“We live in ideas,” wrote Salman Rushdie ponderously in the mid-1980s. Thanks pal, I remember thinking, but I live in jeans. The great man was sounding off about India in the age of dynasty, but even as I waded through his piece (“your little finger contains many Hiroshimas and Nagasakis”—no, I still don’t know what he was on about), I thoughtto myself: He’s missed the denimization of India.
In those days, I used jeans as a metaphor for the way in which India was changing. In the 1960s, when I was at boarding school in Ajmer, all my friends would urge me to buy them pairs of blue jeans when I went to London on holiday. But by the mid-1980s, jeans were freely available in our cities and had ceased to be the rare commodity they once were. To me, that was one indication of the arrival of globalization.
And, because of their association with youth, jeans seemed to me also to symbolize the changing demographic. India was a young country that was getting even younger. If the sea of denim that I saw all around me suggested something, it was that we were well on our way to become a more Westernized, more global, more youthful society.
I like to think that I was right about the significance of the denim revolution. But I had a vested interest in singing the praises of jeans: For more than four decades now, they have been the principal article of clothing in my wardrobe. I can wear kurta-churidars. I can wear suits. But that whole shirt-pant thing is not for me. Give me a good pair of jeans—in any colour—and I’ll team them with a loose shirt. And because we journos don’t have dress codes, I’ll wear them to work day after day.
My romance with jeans began in 1965 when I was eight. I’d like to be able to say that I had anticipated the whole hippie/counterculture revolution, but frankly, my solitary point of reference in that era was the Wild West. I even bought my jeans from a shop in London called The Westerner (now extinct) and imagined that I was an extra on Bonanza.
By the time denim had become a symbol of the Summer of Love, I was already a convert. Except that I’d broadened my horizons. Those wide-brimmed denims (like the one George Harrison wears on the cover of Abbey Road) seemed less appealing than narrower black jeans, or even corduroy jeans in a variety of colours.
I have stuck with jeans through thick and thin, flare and drainpipe. In 1978-79, a young Indian entrepreneur called Mohan Murjani invented the designer jean (for which he licensed Gloria Vanderbilt’s name), but even though designers rushed to put their names on our butts, I stuck to the old standbys, to Levi’s or Wranglers.
In the 1990s, fashion mavens told us that denim was dying and Levi’s launched the Dockers range of chinos. But I stayed true to jeans. There was no look that I found more loathsome than the uniform of the wannabe yuppie after hours (Ralph Lauren polo shirt tucked into neatly pressed chinos and worn with Timberland loafers) and the chino culture seemed to epitomize that oxymoron, “corporate cool”.
Far better, I thought, to go with the timeless appeal of jeans. It helped that, by now, I had found a source of good, cheap jeans: Bangkok, where they cost between Rs400 and Rs1,000. The Bangkok jeans never fit quite as well as they should have and the labels could be embarrassing. (Who are Peter and Jeannie? Who the hell is Big John? What is Mc?) But they were affordable and easy to replace.
Two years ago, I decided to test the Indian market. I bought two pairs from Ravi Bajaj’s store in Delhi’s Greater Kailash. And blow me if I wasn’t knocked out! For a full year-and-a-half, Ravi’s jeans became my uniform. I teamed them with black shirts, launched the Mumbai edition of the HT in them and even shot a whole season of food shows in them.
When I did tell Ravi Bajaj how his jeans had saved my life, he was curiously ambivalent, making noises about not having access to the right denim and unwilling to accept any praise. And despite several visits to Greater Kailash, I’ve never found new blue jeans in his shop again.
So I’ve done my jean buying on my own. Most department stores abroad (my two haunts are Harvey Nichols in London and Barneys in New York) will now offer you a bewildering array of jeans made by cult labels that only the cognoscenti will recognize. My policy is to ignore the labels. (Is Ernest Sewn more fashionable than Seven? Who knows? Who cares?) Instead, I go for the fit.
And though the jeans can be pricey (up to three or four times more expensive than Levi’s and 10 times more than Bangkok), it makes sense to add a few high-quality jeans at the top end of my wardrobe, given that I wear a pair nearly every day.
What we don’t have, alas, is the made-to-order jean. Ravi Bajaj told me he wouldn’t make them. And the British tailor, Timothy Everest, who has just launched his own jeans range, says that the needles used in Savile Row would break when confronted with heavy denim. Jeans remain a machine-made product and so, some brands offer the next best thing. Everest will get a tailor to take your measurements and will then alter the basic style to suit your body-type. Other manufacturers offer a computerized version of the same basic service in many of their fancier stores.
Perhaps I’ll try it one day. But for now, I’m happy with my mix of low-end Bangkok and high-end Barneys. I like the feel. I like the look. I like the implied democracy—jeans should be classless. And I like the timelessness. They wore blue jeans long before our parents were born. And they’ll wear them way after our children have gone.
Write to Vir Sanghvi at firstname.lastname@example.org