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To Learn How to Love Your Jeans Sustainably, Talk to Saigon's Denimheads

I never feel better than when I am ensconced in denim. This love for jeans is caught up in my genuine adoration of the cowboy aesthetic, the particular beauty of a denim-clad ass and the snug hug of a jean jacket, cocoon-like and comfortable. 

My appreciation for denim isn't particularly unique, except for maybe in its level of enthusiasm. Overall, the world spends US$92.8 billion on denim products every year.

I recently bought a used Levi's jean jacket from Mayhem, one of the first thrift shops in Saigon. The name "Richard A. Perkins" has been carefully penned in sharpie on the upper and lower inner shell of the bleach-stained jacket; the initials, RP, can be seen scrolling on the outside, right where I imagine the jacket hit his waistline. It is a little uncomfortable thinking about Richard Perkins and how the jacket that now hangs on my shoulders once laid on his.

Whether we like it or not, and whether or not it is Richard Perkins who is linked to our current garment, everything we wear has a history. In this era of late-stage capitalism, it is all too easy to trace anything we consume back to human suffering or planetary degradation. Denim is no different; it has a sometimes-inspiring, and often-horrifying, history surrounding it, with a planet-punching impact on our increasingly hot and unhealthy home. 

Jeans through time

Since jeans arrived as a work pant in the mid-1800s, they have taken on many forms while maintaining cultural import. From John Wayne's perfectly fitting straight-leg, cuffed Levi's in 1930s Stagecoach, to the image of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake gracing a 2001 red carpet in head-to-toe pale blue denim, denim iconography has been emblazoned into our collective consciousness the world over.  

In Making Jeans Green: Linking Sustainability, Business and Fashion, Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle dives into the history of denim. The blue of blue jeans and the plants that were needed to create it, woad and indigo, were a much fought-after and fervently produced resource up until 1897, when the first synthetic indigo product became available. This rich and gruesome history includes "woad millionaires," a French king who made using "exotic indigo" from Asia "punishable by death," Gandhi's first act of civil disobedience and the forced labor of enslaved individuals on indigo plantations in Haiti and the Americas.

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake on a 2001 red carpet with matching denim-on-denim-on-denim-on-denim outfits. Photo by the Associated Press via Esquire.

The first pair of jeans, whose future versions would be dipped in the sought-after blue, can be traced back to Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis. Strauss was a Bavarian immigrant who decided to expand his brothers' New York-based dry goods business by opening up shop in "gold-fevered California." Strauss was a stern-looking man, and one can imagine his Lincoln-esque chin beard rustling in the wind as he stepped off a steamship and onto a San Franscican wharf in 1853. Business quickly boomed for the officially named Levi Strauss & Co.

Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, a tailor was tasked with making a more durable and long-lasting pair of work pants. Jacob Davis, born in Riga, Latvia, used hardy cotton duck fabric, often used to make tents, and made the pants as per usual, with the addition of metal rivets to reinforce stress points. This original pair of jeans sold for US$3 and became so popular that Davis decided to look for a business partner to mass-produce the pants. 

This brought Davis and Strauss together, and in 1873 they were granted Patent No. 139,121 for an "Improvement in Fastening Pocket-Openings" on men's work pants. Soon, they were making the pants out of blue denim and branding them with the Two Horse trademark, which mythologized the strength of the jeans. From this patent onwards, LS&CO continued to flourish, as did the future of denim in all its iterations.

A 1960s ad, on billboards and posters, by Levi Strauss & Co. encouraging customers to "go to [their] rodeo" and touting the brand as the “First Choice of Cowboys.” Graphic via Levis Strauss.

Ecological impacts

Sadly, denim’s history also has a dark side, as it is bad for the environment for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost, because of cotton. 

Denim is not only defined by its color or rivets, but by the unique weaving technique needed to produce it. A classic fabrication uses alternating indigo-dyed warp with undyed weft yarn. The cities of Nimes, France and Genoa, Italy both claim to have invented it. Regardless of its true origin, what is known for sure is that cotton, a particularly thirsty plant, is denim's main ingredient.

A woman in Buon Don District of Dak Lak Province picks cotton. The Central Highlands remains among the few areas in Vietnam with cotton plantations. Photo via Bao Dak Lak.

Producing one kilogram of cotton requires up to 7,660 gallons (29,000 liters) of water. In comparison, growing the same weight of tomatoes takes only 76 gallons (288 liters) of water. Further, cotton, with its puffy cloud-like bolls, is one of the most chemical-reliant crops out there. Seven of the 15 pesticides used on cotton are considered to be anywhere between "possible" and "known" human carcinogens by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, posing serious health concerns for farmers and anyone living nearby. The "cotton flu" tends to pop up when crop dusters spray fields, with symptoms including "asthma attacks, headaches, tremors, and fatigue."  

Besides the preposterous amount of water it takes to grow cotton and the pesticides the trade consumes and lets into the environment, the dyeing and finishing processes create significant pollution. After being dyed with synthetic indigo, jeans are "repeatedly treated and washed" with a variety of chemicals to soften, fade, or texturize the fabric, depending on our constantly shifting fashion mores.

Some finishings are more harmful than others. For example, jeans pioneer Francois Girbaud can be credited with the practice of stonewashing, which he later described as "an ecological disaster." In the 1970s, Girbaud's jeans had a signature acid-washed look which was created using a deadly chemical called permanganate. Girbaud explained that it took 40 years to realize that what they were doing with permanganate was wrong, further elaborating that the "acid-wash look was killing the guy doing the spraying."

China's denim production industry has caused major pollution in the local environment. Photos by Lu Guang/Greenpeace via EcoWatch.

With jeans manufacturing growing in Vietnam, it is useful to look to China, the largest producer of denim, as a cautionary tale of the effects it can have. In Xintang, Guangdong Province, where one in every three pairs of jeans is produced, a lack of regulations in relation to manufacturing led to rivers running a deep chemically infused and foul-smelling blue in 2013 due to the chemical waste dumping. The toxic blue river flowed into a bay that supplied water to millions of people, resulting in a series of health issues such as rashes, lesions, and, as believed by some, infertility. 

Jean production in Vietnam 

The production and export of jeans in Vietnam has increased over the past decade, with just over 19 million pairs of jeans being exported to the US in 2015.

Since 2010, Levi's has operated a factory in Ninh Binh, and all of its jeanswear is distributed to the company's Asian market. According to Euromonitor, jean sales continued to grow here in 2019, although branded jeans face competition from counterfeit and unbranded goods.

Inside Saitex's factory. Photo via Everlane.

One company at the forefront of eco-friendly denim production is Saitex, operating out of a factory complex in Bien Hoa, approximately 28 kilometres outside of Saigon. The CEO of the company, Sanjeev Bahl, decided to implement a variety of practices that reduce the ecological footprint of the jeans the factory manufactures in 2010. 

Saitex did not respond to a request for comment.

According to a Bloomberg report on the factory, US$2 million was invested in a water filtration system that recycles 98% of the water the factory uses, turning "toxic blue sludge" into potable water. The factory avoids fossil fuel use through solar power and a biomass generator that burns wood shavings and coconut husks. Further, minimal water and bleach is used in the dying process, cutting the necessary in-factory water needed to make a pair of jeans down to one liter. Jeans with traditional manufacturing processes take 80 times that much.

To avoid the pollution that comes with detailing jeans, the factory uses lasers to create distressed effects instead of the labor-intensive process of a troop of workers sanding each pair of jeans by hand.

The usual detritus that comes from making blue jeans — dye, sand, pumice and fabric — is transformed at the factory by mixing this gunk with concrete and drying it into bricks so that it can be used as building materials instead of being released into the environment.  

It is good to see that Saitex's clients include both big names and up-and-comers on the jeans scene like Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Target, Tommy Hilfiger, and recently Everlane, whose CEO, Michael Preysman, is a big supporter of the factory's eco-conscious practices. 

Vietnam's love of jeans

A lady wearing flared jeans on a pavement in Saigon in 1970. Photo via tranzoa.net.

In the 1970s, jeans were worn widely in Saigon, and had been introduced visually in Hanoi with films like The Sons of the Great Mother Bear (1966). After reunification in 1975, fashion changed greatly, but not without some pushback. In northern regions, jeans were banned because they were considered "a symbol of America, for capitalism." 

Jeans became more readily available in Vietnam when Thai goods were able to enter the country through Cambodia after the country was liberated from the Khmer Rouge's genocidal regime in 1979. After this, goods like Kingjo jeans made it into Vietnam with their two styles, vertical tube and flared tube legs. Synthetic and nylon fabrics were losing popularity amongst youths, who turned to jeans instead; a clothing item that both men and women could wear and comport themselves in a variety of situations. Whether they were worn at the workplace or a party, jeans created the opportunity to look cool and get dirty at the same time, as the garment was designed for physical labor.  

The demand for, and popularity of, jeans increased in the 1980s. Vietnamese in the US and western Europe would send Levi Strauss, Lee, or other reputable jeans to their family in Vietnam because it was very difficult to send currency back to the country. Due to the popularity of denim, and because jeans at the time functioned as a luxury good, jeans sent by family members from overseas could be sold, and the money resulting from the sales could go to cover living expenses.

A 1984 Youtube video entitled "Talking to the people" shows a pair of Levi's being sold in a "black market" in Vietnam.  

The man interested in purchasing the jeans holds the crisp, dark-indigo pair in his hands and examines the tag and the Two Horses logo. The interviewer asks the man if he is going to purchase the jeans, the man nods, yes. The shopkeeper looks to the camera as he announces the price of the jeans, VND5,000. The interviewer exclaims in an excited yammer, "that's nearly half of your salary!" Although VND5,000 won't get you much in Vietnam these days, the changing valuations of currency accounts for this discrepancy, and this video shows the unique role that jeans played in Vietnam at the time. 

There are a variety of denim-related avenues to head down in present-day Saigon. One can find jeans in a variety of forms at Ba Chieu Market in Binh Thanh District, searching through the used clothing stalls surrounding the market, to the crisp and carefully-folded "Levi's" sold in shops upfront.

Young men have breakfast at a noodle stall in Cho Lon in 1989. Photo by Doi Kuro.

If you want to get your jeans tailored, head to "Jeans Street" in District 3, the portion of Ly Chinh Thang Street between Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Van Troi. This section of road became a hot spot for jeans tailoring after a member of a garment collective decided to open up shop tailoring jeans in 1996, after he noticed that customers were requesting repairs of their jeans from overseas. The popularity and success of his shop, and jeans, can be seen by the copycat businesses which have been able to open up along the street.

Walking the block today, you will come across close to a dozen jeans tailors, the eclectic and plentiful signage will let you know you're in the right place. 

In Saigon, where vintage denim is a subculture

Have you heard the term "denimhead" before? There is a small and carefully curated vintage denim haven in Saigon where I was introduced to the term when embarking on my denim journey.  

The shop is run by two brothers and self-professed denimheads. I heard about their shop, Denimister, from the owners of a vintage clothing store in Da Kao. Do you know that thing of when you Google something repeatedly, and then when you open Instagram, it offers you up accounts upon accounts to follow related to the search? That is what happened to me and searching for "vintage clothing in Saigon."

The Demor is a small vintage boutique that is driven by a love for 90s grunge and Americana. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

The first store I went to, after dutifully screenshotting the options which Mother Internet had given me via Instagram, was The Demor, as it looked to have a good selection of jean jackets. The Demor is a small vintage boutique that is driven by a love for 90s grunge and Americana.

I was able to speak to the owners, Khoa and Oanh, who have been friends since high school and who both dropped out of college to start their business. Khoa told me that he and Oanh were unable to find the style of clothing they were drawn to in Vietnam and so, along with finding the garments they themselves wanted to wear, they were inspired to "create a place for young people" like themselves.

Oanh showcases two vintage jackets in her store. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

They fulfilled that desire and created the space they were after by importing used clothing from America, Japan, and Thailand. Their bounty is on display at The Demor, with clothing racks full of jean jackets from brands like Levi's, Lee and Wrangler, among others.

The Demor's range of used jeans jacket imported from abroad. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

When I asked what other stores they'd recommend, a whole new world of denim in Saigon opened up. Not only did they recommend Denimister, but they also suggested I join a Facebook group dedicated to denim. The group, Vietnam RAW Denim, has over 12,000 members. In this group, you can see a passionate collection of denimheads sharing their love of the fabric. Denim outfit posts abound, along with posts such as "Why Lee's are best," close-up shots of buttons and metal rivets, fingers carefully assessing a piece of denim, precisely shot photos of selvedge stitching details, and information on where to find the best in all things jean. 

When I arrived at Denimister after leaving The Demor, I saw a man sitting outside smoking. His outfit alone could have told me that I had hit the denim jackpot. He was wearing a crisp pair of dark-wash jeans, and a mid-wash denim button-up topped off with a jean jacket. Perfect. This wasn't the only thing that got my denim siren wailing.

Hieu (left) and Nhan (right) in front of the vintage denim shop they run together. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Before noticing the man in the spectacular denim outfit, I had pulled off into a little hẻm just off of Hoang Sa and had stopped, scanning the buildings for Denimister's address. Before finding it, I was greeted by a mural of a Southwestern-looking sunset with a cowboy in the foreground, saddle slung over one shoulder and jeans-attired rear turned towards the viewer. This, the saloon-style lettering of the store's signage carefully painted onto a large piece of deep indigo denim fabric and the Canadian suit was almost too much excitement for a denim lover like me.

I was greeted and shown inside and started asking questions. I found out the man outfitted in head-to-toe denim is named Hieu and that he runs the store with his older brother. When I asked why they opened the shop, he replied simply, "because we love denim."

The mural at Denimister of a Southwestern-looking sunset with a cowboy in the foreground, saddle slung over one shoulder and jeans-attired rear turned towards the viewer. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

I returned a few days later and, while interviewing Nhan, I was delighted to meet someone who could narrow down his favorite brand and decade of jeans to the specifics of the Levi's detailing done during World War II, the inscriptions on buttons, and replied to my question of what his favorite personal item of clothing is with, "Of course, yes. Let me show you." 

Nhan's love of denim began with a gift from his father. "That's a very long story, many years ago my father gave me his old jeans, a pair of jeans that he bought in the 1980s." Nhan was amazed by the durability of the pair of 501 Levi's, which his father had worn for about 20 years.

"I was like, ‘What?’ How could it be possible that the jeans can remain in good condition?’" So, Nhan started getting interested in the fabric that he describes as tough, durable, comfortable, and well-suited to wear at work, while hanging out, or to a party, concluding with, "Jeans are like my life. That is the story."

Nhan's love for the durable material began with an old pair of jeans that his father gifted him. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Hieu added that their love of denim was influenced by American films, and characters such as Clint Eastwood’s in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. For Hieu, after he saw Eastwood in that iconic film wearing jeans and a western shirt, he wanted to stick with that style. But, he couldn't find desirable clothes to fit this aesthetic anywhere, until the day his brother opened the shop, which left him feeling like, "Wow, this is paradise."

The interior of Denimister is an oasis for denim fans. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Nhan started his vintage denim business operating within a custom leather shop in Binh Thanh in 2017. He started with a small collection, filling one clothing rack with 12 pairs of jeans. As he built up his stock, he decided to move to his own location just before Tet this year with the mission to "spread our love of denim to other people."

Perhaps, like Nhan, we can turn our capitalist tendencies away from fast fashion and all its nature-defiling impacts and towards an appreciation of vintage denim, by buying used clothing and looking cool in the process.

I asked Nhan how all of the products in their store are in such good condition. "Usually I will take care of my jeans and our stuff with my own hands," he said. Denimister posted a guide on their Facebook page on "How to clean your denim."

Photos by Alberto Prieto.

I will describe the process with the help of Google Translate and my own sentimentality. First, place your jeans lovingly into a rustic metal basin that you could imagine a baby cowboy being bathed in. Next, make sure to turn your beloved jeans inside out before you soak them in clean cold water for 15–20 minutes. Pull your jeans out of their bath, squeeze them gently, and take them to a cool, dark place to air dry, as exposure to the sun will limit your time with them. Also, try to reduce the number of times you wash your jeans, as jeans are "more beautiful when there are traces of the wearer!"

In short, love your jeans, and keep them for a long time. 

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