Published: December 21, 2019 Updated: December 23, 2022 14 min read
Are expensive jeans worth it? The short answer. No. Most of the time they aren't. Cheap jeans are often just as good, if not better than designer denim.
Don't believe me? Check out the article I wrote comparing American Eagle ($50), Madewell ($135), and Citizens of Humanity ($228). After carefully analyzing fabric, construction, wash, destressing and more, I ranked which jeans were really the best.
In this guide to cheap denim, I will teach you how to shop the best denim out there for the lowest price.
Yes. Cheap denim can absolutely be of high quality. But, as any bargain hunter will tell you, while on the quest for good quality at low prices, there is a lot of crapola out there also. The trick is knowing how to spot quality, and what will fall apart in the wash.
For example, one of the most common complaints I hear about buying cheap jeans is that they stink. New jeans usually smell of one of two things. Formaldehyde, or, ammonia.
Here is why they smell this way, and what you can do to get that new jean smell out of them.
Back in the day, jeans used to be made out of real indigo dye that came from a plant. Unfortunately, today, real plant dyes are super expensive and most brands opt to use synthetic alternatives. These cheaper synthetic dyes require formaldehyde during the yarn dying process.
There is also a second point in the textile process where your jeans could be exposed to formaldehyde. This is during the finishing process. Often, jeans and other cheap clothes are treated with a formaldehyde finish. The formaldehyde will help to prevent the jeans from molding while being stocked in a warehouse, sometimes for months or even years.
Think of it this way. Companies that are producing cheap denim probably don't have money left in their margins to pay for nice temperature and moisture controlled warehouses. And, because cotton is a natural fiber with an excellent ability to absorb moisture, coupled with the garments sitting on shipping containers at sea for months exposed to salty sea air, or in warehouses, it creates the perfect environment for mold to grow. They say a rolling stone never gathers moss, on the flip side, denim sitting in a warehouse will definitely start to smell musty.
It's easy. Just soak them in water with baking soda, it's scientific name is Sodium Bicarbonate. The formaldehyde and baking soda will react in a totally non-harmful solution. And, just like that, almost as if by magic the new jean smell will be gone.
Speaking of magic. Have you heard about the process of cotton mercerization? The first time I learned about it was from a fabric supplier who creatively coined the term as "liquid alchemy". Basically, mercerization is the process of treating cotton fibers with ammonia, or, sometimes sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) can also be used. The ammonia reacts with cotton and causes the fibers to swell.
Why would we want swollen cotton fibers? Well, mercerized cotton creates a much more shiny, silky, and luxurious fabric. It also helps to prevent fabric shrinkage and wrinkles, and even makes the fabric stronger in the process.
Textiles mills love the process of mercerization because it's cheap and allows them to take low quality cotton fibers, and turn them into something that feels much more luxurious and expensive.
Usually, if fabrics are processed correctly the smell will be gone by the time the garment reaches you, the consumer. But, in cheap mass production, steps are often skipped, and your jeans might end up stinking like cat pee because the ammonia is not neutralized correctly.
But, there is an easy solution to this too. Soak your jeans in white vinegar. The white vinegar will neutralize the chemical smell.
Yes. If your jeans smell that means the mill and factory cut corners and skipped processes that would normally get those smells out by neutralizing the chemicals. If they are skimping on quality, in such an obvious way that anyone with a working nose can smell, they are most likely skimping on the finer details as well.
But, don't feel bad if you end up with a stinky new pair of jeans. Just neutralize the smell with baking soda or vinegar and wear them proudly instead of tossing them in the trash.
That is up to you. Money is relative. If you are person that is used to dropping $1000 or more on denim from brands like Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana, and Brunello Cucinelli then Citizens for $200 are a drop in the bucket for you.
To figure out your personal sweet spot on what a "good price" is for you. Consider the following questions.
If Citizens which come in over the $200 mark feel expensive to you, you are not alone. The average price of jeans sold in the US is under the $50 American Eagle pair. According to TIME in a 2010 survey, it was discovered that women pay about $34 for a pair of jeans. And, only 1 in 10 will pay more than $100 for a pair.
Whether your are curating your closet, or thinking about trying out a capsule wardrobe or just trying to figure out what you really need, think about this. According to a ShopSmart, The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. But, most of them only wear four pairs regularly.
If you are only going to buy one or two pairs of jeans, and that is going to be the go-to pair that you wear every day for years to come? Then, you might want to consider spending a little more and making sure they are something that you really love and that fits you well.
So if you buy a $200 pair of jeans, but wear them 3 times a week for 2 years, you are really only paying $.64 cents per wear.
There is nothing wrong with shopping trends. Never let the sustainable fashion community bully you into feeling bad about wanting to wear the latest fashions or express yourself. But, what you can do to prevent your self from partaking in disposable fashion is try the 30- wears challenge. Which like the name suggests challenges you to wear something at least 30 times before you toss it.
If you are one of the ladies in the poll that has 7 pairs of pants or more (25% of the women had over 10 pairs). Maybe you want to spend a little less. For example, the $50 American Eagle jeans if only worn 30 times will cost $1.66 per wear. Comparatively, even though they cost less, in the long run, they end up costing you more, the less you wear them.
Personally, in my daily rotation, I own:
The skinny black jeans are BDG from Urban Outfitters, the indigo skinnies are Madewell, and the mom jeans are Citizens. The way I choose the brands were by whatever fit me the best. I have had the black skinnies for 2 years, the blue skinnies for 4, and the mom jeans for 3.
Don't leave it until the last minute. If I know I am in the market for a new pair of jeans, or any type of clothing for that matter, I start my shopping process expecting it to last for a couple of months. Now, thanks to the fast fashion cycle, new styles hit stores every day. So, I end up shopping a lot. And, I end up trying on a lot of clothes. The trick is to exercise self-control and to never settle. I hold out until I find that perfect pair.
I think this year I am going to cave to the cropped trend and buy another pair. But, for now my 3 pairs are holding up just fine.
I bet a few of you reading this thought, four years! How can clothes last more than a season? That's the fast fashion industry brainwashing you. A good pair of jeans can last 10 years or more. I still have a pair of bell-bottom jeans from Abercrombie that I bought in high school, around 2004. It's 2020 now, 16 years later and they held up. I don't wear them every day, but they have gotten a lot of wear over all the years, and I still break them out when I am visiting my parents and need some clothes to throw on to run errands.
So, how was I able to buy a pair of jeans that lasted me 16 years? I'm going to teach you.
When shopping for denim you want to look at 7 things. They are:
A lot of you reading this are probably into sustainable fashion, which would make sense because that has become a focus of mine since leaving the world of fast fashion. And, in the world of sustainable fashion wearing polyester is basically the equivalent to saying Lord Vodlermorts name. But, polyester can be used for good.
But, the journalists got it wrong. Take it from someone in the fashion industry, like me, who has poured over testing reports. Jeans made with polyester last longer than 100% cotton jeans. That is because polyester is not only stronger, but it also helps to add stability to the denim so it doesn't stretch and shrink as much during wear and laundering meaning they fit better for longer.
The more stretch, the higher the cost. Pro-tip more is not always better when it comes to spandex and elastane. All you need is about 5% for ultimate comfort. Anything more than that is overkill and will end up making the jeans more expensive.
If you are buying a tight form-fitting style of jeans opt for stretch, this will help prevent the garment from developing holes in the butt and knees.
There are lots of premium fibers that have been developed for the ultimate performance, like LYCRA® dualFX® technology. Fibers like these are made to last.
Do the yarns in your jeans look kind of shinny or almost glittery? This is a sign of low-quality denim. This happens when elastic is not properly blended with the cotton in the yarn and shows though. When this happens the elastane yarn is not protected and will probably snap and wear out quickly. If you are buying stretch jeans, always make sure the elastic is not visible.
Does you denim kind of look like the skin of a cantaloupe? This is a defect. It means that the yarns that were used had too much twist in them by mistake. Why is this a problem? First, it looks weird. Secondly, it creates an unstable fabric that might shrink in weird ways or the seams may start to twist in the wash.
Natural indigo that comes from a plant will always cost you more and is the more eco-friendly option compared to mass-produced synthetic dyes.
Is natural, real indigo, that comes from a plant better? Not really. While I think it's always nice to wear clothes that are dyed with non-toxic plants, natural dyes actually tend to perform worse than synthetic dyes. Meaning a synthetic dye will hold color better than something from nature.
Buy dark washes and break them in yourself. If there are two identical pairs of jeans and one is a dark wash and one is a light wash, the dark wash will always be higher quality.
All denim starts out as the same color. The lighter the color in the jeans means that more washing and distressing that was done to the garment. And, the more washing and destressing that was done, the weaker the fibers and yarns. Basically, the light was denim already has a few months of wear on them when you buy them "new" from the store.
As I mentioned I have had my skinny jeans for 4 years. When I first bought them they were almost black they were so dark, now the knees are practically white and they have worn down to a light/medium indigo.
No. If you want the highest quality of the fabric, skip the selvage. More on that below in the TRIMS AND FINISHES section.
Look for heavier denims. The jeans I mentioned that I have had since high school are very heavyweight. The thinner the denim, the quicker it will wear out.
A twill weave has little 45 degree lines running through it. As a general rule, twill weaves are much stronger than plain weaves.
Unfortunately, this does not mean much when assessing quality. Every country has amazing factories and also, terrible factories. Don't assume because denim was made in the USA it is better than made in China.
Check the seams, flat-felled is always a sign of good quality.
Look for loose stitches, missed stitches, or stray yarns, all of these are a sign of bad quality and that your jeans my unravel over time.
Look for YKK or branded zippers and buttons.
Are bits of fabric coming through? If so, it could be an indicator of low quality.
No. For some reason, a rumor has started that selvedge denim is premium. It's not. Selvdge denim is traditional. And, a nod to the history of denim. But, it is no way an indicator of quality.
Long story short, selvedge denim has a lot of waste. That is because the jeans pattern needs to be lined up just right with the red edge of the selvedge fabric. And, there ends up being a lot of awkwardly spaced pattern pieces creating a lot of denim that becomes waste.
When you buy selvdge denim the high price tag comes from all the waste. Manufacturers are not simply going to take a hit on their bottom line, they past those waste costs onto you, the consumer in the cost of the finished garment.
But, fast fashion has found a way around pricey selvedge, now it can be made in strategic withs, using strategic patterns that nearly eliminate waste. Meaning, even places like Target can sell selvedge
Here is a list of some of my favorite places to shop for affordable and cheap jeans. At all of these places, you can find options for $50 or under.
Lands'End jeans generally retail for around $60-79. I know, it's over the $50 limit. The thing is, 1/2 of their denim at any given time is usually on sale for as little as $34. And, we are talking some really cute styles, not just the weird fits that no one wants. I have had my eye on these Women's Water Conserve Eco Friendly Jeans - Blue, which are currently only $35!
I like the fact that Land'sEnd offers an unlimited return policy. If at any time you are unhappy with your purchase, you can send it back. No questions asked.
Tips on shopping the site: IMO the models don't have the best style. But, if you can look past the poor photography and conservative look, you can find yourself some great cheap jeans.
My sister swears by BDG jeans from Urban Outfitters, she has a full closet of them. Did you know that the same company that owns Urban Outfitters also owns Anthropology? That means that they are definitely making both brands in some of the same factories, and piggybacking on fabric orders to get higher-order quantities and leverage the economies of scale for lower prices. Basically, if you shop carefully you can get Antro quality for a fraction of the price.
BDG denim starts at $60 full price. But, guess what. There is always something on sale. Most Urban Outfitters stores even have an entire room dedicated to sale items with jeans for as low as $6.99!
I remember in high school while at the Westchester Mall, when I was shopping at Barney's Coop for "overpriced rubbish" as the Indian girls who sell chachka on the Goa beaches call it (yea, I have come a long way on this fashion journey) and stumbled across Cheap Monday. What? How could Barneys be selling something so, literally, cheap? Jeans for $50!
Obviously Barneys saw something in the quality. Sadly, in 2019 Cheap Monday's closed down. But, you can still find their leftover stock selling on websites like ASOS. The site links to two new brands WEEKDAY with a focus on sustainability, also founded by the same guy as Cheap Monday Örjan Andersson.
So, how are they able to produce so cheaply? Well, it might have something to do that their parent company is H&M...
My first introduction to American Eagle was in middle school. I remember thinking, wow this stuff looks exactly like Abercrombie but at 1/2 the price. Now I can own even more polo shirts and khaki pants ;P
But, seriously. American Eagle is great because they spend a lot of time researching and sourcing superior denim. They have also been known to partner with fiber suppliers like Lenzing to introduce new fiber technologies for premium stretch and quality.
At my first job in fashion, I worked on a program that helped to bring the first affordable pair of selvage jeans to the masses. They were for Target and they were about $30. Between Target's sold-out designer collaborations and dedication to pushing the boundaries of what "cheap fashion" means they are a solid choice for shopping men's denim.
Here is what I like about Uniqlo jeans. They were one of the first mainstream brands in the US market to introduce men to the concept of stretch denim. Uniqlo's jeans have as little as 1 percent stretch. And, that stretch doesn't only make for more comfortable jeans, but it helps jeans to last longer. With a little bit of giving, you are less likely to develop holes in the knees and butt.
Solid, consistent, denim. Not much has changed with them from the time I was introduced to the brand in 1st grade when we got a GAP store right in the middle of our town to now.
A few years ago I bought some GAP jeans. I wanted to hate them. IDK why. For some reason, over the years GAP has developed this un-cool vibe from the fashion world. But, you know what. They were great. Wore well, washed well, held up. The button did fall off, after, admittedly I gained a bit of weight, but I had a tailor put a new one back on and was good to go.
My boyfriend has been wearing the same GAP sweater every winter for the past 5 years, and it's holding up great.
And, I recently learned something cool about the GAP. They low key do a TON of charity work for the workers in their factories and areas where they produce their goods.
Please excuse my American-ness but for some reason, I always thought that Marks & Spencer was a grocery store. That is until I was meeting my friend in Hong Kong for lunch and she was wearing the cutest blazer. I was shocked to hear that is was from M&S.
If you are an American, like me, do yourself a favor and check out this mega-brand
Feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org and please leave your comments below on what you think are the best cheap jeans around.
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