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There are a handful of great places to shop for denim in the city, but none of them really compare to Self Edge, the Orchard Street boutique that predominantly stocks denim from sought-after Japanese brands. The shop recently underwent a major expansion in celebration of its fourth anniversary, and we met up with co-founder Kiya Babzani to discuss what the true benefits are to spending more on quality fabrics, the difference between how men and women shop for jeans, and perhaps most importantly, the real, non-gimmicky ways to care for denim. Read on for his expertise.
How have you seen the LES store change over the years?
Kiya: When we first opened, we were selling to the guys who were really hardcore into Japanese denim—who were on message boards talking about the stuff—but it's expanded now to everything. We sell to 17-year-old boys that come in with their parents to 70-year-old men, and we also sell to guys who wear suits five days a week and on the weekends they just want to wear something that's really well made and that they believe in.
We've expanded to so many different types of men that now if you look around, it's not just one look. We sell everything from oxfords to denim shirts to the really wild spring/summer stuff that people wore when they were on vacation in the '50s. When we first opened, it was just basically jeans, flannels, and some tees. Now we do leather jackets, we have a whole eyewear collection, and sneakers and boots that are made in Japan. Guys who start shopping with us, if they like it, they get really obsessed. So we have to serve them in ways beyond jeans and shirts.
Do you feel that the way that women approach buying denim is a lot different than the way men buy denim.
Kiya: It's very different. Women right off the bat just want it to fit really well. We have a section of jeans that are called 316 Plus that's designed for the American woman with the American woman in mind, because in Japan very few women wear jeans. It's very uncommon. And in Japan, the ones who do wear jeans are wearing more of a boyfriend fit. They're not wearing a very skinny jean. When it comes to denim that's this heavy and rigid, you don't want it to be skin tight. It's uncomfortable.
So we do a line of women's jeans that are really amazing. They're fully made in the U.S. The cotton's from Northern Texas, the rivets are made in Kentucky, the leather patches are made in Portland, it's spun into yarn and woven into denim in North Carolina, and cut and sewn in San Francisco.
Why do you think men specifically have such a strong interest in materials when it comes to shopping for denim?
Kiya: It's the technical aspect. It's no different than guys getting into hot rods, cars, or fancy watches. Men really get into the details of things. For women, if it fits well and it looks good and they can afford it, they'll buy it. Men these days really know what brands they're wearing, where they've bought it, where it was made, how many times they've worn it, and how many times they've washed it.
Do you think that's a new thing?
Kiya: Yes, I'd say within the last five or ten years. When we first opened in San Francisco seven years ago, that style of selling—there's a certain way you sell to a man, and a certain way you sell to a woman—didn't exist when we opened. I'm not saying we started it, but we were definitely the first retail store to go this deep into every single detail of the garments we sell. If you went into a clothing store ten years ago and asked them to tell you about a button, the sales associate would be like—what do you need to know about the button? It's a button.
For us, those little details are what our customers look for. Another thing that's really unique about the stuff we sell is that for everything in the store, the fabric was woven for the garment specifically. Nothing is stock fabric. Any other clothing store, probably over 80% of what's in it, the designer will go to a mill or a broker, look at the fabric, pick it, and if they don't have it in stock it'll be produced for them. But they didn't design the fabric.
Let's talk about the ways people are told to care for denim. They're always kind of wacky—put it in your freezer, put it in the tub...
Kiya: We don't believe in any of that. The best way to care for denim is don't put it in the freezer. Don't wear it while it's wet, so definitely don't wear it in the tub, because it stretches it out in unnatural ways. You'll get knee-bagging and the hips will stretch out. We say, if it's sanforized, which most denim is, you wash it every couple of months, inside-out, cold water, line dry.
The whole freezing thing...it's beyond me while people do that. And it's constantly repeated in the press because it's interesting. But it's terrible. If your jeans smell, you should wash them. It probably means they're dirty.
If you buy something that's unsanforized, they have to be soaked before you wear them. We'll mark off on our washer magnets [that are given to customers when they buy a pair of jeans] the length of the soak and the temperature. The longer the soak and the higher the temperature, the more the jeans will shrink.
That all makes sense.
And don't ever do a "sea wash"—that's disgusting. That's when people walk into the ocean with them on and rub sand on them. The problem with that is you still have to wash them, because they're going to smell afterwards.
People who say don't wash them for six months are saying that because the customers who are buying that type of jean want the really high-contrast fading pattern. The problem is, you're not going to get a defined fade if you wash them too often. But with our jeans, the unsanforized ones, you can wash them every two weeks and still get a defined fade.
How would you explain to someone what the real benefit is to paying more for something of higher quality?
Kiya: There are so many different aspects of this. For one, factory conditions. And then of course the garment itself. With a lot of these jeans, they all look the same on the rack. If you put a pair of J.Crew selvedge raw jeans in between these, you probably couldn't tell the difference. But the way that the jean ages over a six month period, that's when you can tell the difference. And the difference is mostly because they're unsanforized, and the Japanese have perfected the way of making fabric.
Of course, an American brand can buy Japanese fabric and make jeans even in Japan, but the difference is that the Japanese eye is very different. The mentality they have towards garment production is very different. So just being made in Japan really isn't enough. The Japanese company really makes the difference.
· From Cheap to Boutique: Where to Buy Denim in NYC [Racked NY]
· All Self Edge Coverage [Racked NY]