The skinny-jean craze represents the triumph, yet again, of fashion over the human circulatory system. The most intimidating pants known to mankind, skinny jeans squeeze the blood from the lower half of the body up to the torso, threatening to pop the head like a cherry tomato, clamping on so tight to the butt and thighs, it seems like the only way to take the offending garment off is to fast for a few days and molt the pants like an exoskeleton.
One of the last bastions of thin in a quickly fattening America, the skinny jean hit us hard in Southern California. It slinked over from the streets and runways of Paris, Sweden and Australia several years ago, established a foothold at Fred Segal, Barney’s and assorted Beverly Hills designer-denim boutiques, then made inroads in the local malls — at Forever 21, Gap, Banana Republic — and, finally, having found no more actual skinny legs to adorn, bled out into the Southland’s various Targets and Wal-Marts, where it has remained to the present, waiting to suck the life breath out of ever more new victims.
She is a cruel mistress, the skinny jean, broadcasting every bump and ripple, threatening to rat you out should you even think of splashing 2 percent milk into your nonfat mocha latte. But if you are game to make a late conversion, you could do worse than J Brand. The J Brand skinny — arguably the most coveted in the nation — comes in three different cuts (skinny, very skinny and very, very skinny) with three different sizes of leg opening, an ankle-strangling 10 inches the most extreme. It is simple, well-constructed and deceptively, deliberately plain-looking. It lets your legs and ass and $2,000 accessories do the talking. Susie Crippen, J Brand’s designer and co-founder, attributes the popularity of the skinny jean to the recent heavy emphasis on boots. Accessories are moving at higher price points now, she says, and people shelling out money for expensive boots didn’t want to then hide them away, so, short of wearing skirts all the time, they started tucking the pants into the boots.
Crippen thinks skinnies look best scrunched up a bit at the hemline with little ballet flats, or tucked into a knee-high or ankle boot, or with a platform high heel and a flouncy shirt.
“If you think of a ballerina, she has a bottom that’s narrow and a floating, larger top with a lot of movement,” Crippen says. “The top has to be proportional with the bottom and should flow out a bit. In other words, you don’t want to wear supertight on top and supertight on bottom. As long as you even it out, pretty much any woman can look good in them. Beyoncé wears our jean, and she’s supercurvy. You have to stand in front of the mirror and make sure your shirt falls at the most flattering part of your body. Higher on the hip if you’re thinner, lower on the hip if you’re curvier.”
Other fashion houses, like Ksubi, make more of a statement with their skinny jeans. There’s even a Ksubi low-rise, zip-ankle skinny-jean overall with suspenders, which is a strange and fantastic contradiction in terms. The surfer-skater-art-rocker-punk boys who design them infamously unleashed a torrent of live rats onto the catwalk when they debuted the line in their native Australia in 2000 (estimates as to the precise number of rats vary from 169 to 250). The boys also like to hold fashion shows on boats and throw the models overboard into the water, a gimmick that, in my book at least, earns their skinny jeans a trial go-around in the dressing room.
When I asked, in an e-mail, what Ksubi co-founder (and surfer) Dan Single thinks the “perfect” jean is, he wrote, both obviously and wisely, that there is no perfect anything. “Everything has slight imperfections,” he said. “That is where you find the beauty. Perfect is boring.”
Never before have we seen so many aspects of a woman’s leg — hip, thigh, calf, ankle, midankle. Never before have we seen so many types of leg either. The beanstalk Beverly Hills–mommy leg (emaciated from decades of muffin deprivation), the defiant East Los Angeles leg (meaty as a ham hock), the athletic Westside leg, the gawky, gangly, malnourished Silver Lake–Echo Park leg. Blame it on the camouflaging straight-leg jean, the storm trooper of the denim world, which made a million imperfect legs look the same.
“I don’t like those superskinny tapered jeans,” says Catherine Hart, designer of the SkinnyJeans jean. “If you have an American body, your leg looks like a turkey drum when you wear them.”
Her SkinnyJeans jeans aren’t “skinny” jeans per se. Mainly, they’re designed to make you look skinnier when you wear them, which is the more important criterion. The back pockets are placed high on the derrière, the wash is dark and elegant, the whiskering is faint and set above the natural break of the leg, and the inseams are moved forward to make the leg look thinner. Serendipitously (and confusingly), Hart bought the trademark and domain name skinnyjeans.com just before the real skinny-jean wave hit. When it did, people began placing orders like mad. Even Oprah got a pair.
Hart came up with the SkinnyJeans idea after buying a pair of 7 for All Mankind skinny jeans to wear to a party in the Hamptons. When she looked at herself in the mirror, it occurred to her that her legs could look so much slimmer if she just monkeyed around with the details of the jeans. People lie to themselves, Hart believes.
“It’s very emotional. They think they can wear tapered ankle jeans like those superskinny gorgeous girls, who look great in skinny jeans,” she says, “and instead they end up looking awful.”
If J Brand’s Crippen is the girl we idealize, the one with the flawless style we wish to emulate, Hart is our brutal, tough-love best friend who will say yes, that outfit looks great on her, but it makes your butt look big, so try this instead.
She sends me to the Linda McNair boutique on Sunset Boulevard to try the jeans on. “Of course, you want the SkinnyJeans,” says McNair. Hart is no snob: Her jeans go all the way up to size 18 (Oprah’s are a 14), and McNair carries the full range, but she has just given her very last pair to a customer with a “muscular thigh” dilemma. She indicates a wall of empty shelves. “You see these? These were all SkinnyJeans. Then the vultures swooped in. Don’t worry, we’re getting another shipment soon!”
Natasha Peay, manager of Santa Monica’s Blues Jean Bar, has great skinny-jeans war stories to tell, about mothers instructing daughters on how to yank their jeans up with hangers the old-fashioned way, or about teenage boys shamefully stealing their sisters’ skinny jeans. You sidle up to Natasha at the bar, tell her or any of the other “bartenders” what you are looking for in a jean, what color or size or style, and she suggests a few from the ones “on tap” folded in piles everywhere. She’ll slap three or four down on the bar in front of you to “get everybody’s thoughts going.”
Peay works in the trenches, so she knows that customers usually need to get their J Brands two sizes up (they are the skinniest on the market). Or that flap pockets are good for women who “don’t have too much volume in the back,” but they shouldn’t be too long, or you risk elongating your rear. She can debate the merits of ankle bunching versus not, or tell you that Justin Timberlake’s William Rast–brand jeans tend to stretch out, so get them tight.
Sometimes, when a woman is waffling, she’ll secretly stick a skinny jean into the dressing room among the customer’s other choices for her to try. “We’ve put a lot of women into their first skinnies,” Peay says. “It’s a hard transition.”
You’ll turn black and blue in the morning from putting them on, but if you can rock a skinny, you should, Peay thinks, because once you’ve got them on, you feel 1 inch thin and so, so sexy.
Over on tony Robertson Boulevard, every girl wore a tight tapered jean with a pillow-size purse on her elbow. At Adriano Goldschmied, they were hawking a crisp, taut skinny jean called “The Stilt,” made of denim so thick it seemed more like wool felt, with pant legs narrow as cheerleader-sweater arms. Across the street, at 7 for All Mankind, the salesclerk deftly managed to suppress her disdain when I inquired about their selection of skinnies.
“It’s all wide leg and flared boot cut with us for spring and summer,” she sniffed, then sauntered away, terrifying and beautiful in wide-leg stovepipe jeans that made her look like a pirate.
Just as we’re finally adjusting to the new reality of the skintight, tapered-leg jean, it appears that certain factions in the fashion industry are trying to foist upon us a new, new reality: the loose, wide-leg jean. Is the wide-leg coming to swallow up our thighs and calves — much as the skinny flaunts them — and swath us in bolts of heavy denim just in time for summer in sweltering Southern California? Or will it be simply a mutant strain of jean, embraced by few, ridiculed by many. On behalf of the population that hates both heat stroke and the added visual heft of leg-fattening bell-bottoms, I vote for mutant strain. We’ll wear clothes that make us hot. We’ll even wear clothes that make us look fat. But hot and fat? Not so much.
KNOW YOUR SKINNY
“The Skinny,” “The Pencil” and “The Cigarette” by J Brand. Three different leg openings: 10-inch, 12-inch and 14-inch. Clean, elegant, simple. No visible brand label so as not to make you look like a label whore. $158–$198. Available at American Rag, 126½ S. La Brea Ave., (323) 935-3154 or www.jbrandjeans.com.
“Skinny Zip” and “Skinny Zip Overhaul” by Ksubi. The skinny jean with a twist, for twisted rocker-surfer-skater-art-punks and those who approve of live rats running down catwalks. Available at Barney’s, 189 the Grove Dr., (323) 761-5255 or www.ksubi.com.
SkinnyJeans by Catherine Hart. They will make your butt look less big using the latest in denim camouflage and smoke-and-mirrors technology. $178. Available at Linda McNair Fine Apparel & Jewelry, 8555 Sunset Blvd., W. Hlywd., (310) 659-9880; or Bettina Duncan at Fred Segal, 420 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 394-4787 or www.skinnyjeans.com.
“Lucie,” “Roxanne” and “Sophie” by 7 for All Mankind. Get these skinny girls fast, because it’s wide legs and flares for its spring and summer line. $149–$198. Available at 7 for All Mankind, 100 S. Robertson Blvd., (310) 385-9540 or www.7forallmankind.com.
“The Stilt” by Adriano Goldschmied. Thick, rigid denim with the smallest bit of stretch to make your leg thin as a peg leg. $176. Available at Adriano Goldschmied, 107 S. Robertson Blvd., (310) 247-3222.
The Blues Jean Bar. Personal jeans shopping and consultation, private catered lunches or after-hours “jean parties” by reservation, 10 percent off purchases during happy hour, Fridays, 4 to 6 p.m. 1409 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 656-7898 www.thebluesjeanbar.com.