Hansen: The raw denim jeans that don't need a wash

Christopher Halbkat, the owner of Dundee Cycles, builds a bike in his shop while wearing a pair of Baldwin raw denim jeans in Omaha. Halbkat has worn the jeans almost every day for about three months.


Christopher Halbkat woke up this morning, grabbed the jeans he's worn pretty much every day since Halloween and yanked them on yet again. The jeans in question have not been washed. Not yesterday. Not last week. Not ever.

But before neat freaks everywhere label Halbkat a real-life Pigpen — before you picture a cloud of dirt trailing behind him as he walks into work — consider the following.

Halbkat is the rather fashionable owner of an extremely tidy high-end bike shop in midtown Omaha. And by not washing his jeans, he's actually following the rules.

“They look good, and they don't smell,” says the owner of Dundee Cycles. “At least I don't think they smell.”

Halbkat's jeans are made of raw denim. That's a type of denim that's not treated or washed as it is manufactured. That's a type of ultra-durable jean similar to what your great-great-grandpappy wore if he went west on a wagon train during the gold rush.

That's a type of denim you aren't supposed to wash in a washing machine, lest it lose its color and shape.

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Halbkat is one of eight Omahans taking part in the Raw Denim Project, basically an eight-month pledge organized by a Dundee clothing store to wear the same pair of jeans, take a monthly photo and convince the uninitiated that these jeans look better, fit better and last longer than anything sold at the Gap.

The underlying idea is this: Just like we can live in old houses and dance to old records and drink cocktails perfected during Prohibition, so, too, can we hang our jeans on a hook at night and then put them back on, one leg at a time, in the morning.

It isn't gross. It's American, like apple pie. Just be careful not to spill that pie on your pants.

“Yes, it's fresh right now, but these have been around forever,” says Jenny Galley who, with her sister Sarah Troia, co-owns Denim Saloon, the store sponsoring the Raw Denim Project. “It's timeless, and it's tough.”

Before we get any further, I have a confession to make:

I don't wash my jeans, either.

I became a raw denim convert and proselytizer after wandering into Denim Saloon soon after it opened in 2010. I write you today while wearing my one of my three pairs, which I tend to rotate according to whim and occasionally the sneaking suspicion that I may, in the words of another raw denim wearer, “smell like feet.”

Yes, raw denim does sometimes get a little smelly, although it should be noted that a Canadian study has proved that a pair of raw denim jeans contains no more bacteria than regular jeans repeatedly washed in a washing machine. (Thank you, Canada.)

I ward off the evil stank spirits by giving my jeans a once-a-week bath in the holy mist of Febreze.

Every six months or so, my wife and I do a ritualized cleaning that involves our basement tub, tepid water, a capful of Woolite and whispered prayers to Levi Strauss.

I do not tell Jenny about the prayers. Instead, I ask her who buys raw denim.

In Denim Saloon, two types of men purchase a pair, which tend to cost about $150, less if on sale.

There are the fashionable men, the well-groomed architects and accountants who know all the brands, follow the denim blogs and scoff at silly notions like spraying your raw denim with foreign agents like Febreze. Halbkat fits with this group.

Then there are the frumpier types, who aren't trying to make any real statement by wearing raw denim. They like it because, after a brief breaking-in period, it's shockingly comfortable. And they like it because they are lazy and don't like to wash things. This would be my clan.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

(Interestingly, the women of Omaha don't seem to have caught the raw denim bug. Jenny Galley reports that only 10 percent of Denim Saloon's raw denim sales are to females.)

A third group of men looks upon groups 1 and 2 and shakes its collective head.

Last Christmas, I explained raw denim to my brother and hinted that I could get him a pair as a present.

He looked at me like I had just suggested we kidnap Santa Claus and mail strongly worded ransom notes to the North Pole.

“You can tell by the expressions on their faces,” Halbkat says. “Their faces say, 'Buddy, why would you do that?'”

Halbkat does it because he bought his first pair of raw denim jeans nearly four years ago and wore them for nine months straight. They felt like a second skin. And now, four years later, he can still wear them. No rips, holes or frays.

Halbkat does it because he's started to see raw denim as an ever-changing thing, the clothing equivalent of a tomato planted and ripened in your garden before you eat it for dinner.

On Day 1 of the Raw Denim Project, he pulled on his brand-new pair of Baldwin Jeans, which are manufactured in Kansas City. He struggled to get them over his hips. When he did, they felt a little like cardboard.

By Day 30, he had crouched down and bent over in his Baldwin jeans thousands of times while working in his bike shop. He had managed to keep bike grease off of them. They felt comfortable and just a little stiff behind the knees.

Today, after nearly three months, the jeans feel soft. They feel loose, yet still conform to his body.

They feel like living, breathing art with pockets.

They feel like ... his.

“Some people pay big money for a T-shirt that feels old and comfortable,” he says. “Well, that's how my jeans feel. Except I have personalized them myself. These are my jeans.”

The other night, Chris Halbkat hung his jeans outside in the frigid January darkness to let them air out, same as his great-great-grandpa did.

The next morning, they went back on his legs. Back where they belong.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

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