting used to.”
I asked Patrick to give me some tips on identifying authentic pairs. There are plenty of clues: “The rivets should all have the LS&Co SF stamp on the back,” he explained. “The back patch should say ‘San Francisco’ on it and should feel like paper-y leather. If it’s shiny, it’s not right.” Check the care tag: “Misspellings could mean they’re fake.” And remember, “There were no care tags before 1971. And before 1981, everything was Made in U.S.A. so the care tags don’t say it explicitly.” If vintage Levi’s are anything, it’s consistently inconsistent.
Now feels like a good time to note that vintage Levi’s do not need a button post number or a perfectly in-tact care tag to be worthy of love. It just helps knowing how to read old jeans so you don’t get ripped off when buying-without-trying from unvetted sellers. My advice: Ask questions, especially about sizing. If you don’t get answers, pass. It may seem obvious, but shopping with reputable specialists is the surest way to get gorgeous, legit jeans online at a fair price. Which brings me to Eric…
I cold called Junkyard Jeans’s Eric Shrader after buying two pairs of excellent 501s from his store’s website. Little did I know that Eric, who opened Junkyard in Boise, Idaho in 1991, is the guy that big denim companies (like Levi’s) call when they need help authenticating vintage lots. “I’ve been doing vintage denim for 30 years, mostly in Japan,” said Eric, who quickly compared old jeans to classic cars. “Each year has its look. For Levi’s, early 80’s twisted leg, it never got better than that.”
The 501s I bought from Junkyard were $225 each. One was listed as a “USA Good Wash” and the other was a “USA Premium Super Feather” (below). “Super feather is where the contrast of the whiskers is really dramatic. The character is stronger,” Eric told me. With a wider leg and soft, marble-y fade, I was sold.
Junkyard has more than 10,000 pairs of Made in U.S.A. jeans to choose from, and –lucky us – Eric is giving Jane on Jeans readers 20% off with code: JH20. These Premium Wash 501s (waist 31”; $275) and these Premium Super Feather 501s (waist 28”; $225) caught my attention for their color and general shape. But, seriously, call the store because there’s so much more than what’s on the site. “Ask questions. Tell us your concerns,” Eric insisted. “Some women don’t fit 501s, generally, but then there are some years when the fit is right for them.” News to me.
Though I’d love to list a bunch of little-known eBay and Etsy shops selling lost, hidden-treasure-level jeans, the truth is, everything I purchased from general-vintage sites (v denim specialists) was either disappointing, ill-fitting, or – in one instance – fake; measurements weren’t listed properly; photos were filtered. When a pair of Orange TabsI bought for $109 arrived with a nearly blank back patch, I texted Eric a picture (above right). “Doesn’t look right to me,” he replied. Maybe it’s not surprising that their seller doesn’t accept returns or exchanges. Lesson learned.
Of course, if you’re looking to shop at a trusted source, Levi’s own Secondhand site is a sure bet. It has a clear Size Guide and a huge (though, less curated) selection of jeans and other denim pieces for men and women. I bought this pair of zipper fly Orange Tab 509 Regulars for $128 and dig how they fit in the hips and waist (my first-ever 509s; they’re a size 29).
Before I go, I should mention that I took 3 3/4” off the length of these jeans. It took doing so to make them flattering, which is to say, don’t let hemlines get in between you and a great pair of vintage jeans. Bad fabric can’t be fixed. Fit is often flexible.
OK, phew, that’s it. For now, anyways. If you are a vintage jeans expert or enthusiast, please don’t be shy (especially if you specialize in Lees; I’m on the hunt). One can never have too many pairs of great vintage jeans, and I encourage conversation here.
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More to read…
Levi’s Historian and Archivist Tracey Panek said in Part I: “We consider original vintage to be anything from before 1971… Personally, I would say that vintage needs to have some aging or sense of time, at least thirty years, but ideally much longer.” This letter is not an ad for Levi’s. It’s meant to address the No. 1 request I get from readers: Please, can you help me find vintage Levi’s online?
These are the 4 shops I trust for buying vintage online, with tips for identifying authenticity. There is a design evolution of the 501 – now celebrating its 150th Anniversary – that also helps with establishing the age of old pairs, but since we’re not shopping for museum pieces here, I’m not going there. If you’re interested, the history of the 501 is outlined here.
When Levi’s launched more fashion-driven styles in the 1960s, it gave these jeans an orange Tab to distinguish them from the standard red Tab 501.