Levi’s Presses Pause

…in Russia. Would this be, for the nation’s many jeans lovers, a return to the Soviet era when jeans were scarce? Or would Russians be happy with Uniqlo’s EZYs?

Inside almost every pair of Levi’s denim jeans, on the left front pocket bag, a message printed in black tells you that their famed riveted, five-pocket pants have been around for some 145 years. Levi’s has, in fact, existed for more than 169. Out of that, the American company has operated in Russia for only about 30 years. The first free-standing Levi’s store opened in 1993 in Moscow, just two blocks behind the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Compare that to the establishment of the brand’s international division: 1965, and its subsequent spread to Europe and Asia. Presently, there are reportedly more than 80 stores throughout Russia. But two days ago, the San Francisco-headquartered Levi Strauss & Co announced that the company would put their operations in Russia on an indefinite hiatus in response to the Russian attack on Ukraine, the biggest war in Europe in 77 years. Through a news release, it said: “Given the enormous disruption occurring in the region, which makes normal business untenable, LS&Co. is temporarily suspending commercial operations in Russia, including any new investments.”

Although halting the retail of Levi’s would unlikely cause a scarcity of jeans in Russia (Uniqlo has kept the doors of its 49 stores open), the thought that the ultimate denim brand for many would not be available anywhere there is evocative of the rarity of Levi’s in the Soviet era. Many today who have made a habit of online shopping would probably not remember this period of Eastern Europe, beloved by Vladimir Putin. The U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Republics) lasted 70 years (1922 to 1991), consisting, before its end, 15 republics, stretching from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean. Not all are in agreement to what caused its demise, but it is certain it did not come from an invasion. The history of the U.S.S.R. is a complicated one as any country this large—boasting more than 1,000 distinct nationalities—would be. During its existence, it was not exactly the exemplar of universal justice or material wealth. A common recall: “There was little we could buy freely over the counter”. And the same it was for jeans.

Needless to say, fashion was hardly a consideration in the lives of the proletariat. Russophiles will vehemently say there was fashion in the Soviet Union, even citing the existence of “fashion pages” in magazines of that era such as Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) for urban folks and Krestyanka (Peasant Woman) for the agricultural community. Or that there were working fashion designers, such as Nadezhda Lamanova, former “supplier” to the Imperial Court who chose to stay after the Russian Revolution, and now seen as a national hero. Some historians believe that Soviet fashion was not all the uniforms seen on newsreels or the uniformity of grayness. Three broad categories (excluding traditional costume) were discerned: official, everyday, and the subversive, which, as it still is in many other countries, was associated with youths.

Throughout much of the Soviet Union, the young’s obsession with trends, in particular Western styles, stressed the authorities who considered anything not from within the Eastern Bloc or their nationalised textile factories and clothing retailers to be bourgeois and mostly decadent. Jeans (or dzhinzy in Russian, pronounced “jeansey”) were especially vile, but forbidden fruits are often the tastiest, Even as late as the ’80s, jeans continued to be denigrated because they were seen as American, and anything associated with America during the Cold War was frowned upon, more so those despicable American adopters of fashionable clothes. As The Christian Science Monitor noted in 1984, “the American consumer is frequently portrayed (in the Soviet Union) as a helpless victim of a constant barrage of advertising, especially on television.” Fashion—and in turn jeans—was too much a symbol of to-be-damned Western capitalism.

But, the lure of denim jeans went way back. In one uncommon cultural exchange between the USSR and the US in 1959 (the result of a signed agreement between the two powers to boost cultural contact through exhibitions), blue jeans—by Levi’s, of course—were displayed in the American National Exhibition, held in Moscow. Pairs of 501s packed the booth, and, according to a report, pilferage struck: “eager Soviet visitors handled—and occasionally helped themselves to—display samples of the all-American denim pants.” Throughout most of the Soviet era, reports claimed that jeans were “forbidden”, yet they were not unseen or unworn. Jeans were available through the booming black market. Enterprising resellers (like their sneaker counterparts today) made staggering profits by selling goods that they managed to smuggle from the East. Crushing political dissent was the Politburo’s particular skill, but crushing the lure of Western fashion, even a symbol of the cultural rebel, was not.

Stories emerged too that when tourists visited Moscow, local young men were approaching jeans-wearing guys—whether American or not—to buy the blue denim pants they had on right off their bodies! The going rate was, according to local media then, an “immoral” 200 roubles a pair (then the amount of a month’s wage). In 1972, American magazine Life reported that US students were able to pay for their travels in the Soviet Union by trading old Levi’s—possibly augmenting that contemptible immorality as authorities fumed. But in time, young Russians shed the fear of being criticized for the public display of the attraction to Western styles and brands. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the ’90s, there was no more shame in the wearing of blue jeans. Levi’s welcomed shoppers to their first store in 1993 in Moscow, and the crowd that turned up was reminiscent of the masses that thronged McDonald’s when it opened three years earlier, in the dead of winter. It is hard to imagine that the closure of Levi’s now might bring jeans lovers back, although unlikely, to those desperate days before the Iron Curtain came crushing down.

Update: 10 March 2022, 8.50pm: Uniqlo has announced that they will temporarily close their Russian stores

Photos Zhao Xiangji

Mad For Mud

PRPS Barracuda jeans

Unless you live in a cave that nature miraculously made free of dirt, you’d know that the dirtier the jeans, the more desirable they are. Despite the scarcity of cave dwellers, people are still amazed that dirty-looking—and actually dirty—jeans are available to buy. And expensive to boot.

Nordstrom, the American department store that dropped Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, was thrown into the filthy path of Twitter ridicule yesterday when shoppers spotted a pair of USD450 muddy ‘Barracuda’ jeans at shop.nordstrom.com and could not believe what they saw, particularly the accompanying price tag. A Twitter storm broke out (although the jeans have been on sale for quite a while), with one Tweet describing the five-pocket “perfect jeans for men who work corporate office jobs but still haven’t given up on their dreams of being a cowboy”.

Even news channels weighed in, with CNN declaring “dirty denim is the new black” and The Washington Post stating that “a few people with jobs that involve getting ‘down and dirty’ are pretty miffed”. They’re even joining the fun across the Atlantic, with the BBC informing us that Nordstrom was “castigated” for peddling those “mud-coated jeans”.

But making what we wear look like they have survived BMT field camp during the rainy season is not really new. Back in 2014, Adidas tried something dirty when they released a pair of sneakers—the ZX 750—with Japanese graphic/fashion designer Kazuki Kuraishi (under the label KZK ZX 750 RG 84-Lab) simply called “Mud”.

Adidas ZX 750 MudTo make the soiling really obvious, Adidas had the effect created on an all-white ZX 750. While no wet earthy matter was used, the effect was rather realistic and jokey enough that, for many sneakerheads, justified the asking price of USD175. Here is a pair of shoes you would not wear into anybody’s house without incurring the displeasure of the host. But those who bought a pair consider the sneakers a terrific joke. Let them think you’ve been running through a Kranji farm when, in fact, you have been cruising on your moped.

The humour and the tease are terrific—fashion is not always a lover of wit (and you didn’t think the Japanese have a funny side). But on the Barracuda jeans, by the New York denim label PRPS—founded by former Nike designer Donwan Harrell, the muddy stains seem too serious, too desirous to mimic what Nordstrom calls “Americana workwear that’s seen some hard-working action”. If you check PRPS’s offerings, they’ve made dirty and immensely soiled jeans a signature, closely reflecting their marketing tag “Bruised, Never Broken”—torn is equally favoured as muddy.

That Nordstrom got the flak rather than PRPS is a reflection of social media’s disposition for knee-jerk reactions: I see; I can’t stand it; I shoot. The Adidas ZX 750 ‘Mud’ did not get such a reception. In fact, by most reports, the soil-stuck soles were a hit and were sold out in no time. The Barracuda was criticised because most see it as an insincere attempt at replicating worn, bespattered clothes the result of much toil and grime for wealthy consumers who have never had to slog and be dirtied their entire life. This is clean, manufactured muck. Both sneaker and jeans are not coated with real mud; they’re all bluff.

Photos: Nordstrom and Adidas respectively

It’s Paint!

Dior Homme hand-painted jeans aw 2017Skinny jeans have been enjoying a good, extended run: for more than a decade. Its popularity simply won’t fade. But these days, skinny isn’t quite enough; they’d have to be snug as leggings. Spend an afternoon anywhere along Orchard Road, and you’ll see guys (and girls) in jeans so limb-clinging, they could have been shrink-wrapped on the legs. Indeed, so tight are the fit of them jeans that they are sometimes called “paint on”. What if that’s applied literally?

At Dior Homme, someone is really doing the painting, by hand no less. But we do not think it’s Kris Van Assche getting his hands dirty. His latest jeans for Dior Homme, in very limited quantities, the staff at the store will remind you, looks like a pair left behind by an especially industrious house painter who has only one pair of work pants. The more imaginative among you may think it’s made from a sheet of overused work-site tarpaulin!

These are standard Dior Homme slim-fit, five-pocket jeans on which a surface treatment is applied. As a product of the house of Dior, there is art to the painterly finish. Firstly, it is monochromatic (with shades of grey between black and white), rather like grisaille. Secondly, the informal brush strokes on the cotton twill are applied to form a check effect. Thirdly, the paint has a tactile quality about it—roughness like those of oils or acrylics after they’ve dried naturally.

Dior Homme jeans AW 2016 look 36The hand-painted jeans first seen on the Dior Homme catwalk in January 2016

It’s not clear what paints are used. We can assume it’s not gouache or Dulux water-based. And it doesn’t look varnished. The salesperson wasn’t able to enlighten either, which points to only one way to care for them: do not wash. Never subjecting them to a spin cycle is probably the sensible way to treat this pair of four-figure pants that, on the surface at least, is art.

Caress this frameless, wearable painting and the hand senses the hardness of the top coat. Lifting the jeans up, the uncommon heft is immediately discernible. You are tempted to try them on and you do. These are very stiff jeans, and they’re not easy to put on, especially when they’re skinny too. Once, they’re on, you realise that you may not easily move in them. Climbing up a flight of stairs, you immediately feel, will be tricky. Squatting, you can’t imagine!

This pair of jeans clearly needs time for the wearer to break into, but the process maybe long-drawn since you are not likely going to wear it often or wash it regularly. Still, for the fashionista, it is likely the ultimate pair of jeans, possibly more desirable than Maison Martin Margiela’s low-top sneakers with Jackson Pollock-ish paint splatter.

“Monsieur Dior gone skater boy” was how Mr Van Assche described the mood of the collection to the media back in January after the autumn/winter show. While that is hard to imagine (Monsieur Dior was, after all, rather rotund, and communicated a sartorial sense that can be described as proper), it is not difficult to see that the future in surface treatments of jeans could be thick brush strokes rather than random tears and shreds.

Dior Homme hand-painted cotton twill jeans, SGD2,600, out now at Dior Homme, Ion Orchard. Photos: (top) Jim Sim, (bottom) Dior Homme