In 2022, shopping for denim means sorting through some of the best vintage jeans and upcycled denim options; because if you’re going for that time-worn look, why buy new? It’s boom times for all-American Levi’s (which remains the most in-demand denim brand on the planet) thanks to collaborations with Re/Done, Denim Tears, and the late Virgil Abloh, while the hunt for runway relics of designer denim sourced from across the globe is real. Below, we’ve done some of that legwork for you, with vetted Etsy sellers known for remastering fits and hard-to-find pieces unique to their era—like a pair of French ’70s deadstock flares,’90s daisy-embellished Moschino, and early ’00s Helmut Lang straight off the catwalk.
Investing in vintage jeans becomes especially appealing once one takes a step back at the scope of the industry and factors in the environmental impact of denim production. According to the National Resources Defense Council, producing a couple of pounds of new cotton (the main fiber in denim is known as a “thirsty crop”) requires almost 8,000 gallons of water. That’s a hundred times as much water as it would take for the same weight in tomatoes. Next, the dying and distressing processes specific to jeans require even more water, more toxins, more energy, more waste. When said waste is so often created in an effort to make denim look like it’s vintage, going directly to the source starts to make sense.
Of course, the term “vintage” has become rather flexible. Technically, twenty years need to pass for an item to be considered true vintage, though nostalgia is building for pieces that are barely a decade old in our age of constant newness and abbreviated attention spans. To mix it up further, design houses are creating technically new pieces by reworking old jeans, like Marques’Almeida’s raw-edged patchwork pieces, while Kara’s bestselling crystal-strap Cobra Camera bag is handmade from preworn denim. “Upcycling and reworked pieces are huge right now,” says celebrity stylist Kathryn Gosik, who ran around Paris with Selling Sunset’s Christine Quinn during last month’s Couture week. She, like many in her field, is focusing on “more thrifting and reworking wardrobes” lately. The real goal is to help valuable materials — and iconic designs — live another day.
Below, the best vintage jeans, stylist-favorite recycled denim, and upcycled options helping to bring new life to the twill trouser.
Upcycled, Recycled, and Remastered Jeans
For vintage Levi’s jeans, there’s a spectrum to consider. Some of the best pieces to invest in are untouched 501s or ’90s boyfriend cuts that stand the test of time, and brands like Re/Done and Etsy sellers alike have figured out a sweet spot for customers who want that look, but updated. Gentle tailoring adjustments create an updated, modern fit with the classic tag. Gosik likes Re/Done’s blush-tinted ’90s jeans, and loves 1 Off Paris’s upcycled details. “These 1 Off Paris pants give me everything I want in double layered denim,” she says of her favorite dual-waistbanded pair. For another obviously remastered fit, “Reformation is constantly impressing me with their upcycled pieces,” she says. “This pair of patchwork denim is no exception.”
The post-runway appeal of vintage designer jeans places them amongst the most-searched items on resale platforms like Vestiaire Collective and Grailed. For one-of-a-kind pieces, the low-slung fit of ’00s Helmut Lang feels fresh after seasons of raised waists, Japanese Evisu pairs have a global cult following, and a deadstock French bellbottom is its own rare gem. Levi’s offers its jeans from every era in various sizes at secondhand prices for a constant stream of available vintage.
Vintage and Upcycled Jean Jackets
The vintage jean jacket is unrivaled in its unisex versatility. It’s a look worn by actual royalty and pop culture royalty alike, in every iteration. There’s something very Never Been Kissed about Moschino’s daisy-bedazzled adaptation, and upcycled updates have become a first choice for stylists. “EB Denim is one of my favorite denim brands right now,” says Gosik of the Los Angeles-based brand with silhouettes that give “ultimate cool-girl” and can be dressed up or down, like their multi-tonal relaxed-fit varsity jacket.
Vintage and Upcycled Denim Skirts
The denim skirt, forever beloved by streetstyle stars and celebs alike, is both easily found in original vintage condition and easily created by altering a pair of old jeans. In every length, from micro-mini to mid-though pencil, it has a place. Gosik is currently “loving maxi skirts with combat boots” and prefers the ’70s-inspired upcycled versions that B Sides creates. When mixing it into your existing wardrobe, “the contrast of tones makes it easier to pair with either a dark top or light top,” she notes.
Vintage and Upcycled Denim Vests and Corsets
The fitted denim vest is experiencing a revival, while the corseted silhouette of the noughties plays well with the oversized shapes of the moment. Even the “tiny little vest” seen on celebs like Dua Lipa emits a casual Friday look ready for an office return. Chloé’s recycled dark denim vest is destined to become its own archival piece, and YSL’s lace-up vintage bustier seems to have escaped from Kate Moss’s collection.
Upcycled and Recycled Denim Bags
The recycled and upcycled category of denim gives way to new designs that lean on old-school materials. For designer Sarah Law’s brand Kara (short for “Karaoke”), denim garments go through a careful selection process before they’re taken apart and pieced together by hand into crystal-embellished bags that feel precious enough for a red carpet. Paris-founded brand Rive Droite works with artisans in Morocco to produce roomy recycled denim bags for the minimalist.