EVEN IF you haven't noticed the tell-tale white side seam peeking out from a smartly cuffed pant leg, chances are you've heard of selvage denim. Once a term whispered only by denim snobs and jean junkies, selvage has become a sartorial status symbol for men akin to functioning button cuffs or a family tartan.
Cult brands such as Evisu and A.P.C. started the phenomenon in the 1990s, and now selvage is everywhere -- Levi's, Ralph Lauren's Double RL and J. Crew all carry it. A Zippo lighter is wrapped in it, and a soon-to-drop Adidas sneaker is made out of it. But what in the name of Levi Strauss is selvage denim, and what makes jeans crafted from it worth the additional $50 to $100?
It helps to think of selvage as the small-batch whiskey or microbrew of denim (most selvage is sold to men) -- a product whose artisanal appeal is growing amid the ever-swelling sea of indigo.
The word, which comes from the term "self-edge," refers to the way fabric is woven. The shuttle looms on which denim was originally made passed a continuous thread back and forth, and where the white thread looped back into the blue threads, a solid, white edge would form.
The advent of high-speed projectile looms in this country in the '50s and '60s allowed for twice as many jeans to be made from the same yardage. When the old looms were sold off, many went to the Japanese, who appreciated the distinctive white side seam as a piece of Americana.
So selvage denim costs up to four times as much to produce. And though denim-heads may debate whether the weaving process or the vibration of the looms make selvage superior, it technically doesn't mean either of those things.
"All the word really means is that it's been woven on a shuttle loom," said Michael Paradise, co-owner of the Stronghold denim in Venice, which uses only selvage. "But the inference is higher quality, because the yield is so horrible and the production method so slow, it wouldn't make sense to use crap materials."
And if you're selling a selvage jean, the inference is that you know -- and care -- about the difference. That made J. Crew's move into selvage with a single straight-leg style three years ago a bid to be taken seriously by those who take their denim seriously. According to Todd Snyder, senior vice president of men's design, it's become so popular that this fall the company will offer eight selvage styles for guys (and one for women) for $150 to $350.
"The word is definitely getting out there," Snyder said. "Men are more savvy now than ever, and they're interested in the details and quality."
The fabric is finding a life beyond the five-pocket jean. On Aug. 15, Adidas rolls out a $150 selvage sneaker with Japanese denim maker Kaihara.
And when Evisu partnered with Zippo in June to swaddle lighters in selvage, they sold out in less than a month -- at $149 a piece -- proving that the artisanal denim is truly on fire.