By Fok-yan Leung

I go to a fair number of tradeshows every year, and tradeshows being what they are, I get fatigued by looking at 200 pairs of jeans and 500 chore coats. So if it’s in a store, chances are that I’ve seen it before. A great retailer, however, can pull me back to a piece that I may have overlooked, and show me just how cool it is.

We’re all sick of the term “curated,” so I’ll compare what a great retailer does to something else: a great retailer is like a great book reading. Yes, you may have read the book or essay before, but having something pulled from the pages and read to you makes you focus on the beauty and the power of that particular passage.

In that spirit, here is my list of 5 of the best retailers with strong webstores and great denim that I go back to time and time again for inspiration - and, of course, when I need some new jeans.

  1. Blue in Green – New York

    (Photo: Donny Tsang, New York Magazine)

    If you were getting into Japanese denim in the first indigo wave of the mid to late 2000s, then you know New York’s Blue in Green. It sells denim on Greene St., but the name actually comes from a Miles Davis song, which makes it all the cooler. The store is lined with shelves of denim from Japanese brands like Samurai, Eternal, Studio D’Artisan, Skull, and Oni (among others). You’ll also find shirts, sneakers, and jackets to complete your outfit from the likes of Full Count, Kapital, Brown’s Beach (extremely rare outside of Japan), Low Hurtz, and Factotum. The resulting mix is at once eclectic and focused – what you might imagine in a crowded Tokyo space, in a slightly-less-crowded New York space.

    Gordon Hefner, the owner, never got the memo (from the NYT article) that the $200 jeans are the new $300 jeans, and the jeans are not cheap. What you do get is the expert buying of someone who was in the game well before the rest of us.

    Must Buy: Eternal 811 (mid rise, tapered cut) – one of the most popular jeans from about 2008. Ain’t no school like the old school.
  2. Self Edge – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Mexico City

    Kiya Babzani’s Self Edge now spans four locations in the USA and one in Mexico. Kiya once said in an interview that motorcycles are cool, and his US stores are very clearly about the nostalgia of motorcycle and car culture in the 1950s. Maybe your point of reference is of Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. Maybe it’s Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider. While the heavy denim from Ironheart and The Strike Gold, the chunky jewelry from LA’s Good Art, and the leather rider jackets from The Flat Head definitely say 50s rather than 70s, the common thread is that the jeans are about ruggedness and the road. I think that it’s the only shop I know of where jeans ABOVE 21 ounces (21oz is already super tough – for reference, standard rodeo jeans are made from 17 ounce denim) have their own category.

    Must Buy: Ironheart Flannel Shirt – the apocryphal story is that Rick Owens buys these shirts for his personal use and that he over-dyes them for that Rick Owens touch. That would look so cool in a Rick collection. Hope he’s reading this.
  3. Blue Owl - Seattle

    Jay Doughten’s Pacific Northwest bastion of denim greatness is a relative newcomer to the denim game compared to Blue in Green and Self Edge, but in a half dozen years, he has built Blue Owl into the best denim store for guys who are into denim but also favor more modern, global flavors. In addition to denimhead goods from Momotaro and Japan Blue (who share a parent company), Big John, and Rogue Territory, he carries a lot of more accessible brands like Canada’s Naked&Famous and Unbranded jeans.

    In addition, Blue Owl stocks fashion from N. Hoolywood and Canada’s streamlined Wings+Horns, as well as Omnigod’s loopwheeled, nostalgic clothing and Spellbound’s more playful interpretations of denim and indigo goods. The best thing about Blue Owl? Their frequent and excellent collaborations with Momotaro and Japan Blue, which feature modern cuts and innovative denim.

    Must buy: One of the two new collaborations between Blue Owl and Momotaro, either the super skinny fit, for the starving hipster, or the much more forgiving “natural tapered” fit, for those of us who enjoy their pasta with bread dinners – the weight is still heavier than what a lot of people are used to, but the softness of the denim more than offsets this. It’s also the first time Momotaro has done black denim.
  4. Rivet & Hide - London

    Rivet & Hide is a good example of how the same product can be seen through different eyes, and be presented differently for a completely different look. It’s a terrific example of "Japanese denim by way of Europe" which, more specifically, is “denim by way of Scandanavia." We see this influence in North American stores as well, but it’s more evident Europe and throughout the UK. You’ll find the same heavy leather jackets and the same southwestern inspired leather goods, as well as the always awesome Viberg Boots, but you’ll also see lighter weight jeans and slimmer cuts, and local brands like Huit. The structure of a webstore says a lot about the mindset of the owners, and on Rivet & Hide, you can filter to “super slim” fits.

    Must buy: Hiut jeans from Wales. And because slim is not slim enough, you want the SlimR jean.
  5. RRL - New York and Country-Wide

    (Photo: Google)

    Ralph Lauren can sell pretty much anything, at pretty much any price level, in any number of styles. And all on the same site, without seeming to dilute his brand prestige at all. But despite his company’s breadth, many pictures of Ralph himself show him in jeans and a beaten up leather jacket - and it’s clear that RRL, named after his “Ralph and Ricky Lauren” ranch, is a labor of love. The RRL stores, although each with a particular flavor – the NYC store is very “ye olde general store”, the LA store is all about vintage motorcycles – are all nostalgic, bordering on costume.

    The common factor is the clothing, which is generally excellent. With RRL, you can go full 19th century miner, or full midcentury dockworker, or you can wear pretty much any piece as a separate - a big part of the success that is Ralph Lauren. The jeans have, typically, the best washes that I’ve seen. The raw denim jeans, though no longer the deal they were half a decade ago, are still always a good bet, and the cuts are dialed in. If you want a leather jacket that approximates historical leather jackets, but doesn’t make you look like an extra from Grease, RRL is your jam.

    Must buy: Black Jeans – because man cannot live in indigo alone (or so I hear) and black denim will carry you through most other casual situations.