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Beyond Levi's

Only true-blue denim aficionados know the significance of May 20, 1873: the birthday of jeans.

That was the day dry-goods purveyor Levi Strauss and tailor David Jacobs -- both drawn to the western U.S. by the gold rush -- patented the small metal rivets found on the pockets of jeans.

These sturdy pants remained primarily for laborers until celebrities such as James Dean and Elvis Presley popularized them in the 1950s. From that point forward, jeans were ensconced in popular culture and fashion.

In the early 1990s, however, denim moved in a new direction.

That is when Japanese tailor Hidehiko Yamane began producing jeans on vintage shuttle looms and hand-painting his trademark seagull logo on the back pockets.

He made just 14 pairs a day and named the jeans for Evisu, the Japanese Buddhist folk god of money. The completed pants retailed for about $400 a pair and quickly became a cult hit in Japan.

In 1994, Yamane teamed up with distributor Peter Caplowe, increased production and marketed the jeans internationally.

But Yamane stayed true to his vintage methods of dying and making denim; today he claims to be the inspiration for 7 For All Mankind and True Religion (TRLG), the first American brands of premium denim.

A Cut Above

But why spend up to $800 on pants you can easily find for $45?

I used to wear each pair of my stiff Levi's 501 jeans for months until they were butter-soft.

Then they would rip, I'd buy a new pair and began the long process of breaking in my jeans once more.

I'd heard of celebrities spending several hundreds of dollars on jeans. But I didn't understand why until I took a few pairs into a Saks (SKS) dressing room.

These jeans were soft. They felt as comfortable as pajamas. And I understood why movie stars always looked so good in them. The reflection of my derriere in the Citizens of Humanity pale-blue denim astonished me. I had no idea pants could be so flattering.

Shopping for premium denim can at times be overwhelming: High-end department stores' denim boutiques are veritable seas of indigo fabric.

It helps to know that each designer boasts infinitely different styles and "washes," which refers to the dye process of denim.

True Religion "Jennifer" ($240)

For instance, 7's jeans often have a trademark fade at the front of the calves and the back of the upper thighs; other styles, such as Rock and Republic men's line, are imbedded with tiny vertical stripes (called "whiskers").

What wash you prefer is simply a matter of taste. However, I did notice that with the exception of 7's, darker washes tend to be stiffer than lighter ones. While those shiny, deep finishes such as Levi's Capital E's Skimmer ($158) lend a more elegant, dressed-up look to jeans, it is often at the price of comfort.

The feel, fit and look of premium denim is achieved with a blend of domestic and imported fabric, often from Italy or Japan. And tailoring the final product is often an involved process. President and creator of Lyric Jeans (LYJN) Hanna Rochelle Schmieder told me that each time the wash of the fabric was adjusted, the jeans had to be retailored.

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