150 Years of Levi’s and Denim in Sneakers

05.05.23 General

There’s no denying the ever-enduring allure of denim. But deciding what sneakers to wear with jeans can be a tricky task for anyone. After all there are countless silhouettes to choose from not to mention the long list of finishes available too. Whether you like your jeans rigid and raw in a classic straight fit or baggy with a pre-faded stonewash finish, denim always delivers optimal pairing for sneakers.

Anyone who’s into their raw denim will know the pain that inevitably comes with breaking in a new pair of rigid jeans with some fresh white kicks. But if your sneakers are jeans, then the jeans can’t bleed right? The concept of denim sneakers has been around for decades with original jeans pioneer Levi’s having designed some of the first examples in the 1970s with its Levi’s® for Feet collection. Since then, denim footwear has evolved in all shapes and sizes, from dubious denim boots, to hand dyed Chuck Taylor’s, Selvedge Nike Air Force 1’s to the more bizarre editions like Jeremy Scott denim ‘Wings’ sneaker which ascended the denim sneaker throne in all its Canadian cloth glory.

If the truth be told, denim sneakers haven’t had the best reputation compared to their leather and canvas counterparts. Weird design concepts, ugly finishes and bad fabric choices haven’t helped. But despite this there has always been an underlying fetish among sneaker heads for J’eakers. Whether it’s a genuine love for denim or the “so bad it’s good” appeal, denim sneakers have continued to be an obscure object of desire in the footwear world.

That niche obsession has been strangely perforating into popular culture as of late with a growing number of sneaker brands experimenting with denim updates of iconic sneaker silhouettes. Nike have denimfied everything from their Air Jordan 1’s to Air Max 90’s and Dunks, while Adidas have reimagined classics like the Italia SPZL with clever fabric play on the contrast colour effects of denim’s warp and weft.

While many of these major sneaker brands have made brave attempts at manipulating denim onto their icons, none have been as perfectly executed as those with Levi’s. The original San Fran jeans brand transformed New Balance’s 990v3 in “Mallard Blue” in 2021 and later last year they reworked New Balance’s highly sought after 327 model with a stunning two tone denim to show the duality of its asymmetrical design. But it was Levi’s immortalisation of the Jordan 4 that was perhaps the most triumphant. The 2018 collaboration which saw the silhouette reworked in indigo, all-white and triple black denim was a huge success, and most definitely a lot more tasteful than the original 2008 ‘23/501’ pack featuring the Air Jordan 1 Mid with elephant printed denim panels (and matching jeans).

What made the denim-clad Air Jordan 4 such a success was the strategy to put personal expression at its core. “Scuff it. Bleach it. Add patches. Drip paint. Or skip the distressing and rock it straight out of the box,” wrote Nike’s product description. This clever strategy to get consumers to personalise their own pairs in a unique way spoke perfectly to the reasons why people love denim so much in the first place. Rigid jeans, when broken in from raw, repay you with a perfect fit that moulds to your body. And the more you wear them, the more character you’re rewarded with. Unlike any other fabric, it only gets better with age, enhancing with every blemish, rip and repair. It’s no wonder that fanatics go months on end without washing their jeans just to get the perfect fades and patinas that are only achieved through dedicated wear and care.

Sneakers on the other hand, are typically treated with the utmost care. For most sneakerheads, nothing beats the feeling of breaking out a box fresh pair of kicks and many will do whatever it takes to avoid getting the scuffs, creases and discolouring that comes with day to day wear. It’s so ingrained in sneaker culture that a 2012 study in the Journal of Research and Personality noted that shoes are a “thin slice” of perceptions of a person and can be an indicator of a wearer’s wealth and social status. On the surface, it seems logical that impeccably taken-care-of shoes signify that someone is neat and also has the time – and money – to make sure their footwear is cleaned and repaired.

So why is it so that in recent years that pristine shoes are on the out and decrepit soles in? You only have to look at Balenciaga’s limited edition pair of distressed canvas trainers that were sold for a whopping £1,290. Limited to 100 pairs, the industrially beat up shoes looked as though they had been worn on many a night out – not too dissimilar to Lil B’s infamous dirty white vans that allegedly endured two years of solid wear. 

The dirty footwear concept has manifested within sneaker culture over the past few years inspiring a growing number of sneaker enthusiasts to intentionally customise new sneakers to make them look like old beaters. Much of this shift in aesthetics falls in line with the growing demand for archive and nostalgia with consumers now coveting aged and worn, over new and clean. In the same way pre-worn Carhartt jackets and Levi’s jeans have become prized for their beautiful patinas and natural fades, sneakerheads are seeking out styles that feature subtle imperfections that lend them with a beauty that only comes with time and wear.

One of the names who has been driving the look is NYC-based creative Philip Leyesa aka philllllthy – who makes retro jordans look like they dropped in the 80s. “I started ageing my Jordans because I couldn’t wear the original pairs or pairs over 10 years old because the shoe would just come apart while wearing them,” he told StockX. “The next best thing was to replicate the vintage look on a recent pair of retros” His process involves using clever techniques to stain soles yellow, distress toe boxes and create aged and cracked uppers. His client list includes names like Daniel Arsham, who commissioned him to give his Dior Air Jordan 1’s the aged treatment. Understandably they divided opinion on whether such a collectible sneaker should be treated in such a way.

The interest around this neo vintage style has continued to grow significantly over the past year with more and more names experimenting with similar techniques. jw.customs, andu.c and noli23 are just a few others that have been appearing on the feeds of influential accounts like hidden.ny. The latter, took Nike’s cue about creativity and ran with it, reimagining Levi’s Air Jordan 4 with bold laundry techniques that wouldn’t look out of place in Sterling Ruby’s studio. His customs come with extreme fading, bleaching, dyeing and hand drawings, with each pair finished with his signature wooden beads embellishment on the laces. 

Brands are catching onto the movement too. In 2019, Nike teamed up with Netflix sci-fi hit show Stranger Things for a unique spin on its Cortex, Blazer and Tailwinds models. Each of the styles featured an intentionally unrefined tonal sail fabric upper that can be removed via burning or ripping to reveal a dark blue denim-like base layer – a nods to the hidden-yet-ever present nature of the Upside Down. NYC-based art collective have explored similar characteristics in their GOBSTOMPERS sneakers which encouraged wearers to shred away the surface to reveal the marble patina beneath. Naturally, these interactive concepts have gone viral on social media and help change perceptions on sneaker culture.

Some creatives are taking the art of denim sneakers to another level with meticulous customisations and handwork that make them look more like artworks than sneakers. Vintage sneaker upcycler @foxtrot_uniform recently collaborated with Japanese denim specialist and boro god PREOLETA RE ART for a pair of not-for-sale art piece sneakers co-produced by Poggy. “Despite what some may say about them being outdated, we see life in these shoes and Boro cloth,” said Foxtrot on the project.” Their scuffs, creases, and tears each tell a unique story and only add to their beauty. With Kintsugi sneakers, we take the 15th-century Japanese philosophy of repairing with gold to bring these vintage shoes back to life and celebrate their flaws.”

Working under the pseudonym “PROT”, the anonymous designer behind the Tokyo-based label combines traditional Japanese boro techniques, vintage processing and artisanal craftsmanship. It’s a look that has earned him high profile fans like A$AP Rocky, Lil Baby and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Although this sneaker sadly isn’t available at retail, it is still a marvel to be seen and showcases the lengths some creatives are willing to go when it comes to delving into boro’s rich history and honouring its age-old techniques.

Some Japanese denim masters are choosing to take a more contemporary vision to heirloom textile though. FDMTL explored boro and sashiko in new and modern ways, using jacquard weaves and engineered patchworks for its 2018 Vans collaboration. The result was two pairs of classic Slip-Ons which came covered in irregular stitching and patchworks – the ultimate ode to a wabi-sabi. Ant Kai recently showed off a pair of LV Boro Dunks created inspired by the destroyed denim jacket/jeans from Louis Vuitton’s FW22, Virgil’s final collection that he designed with LV before his passing. “When I saw the pieces used the boro technique, I knew I had to make my own custom based off them,” the creative said on the concept. 

Some fine artists have looked to denim as the canvas for self expression too. Beijing-born, Paris-based contemporary artist Wu Yue, used his Soul Goods collaboration with Nike as an opportunity to reframe the Dunk through an imaginary lens of Chinese history. His 00s-inspired Dunk delved into his own paintings, bringing an asymmetrical patchwork of childhood memories of Beijing, personal and traditional symbols and talismans. The printed leather sneaker draws inspiration from his signature fine art style of painted bleached denim that he uses in his large scale paintings. The result is mesmerising to say the least.

With denim firmly in the focus of pop culture more than ever – you’ve undoubtedly seen all those jairs, jorts and jables memes – it’s no surprise that sneakerheads are more willing than ever to don denim sneakers as a way to play into the movement, whether intended as a joke or not. So whether you have an affinity for jeans, or you’re looking for a pair of beaters that you can rely on to get better, rather than worse with age, a denim sneaker is worth investing in. Not only does this fabric offer hardwearing properties, but its durability allows you to throw just about anything at it – whether it’s a night out on the dancefloor or having an artist work their creative magic on it.

Words by Samutaro

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