THERE is no spot where denim is not ... hot. The culture-chameleon fits in anywhere: cow punching, power lunching; rock-n-rolling, weeknight bowling. Faded, shredded, bleached, and dyed, the sturdy cotton cloth survives. From the pick-wielding, dust-covered '49er miner to the drag-racing, grease-covered '50s rebel, blue jeans have woven their way into the history, hearts, and drawers of America.
And the seams of the story are not yet finished. For the '90s: Denim sashays off-campus, onto the runways of "serious" fashion where it's poked with jewels, hung with fringe, dyed to match the models' hair, and stuck with a high price tag.
"It's the longest-lived classic. Any age, any sex, everyone has something of denim in their wardrobe," says Donna Karan, a hot women's clothing designer in New York. Denim cuts a wide swath in Ms. Karan's spring collection - from jeans in red, green, yellow, and orange, to a tongue-in-chic white jacket dripping in pearls, perfect for a bride.
"People are going back to denim. They perceive it as quality for the money: it's real; it's honest; it doesn't lie," says Jean Driscoll of Jeanswear Communications in New York, a trade group representing cotton companies. "The designers see this, and they are all adding denim to their lines."
Indeed, designers are dashing to their drawing boards to find nouveau twists for the old fabric. Italian designer Gianni Versace puts his best foot forward this spring with a flower-print denim capri pant for women. Another Italian maverick, Franco Moschino, offers pleated chiffon bell-bottoms attached to knee-length denim jeans.
America's Norma Kamali rummaged through her closet to come up with back-to-the-70s, hand-embroidered bell-bottoms (for $750). Ralph Lauren makes relaxed-denim pillowcases. Denim is turning up in belts, bags, shirts, jackets, boots, bustiers, and bathing suits.
As most items considered "American," denim was born elsewhere but raised and refined here. "Should'a brought pants!" gold prospectors reportedly told Levi Strauss, a Bavarian immigrant who dropped anchor in California in 1853 with a load of canvas. He had expected to make tents and wagon covers.
But with the help of a tailor, Strauss made the world's first pair of jeans - which he called "waist-high overalls" and his customers called "Levi's." When the canvas ran out, Strauss turned to brown cotton serge from Nimes, France, (called serge de Nimes), which was shortened to "denim." Later, Strauss dyed the pants indigo blue. Not until the 1930s were the pants called "jeans," named for the trousers - which the French called "genes" - worn by sailors from Genoa, Italy. By 1988, 2 billion pairs of Le vi's had been sold worldwide in more than 70 countries - not counting second-hand sales which are booming everywhere.
DENIM has the world by the belt loops. In Barcelona, Spain, American brands sell for almost twice the US price - worn, torn, and frayed. In Paris, France, stiff, new Levi's hang from wooden rafters in the stalls of the march 142&gt; de puce (flea market), guaranteed made in America, again for twice the US price.
In China, college students in cheap jeans would be shocked to find the same brand in Japanese and American stores for almost 10 times the Hong Kong price. In Kyoto, Japan, posters of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in blue jeans adorn shop windows; inside, used denim jeans, guaranteed worn in New York, sell for $50 to $150. (Delighted at the idea, this reporter offered to sell her old jeans to the Japanese proprietor. "No," he flatly refused. "I buy only jeans worn in New York!" "But I wore these in New York !" she protested. "How do I know that?" he asked.)
In New York's Greenwich Village, city slickers can rustle up a pair of Wrangler-brand denims, guaranteed worn by Montana cowboys. Gimmicks sell well, like the "Shotgun wash" jeans sprayed with buckshot by Jensen & Smith of Chattanooga, Tenn.
"We set up a range in our office, and shoot 'em with a 12-gauge shotgun, that fills them full of a thousand little holes," drawls Sheldon Smith, designer-president. "As you wash 'em, the holes git bigger. In the summer, it's great 'cause it's ventilated."
While the shotgun-blast jeans walk out of the stores in Japan, the patriotic look is flying here in the States: jeans with patches of Old Glory sewn all over. "You'd think people would hate to see a flag all cut up, but they love 'em," says Smith.
What's the appeal of torn jeans - especially among those who can afford whole pairs? "It's reverse snobbery. People who have good incomes can do whatever they want. They can drive a BMW and wear ripped jeans, and it's acceptable," says Ms. Driscoll. "It's a personal statement - a way of making the jeans look different, because they're all basically the same."
Says Lucas Wilson, a denimed, pony-tailed guitarist walking to class here in Boston, his knees grazing the winter chill, "I don't know. Boredom, mainly. I just sit around and rip my jeans."
Tired of the bleached-out look of acid-, lava-, stone-, rough-, smoke-, and boulder-washed jeans? Levi's says dark indigo is coming back, as are bright colors and the ever-popular-in-summer white. London's sassy designer Katharine Hamnett, the one who brought us statement T-shirts, is imploring other designers to offer environmentally friendly cotton, grown without pesticides. (Some chemicals used in the washing process are shunned as environmental hazards.)
But beyond designer labels, beyond personalized rips and fades, denim makes a wonderful canvas for the artist - from subway graffiti scrawled down the leg to elaborate handiwork. "It's the best fabric to work on, but it's got to be washed and broken in," says Keith Warren, a nurse in Cambridge, Mass., who spent 300-400 hours hand-embroidering his Levi's jacket with brightly colored sunbursts and unique gemstones. By the looks of store windows and history books, denim has a steadfast spot in America's he art.
Calvin Klein jeans and jackets and DKNY skirt, courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue
Denim 'Bridal' outfit courtesy of Donna Karan, New York
Converse High Tops courtesy of City Sports, Boston