In 2021, shopping for denim means sorting through some of the best vintage jeans and upcycled denim options; because if you’re going for that vintage-look, why buy new? It’s boom times for pairs of all-American Levi’s (which remains the most in-demand denim brand on the planet), while the hunt for runway relics of designer denim sourced from across the globe is real. Below, we’ve done some of that legwork for you, with vetted Etsy sellers and hard-to-find pieces unique to their era—like an ’80s Azzedine Alaïa denim moto jacket, or 1995’s colorful, cigarette-slim Versace jeans that are somehow stripey on the front and jazzy on the back.
Investing in vintage jeans becomes especially appealing once one takes a step back at the scope of the industry and factors in the environmental impact of denim production. According to the National Resources Defense Council, producing a couple of pounds of new cotton (the main fiber in denim is known as a “thirsty crop”) requires almost 8,000 gallons of water. That’s a hundred times as much water as it would take for the same weight in tomatoes. Next, the dying and distressing processes specific to jeans require even more water, more toxins, more energy, more waste. When said waste is so often created in an effort to make denim look like it’s vintage, going directly to the source starts to make sense.
Of course, the term “vintage” has become rather flexible. Technically, twenty years need to pass for an item to be considered true vintage, though nostalgia is building for pieces that are barely a decade old in our age of constant newness and abbreviated attention spans. To mix it up further, designers like Samaria Leah are creating technically new pieces by reworking old jeans, while Maison Margiela is notorious for recycled denim on the runway. The real goal is to help valuable materials live another day.
Below, the best vintage jeans, our favorite recycled denim, and some upcycled options which help to bring new life to the beloved twill trouser.
Vintage Levi’s Jeans
For vintage Levi’s jeans, there’s a spectrum to consider. Some of the best pieces to invest in are untouched 501s or ’90s boyfriend cuts that stand the test of time. Still, brands like Another Tomorrow (which notes that “extending the life of garments dramatically reduces carbon footprint and raw material usage”) and Etsy sellers have figured out a sweet spot for customers who want that look, but updated. Gentle tailoring adjustments create an updated, modern fit with the classic tag.