"George Bush went to Japan to sell cars, but he would have done better if had gone to sell jeans," claims Danny Eskenazi, who sells vintage denim from his Seattle shop called Jack Hammer and by phone at (800) BUY-501S. His best customers are Japanese.
"Japanese tourists come here and buy never-worn jeans from the 1950s and '60s," he said. "They cost $200 to $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 command a premium. "I canvassed a remote part of Montana last summer, and most stores I called said the Japanese had been there already," Mr. 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," Mr. Jansen said.
If you phone the Levi Strauss Co.'s San Francisco headquarters and ask how to distinguish old Levis from new ones, you're told to call dealers such as Jeff Spielberg in Santa Monica at (800) 666-LEVI.
"Collecting jeans was my hobby; now it's my trade," said Mr. Spielberg, a TV scriptwriter who claims to have the largest vintage denim collection in private hands. He buys by phone nationwide.
Mr. Spielberg noted that Japanese collector interest is losing ground to the preppy 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 Dad's old clothes. Mr. 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.
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; what records existed were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (The name "Levi's" is a registered trademark of the 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 Levis at a distance by their rich blue color, but the first real proof is on the trademarked little red tab on the back right pocket of 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 capital letters until about 1971, and thereafter a lower case e was used.
The presence and placement of rivets help determine the age of Levis and provide some of the field's best folklore. According to the firm, Strauss patented the strength-adding rivet in 1873. Early Levis 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 objected to the back rivets. "It was the upholstery on their new cars that got snagged," said Mr. Spielberg, disparaging the version that claims cowboys complained about back rivets marring their saddles. Whatever the reason, the back rivets were covered in 1937 and disappeared by the late 1960s .
A story about cowboys warming themselves by the fire until their rivets got hot is apocryphal, according to Mr. Spielberg, but the Levi Strauss Co. gives it credence in a brochure. What isn't myth, he said, were the complaints the company received when it introduced zippers in 1955. Mr. Spielberg said one fellow wrote "that it was like peeing through the jaws of an alligator." 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. Experts said the pecking order for denim jackets is Levi's, Lee, then Wrangler. Vintage Wrangler jackets are easy to spot; they have a blue bell insignia on the label. Vintage Lees say "Union Made" at the top of their label. If a Levi's jacket has silver-colored buttons, it's from the '60s or earlier. Fewer jackets than pants were made, but more survive.
Size is a factor in determining value. Mr. Eskenazi pays a premium for sizes 28 through 32 because they fit his Japanese customers. Mr. Spielberg will buy most sizes except "Farmer John's" -- a 42-inch waist with 30-inch legs.
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.