"George Bush went to Japan to sell cars, but he would have done better if he had gone to sell jeans," claims Danny Eskenazi, who sells vintage denim by phone and from his Seattle shop Jack Hammer on First Avenue near the Pike Place Market. His best customers are Japanese.
Japanese tourists come here and buy never-worn jeans from the 1950s and '60s," he said. `"hey cost $200-400 a pair." In Japan, vintage denim pants have sold for more than $1,000 and denim jackets for over $2,000.
Vintage denim means made before 1971. It's a fashionable international collectible and most of the suppliers are on the West Coast. Japanese collectors are connoisseurs; they prefer Levi's but Wranglers and Lees will do.
The hunt for vintage denim is unconventional. Dealers comb the country for "new old stock" - unworn leftovers found in old stores - which commands a premium.
"I canvassed a remote part of Montana last summer, and most stores I called said the Japanese had been there already," Eskenazi said.
Jos Jansen, who oversees licensing for Wrangler, recalled one Japanese visitor stopping a man on the street and paying $200 for the denim jacket he was wearing. "He could get five times that for it in Tokyo," Jansen said.
If you phone Levi Strauss and Co.'s San Francisco headquarters and ask how to distinguish old Levi's from new ones, you're told to call dealers such as Jeff Spielberg in Santa Monica.
"Collecting jeans was my hobby; now it's my trade," said Spielberg, a TV script writer who claims to have the largest vintage collection in private hands. He buys by phone nationwide.
Spielberg noted that Japanese collector interest is losing ground to the preppie look; prices in Japan have dropped 25 percent to 60 percent from their high a year ago when vintage denim jackets fetched as much as $4,000. But don't despair, you haven't missed your chance to cash in on dad's old work clothes. Spielberg said thousands of collectors remain in Japan and plenty of others are in Germany and Italy - even a savvy few in the U.S.
What's the attraction? Genuine old denim has the flavor and feel of the Old West; it's a classic well-made American product, one of our most visible icons. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has quite a wardrobe of jeans, including the only known surviving pair of late-19th century brown ducks (made of a coarse heavy cotton material) that Levi's produced before concentrating on denim dyed indigo blue.
Jeans also are an American success story. German immigrant Levi Strauss (1829-1902) settled in San Francisco in 1853 and supplied dry goods and fabric to gold miners, loggers, farmers and cowboys. In his late 20s Strauss introduced the sturdy pants that eventually transformed his business into the world's largest apparel company.
The exact date Levi's were born is unknown because the pertinent records were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (The name "Levi's" is a registered trademark of Levi Strauss & Co.) Levi's historical benchmarks include the debut of its "Two Horse Brand" leather waistband patch (1886), lot number "501" (1890s), and belt loops (1922) - suspenders were used before then.
Collectors can spot vintage Levi's at a distance by their rich blue color, but the first real proof is on the trademark little red tab on the back right pocket of the pants and on the right edge of the left breast pocket of jackets. The tab first appeared in 1936. "LEVI'S was written on the tab in all capital letters until about 1971, and thereafter a lower case "e" was used.
WATCH THOSE RIVETS
The presence and placement of Levi's rivets helps determine their age and provides some of the field's best folklore. According to the firm, Strauss patented the strength-adding rivets in 1873. Early Levi's have rivets in the top corners of the back pockets (some of the earliest also had a rivet at the crotch).
In the 1930s consumers complained about the back rivets: "It was the upholstery of their new cars that got snagged," said Spielberg, disparaging the story that cowboys complained about back rivets marring their saddles. Whatever the reason, the back rivets were covered in 1937 and disappeared by the late 1960s, he noted. The makers of Lee jeans call the '60s the period when denims moved from function to fashion.
A story about cowboys warming themselves by the fire until their rivets got hot is apocryphal, according to Spielberg, but Levi's gives it credence in a brochure. What isn't myth, he said, were the complaints Levi's received when it introduced zippers in 1955. Spielberg said one fellow wrote: "That is like peeing through the jaws of an alligator." All other factors being equal, collectors pay a premium for vintage button fly Levi's "501s."
Another indicator of age is the presence of small straps and buckles to tighten the waists of pants and jackets.
For denim jackets, the experts said, the pecking order is Levi's, Lee, then Wrangler. If a Levi's jacket has silver-colored buttons it's from the '60s or earlier. Vintage Lees say "Union Made" at the top of their label. Vintage Wrangler jackets are easy to spot; they have a blue bell insignia on the label. Fewer jackets than pants were made but more survive.
Size is a factor in determining value. Eskenazi pays a premium for sizes 28-32 because they fit his Japanese customers. Spielberg will buy most sizes except "Farmer John's" - a 42-inch waist with 30-inch legs. Condition is important, too.
Spielberg said if a jacket is worth $250 in good condition, a frayed one is worth $150; a repair at the elbow takes off another $25, and a hole another $50.
Don't overlook old denim advertising banners and figurines. Today, large Levi's signs retail from a couple of hundred dollars to as much as $1,000. A 12-inch-high Lee doll retails for $150-200.
VISITING LEVI'S MUSEUM
If you really want to get a feel for old jeans, visit Levi Strauss & Co.'s museum at 250 Valencia St. in San Francisco, (415) 565-9153, which is open by appointment only. It is located in the company's oldest factory. The museum's collection documents the firm's history and production.
A pair of jeans from the 1890s, found in a silver mine in the Mojave Desert, is kept safely in Levi's archives. Unfortunately, no pair of the first brown canvas-like pants Levi Strauss made in the 1850s are known to survive, nor do any of his earliest denims. --------------------------------------------------------------- DEALING DENIMS
If you are interested in buying or selling your vintage denim:
-- Dan Eskenazi, Jack Hammer Ltd., 1909 First Ave., Seattle, 98101, 1-800-BUY-501S or 206-441-1865;
-- Jay Fraterigo, The Velvet Pelvis, 531 Haight St., San Francisco, CA 94117, 415-864-7034;
-- John Hartung, Rock N' Roll Fashions, 832 S.W. Park Ave., Portland, OR 97205, 503-222-6666;
-- Marta Koehne, Hot Couture, 101 Third St., Santa Rosa, CA 95401, 707-528-7247;
-- Marc Luers, Tatters, 2922 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55408, 612-823-5285;
-- Jeff Spielberg, P.O. Box 5178, Santa Monica, CA 90409, 1-800-666-LEVI;
-- Bergdorf Goodman, the elite clothier at 764 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10019, 1-800-662-5455, shows recycled women's Levi's from the 1970s, complete with hand-painted psychedelic doodles, by Leslie Hamel, for $212 (plus shipping) in its spring catalog.