I am perplexed by the ripped jeans looks. What initially seemed to be a fad has now been popular for at least 10 years. Women wear them to dinner in upscale restaurants, as well as for doing yard work. Will this ever end? Is there an age limit? And if not, how do you wear ripped jeans with style?— Connie, Marblehead, Mass.
According to Glenn Martens, the creative director of Diesel, when Renzo Rosso, the brand’s founder, introduced distressed denim back in the 1980s — “distressed” meaning ripped, faded and otherwise made to look old, even though the jeans were actually new — he sent a box of his products to retailers in Japan. The retailers sent the jeans back. They thought he had made a mistake.
That was 40 years ago, and, as Mr. Martens pointed out, distressed styles have helped power Diesel’s parent company to revenues of more than a billion euros last year. Why? Mr. Martens posits that they “symbolize disruption, empower the wearer and allow for the individualization of a core style.”
In other words, as Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina,” “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” and the same goes for jeans. Each distressed pair is distressed in its own individual way, and individuality is a driving force in fashion.
Indeed, designers like Mr. Martens and Ev Bravado and Téla D’Amore of Who Decides War, the New York denim specialists, are currently transforming the whole idea of “distressed” into something of an art: patching, splicing, shredding and otherwise taking jeans to a place they’ve never been before. Mr. Bravado and Ms. D’Amore believe such one-off distressed jeans have reached the status of “timeless,” like the white shirt.
To me, more and more, this is an American version of couture. It speaks of handwork, innovation and history (also sustainability, since a lot of this work is upcycled) and, because of that, they can be worn pretty much anywhere. Save, perhaps, the Oval Office.
That said, these pieces also make their mass-market cousins seem seriously inauthentic by comparison.
Part of the allure of distressed jeans was always the work and life told in the rips, somewhat like the way facial wrinkles are reflections of years of joy and sadness carved in the skin. Pre-torn jeans are like filler: They plump things up but never look quite right. To pay a premium for fake pre-aging is to take a shortcut, and while shortcuts can be seen as clever — you cheated nature! — they also lead to fashion-victim land.
Even Mr. Martens said, “I prefer my denim to distress naturally, starting as a classic pair and embracing the wear as it comes.”
As to how best to wear it, he advises pairing shredded bottoms with a crisp, clean top or even a luxurious knit. Mr. Bravado and Ms. D’Amore also advise combining distressed denim with “an oversize blazer or leather jacket and playing with exaggerated proportions.” It’s the yin and yang balance that is the key.
That way, unlike a Russian novel, this story can have a happy ending after all.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.