The Cheapest vs. Most Expensive Denim
The Iron Snail Clothing Company
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy the absolute highest quality Japanese selvedge denim in the world. Today we’re talking about what makes a pair of jeans worthy of being priced at almost $1000, how can Walmart make jeans for $12, and everything in between. We’re going to walk you through why jeans cost money – from cotton plants, to Emma Chamberlain and Brad Pitt, to Japanese trade laws, and more. Let’s get into it.
Table of contents
The Cheapest Denim
Made in Mexico
Low-quality denim and cotton fibers
Walmart makes some of the cheapest denim around, with their “George” jeans for $12.98. These jeans are nothing short of a miracle, because they shouldn’t be allowed to exist for this price.
Where Walmart Jeans are Made
Production location is a major factor in price for most clothing items, as you may be aware of. Walmart’s “George” jeans are made in Mexico, which is probably the main reason why they can charge so little for these jeans.
It is important to note that the country of origin does not denote skill of craftsman. Mexico and many other places in the world that produce “cheap” clothing items are home to incredibly skilled craftsmen and artisans. So, when we say that the manufacturing location is a big reason as to why the jeans are so inexpensive, we’re mainly referring to the labor laws and protections in Mexico that differ from those in the U.S., for example. The saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, somebody is”. We’re not sure if this is the reason why these $12.98 “George” jeans are so inexpensive, but often this is the case.
Walmart’s “George” jeans are made of the lowest quality denim. This fabric is highly processed and made with low-quality short-staple cotton fibers that are weaker, coarser, and don’t hold dye as well as other types of cotton fibers.
This doesn’t mean that these jeans are fragile, however. Most 100% cotton denim jeans must be of a certain strength to be considered sellable, so they will not easily rip, but there is much more durable denim out there.
*Pro tip: How can you tell if your jeans will be durable? Look into the cotton staple length, rather than the cost.
How Walmart Denim is Made
In order to keep costs down, Walmart has automated certain steps in the denim production for the “George” jeans. This low-quality denim is made on a projectile loom, which is 4-5 times faster than a shuttle loom (and is how selvedge denim is made).
We’re told that watching a projectile loom function is like watching a printer print paper out, which gives you an idea of the massive production scale that Walmart is likely undergoing for the “George” jeans, which also keeps costs so low.
Walmart Jeans Features and Hardware
Despite their low cost and quality, these jeans have some unexpected features that surprised us. Namely, they have rivets, which are usually the first thing to go to reduce jean cost. These rivets are not very high quality however, and probably run the risk of falling off more easily than others.
The zipper is generic, not as strong, and will likely get stuck more easily than a higher quality YKK zipper, for example.
Walmart did add “George” branded buttons, but they skipped out on a leather patch like Levi's and other higher priced jeans have (they’re usually quite expensive). Instead, they opted for screen printing on the inside of the waistband to save on cost.
Middle Tier Denim
Expensive Marketing Campaigns
Better quality denim
More thoughtful and higher quality features
Levi's jeans are about 5x as expensive as the Walmart “George” jeans, coming in at $60. Funnily enough, these are also made in Mexico, and there’s a good chance they’re made at the same factory as the Walmart jeans. So, why are they 5x more expensive?
Levi’s Marketing Campaigns
First and foremost, Levi's spend a lot of money of advertising marketing campaigns, which is what you’re partially paying for when you buy Levi's jeans! After all, celebrities and influencers like Brad Pitt, Emma Chamberlain, Hailey Bieber, and Jaden Smith don’t come cheap.
Levi's uses quite good quality denim for their jeans. It’s definitely better quality than the generic Walmart denim, and it probably a proprietary fabric manufactured exclusively for Levi's.
Levi's denim also features good quality stitching, making these jeans much more durable – and therefore more expensive – than the Walmart “George” jeans.
Levi's Features and Hardware
Good quality rivets, zippers, buttons, and other hardware are another reason why Levi's are better quality and more expensive than Walmart jeans. There is less of a chance for pieces falling off and zippers getting stuck.
Better quality selvedge denim
Slower production process
Higher quality hardware
Though Unbranded denim does basically the opposite of Levi's by avoiding advertisements and expensive celebrity marketing campaigns, they are still more expensive than Levi's, retailing at $94. They’re also made in China, which is conceivably a less expensive place to manufacture denim. So why are these more expensive than Walmart and Levi's jeans?
Even though Unbranded opts for overseas manufacturing in China, they focus on higher quality denim and hardware features.
Unbranded Selvedge Denim
Unbranded uses proprietary selvedge denim made on shuttle looms, which are 4-5 times slower than the projectile looms that Walmart uses for their “George” jeans.
Selvedge denim is generally much prettier than non-selvedge, and Unbranded dyes their selvedge denim with pure indigo (aka. synthetic indigo), which is more uniform in hue and tone across batches than natural indigo is.
Unbranded Jeans Features and Hardware
Unbranded makes sure that all the fixings and finishings are stepped up in their jeans, from the rivets and zippers, to the buttons and stitching. They also include a leather patch, which as we know, can be very pricey.
Mid-Upper Tier Denim
Naked and Famous Denim
Made in Japan
Higher quality cotton
More sustainable dyeing and manufacturing processes
Naked and Famous is known as one of the best denim retailers and manufacturers out there. Their jeans typically range from $150-250, making them significantly more expensive than Levi’s or Unbranded Denim. Shockingly, these are actually relatively inexpensive when compared to other Made in Japan denim brands. So, why is that?
Denim Made in Japan
Japan is famous for its high quality denim production and indigo dyeing processes. Naked and Famous produces all of its denim in Japan, and manufactures the jeans in Canada. So, what you’re paying for is Japanese denim that is assembled in Canada, a place with better labor laws and higher wages than, say, Mexico or China.
So how are Naked and Famous jeans so much less expensive than other brands that make their denim in Japan? Japanese and Canadian trade laws mean there are no duties paid on the denim fabric entering Canada from Japan, bringing costs for these jeans down significantly.
Naked and Famous Fabric and Cotton
Generally speaking, Japan employs more environmentally friendly dyeing procedures and sources better cotton than most other places in the world. Culturally, Japan puts a lot of resources into its denim production and quality, and you will see more natural and widely varied fading patterns in jeans that are made in Japan.
Here’s something ironic: for all the same reasons people tend to not like short staple cotton in mass-produced clothing, they tend to love it in expensive jeans – it offers an interesting texture and more color variety in the way the fibers are dyed.
Upper Tier Denim
Made in Japan Denim Brands
Hand-made in Japan
Proprietary yarn and the highest quality cotton
The very best hardware
Aside from Naked and Famous, most jeans from denim brands that are Made in Japan cost more than $250. Why are these jeans so much more expensive than all the rest?
Made in Japan Denim Fabric
On top of everything else, denim that is made in Japan in typically made from a proprietary and extremely high quality cotton yarn. This yarn is tempe treated, which is different from sanforizing, but helps avoid excessive shrinkage.
The process involved getting the jeans wet and hanging them to dry in the sun, rather than throwing them in a big industrial dryer, sanforizing them, or not washing them at all. This is much more time consuming, and therefore more expensive.
Jeans that are made in Japan are cut, sewn, and dyed in Japan, a place with higher wages and better labor laws than many other countries. And, because of the time-consuming manufacturing processes, jeans made in Japan tend to come in very limited production runs, making them harder to get and more high in value.
Features and Hardware on Made in Japan Jeans
Japanese denim manufacturers use the highest quality hardware you can find. IN addition to high quality rivets, zippers, and beautiful leather patches, often you’ll see 100% iron buttons on jeans made in Japan that will age beautifully over time and with wear. There is only one supplier in Japan that makes these super durable buttons, making them quite pricey.
The Most Expensive Upper Tier Denim
Tokushima Natural Indigo Hand-Dyed Selvedge Denim from Naked and Famous
Denim recognized as a Japanese intangible cultural treasure
Hand-dyed yarn in natural indigo
The absolute highest quality hardware and stitching
Highly sustainable and time-consuming manufacturing processes
Naked and Famous has blown us away, once again with their MIJ8 Tokushima Natural Indigo Hand-Dyed Intangible Cultural Treasure Selvedge Denim Jeans. What makes these jeans worthy of their $880 price tag?
Hand-Dyed Denim Fabric: An Intangible Cultural Treasure in Japan
The process for dyeing these jeans received the honor of ‘intangible cultural treasure’ by the Japanese government, denoting high historic or artistic value for the country.
These jeans were made using all the Japanese denim traditions we’ve mentioned, including the highest quality, extra long staple cotton you can find, proprietary yarn, and highly sustainable manufacturing processes.
The proprietary yarn is hand-dyed using an extremely time-consuming hank-dyeing technique that requires a highly skilled craftsman to take hanks of yarn and dip them into the indigo until it’s the right shade and color. The indigo used is grown in Japan and fermented in order to use it for dyeing, which takes up to a year.
After the yarn is dyed, the selvedge denim is woven, and the jeans are assembled, they are individually hung to dry outside in the Japanese sun before they are sent to the customer.
The Very Best Japanese Hardware and Features
These jeans use the highest quality EVERYTHING, from copper rivets that are extremely durable, to 100% iron buttons. These jeans also have a leather patch that is a work of art in and of itself and alone costs $20, which is more than the entire cost of the Walmart “George” jeans.
Available in Extremely Limited Quantities
The fabric on these jeans is so limited that brands can purchase the fabric on an invite-only basis and are only allowed to buy a certain amount, given how difficult and time consuming it is to produce.
If you’re interested in owning the best quality denim in the world, you can buy the Tokushima Natural Indigo Hand-Dyed Intangible Cultural Treasure Selvedge Denim Jeans by Naked and Famous HERE. They’ll last you a lifetime.
The Iron Snail is a men’s fashion vlog starring a young man named Michael and featuring a snail no bigger than a quarter. The two are set on taking over the world of fashion by creating a clothing line to end all clothing lines. Until then, we’re here to tell you EVERYTHING you need to know about the best clothing out there, from the highest quality raw denim jeans to the warmest jacket to the sturdiest boots…the Iron Snail has got you covered.
Taylor Hale is your friendly neighborhood tea enthusiast, amateur knitter, skincare nerd, clothing thrifter, regular flosser, accidental teapot collector, vintage IKEA lamp hunter, overzealous plant owner, beeswax candle-lover, gal pal, and obviously, very serious academic. She writes for the Iron Snail, as you can see.