If your priority is comfort, look for a pair of jeans with stretch, usually accomplished by weaving some elastane into the denim. Jill Guenza, Global VP of Women’s Design at Levi Strauss & Co., suggests walking around in the jeans for several minutes as well as sitting and standing to test the stretch’s recovery. “A pair of jeans with a well-engineered fit and high-quality stretch,” she says, “won’t require a lot of adjustment after a few minutes of movement.” Just know that stretch denim tends not to last as long as straight denim.
The Best Jean Brands, by Category
Click each link to jump down to that section. You’ll see a breakdown of the brand and a few of our favorite pairs of jeans from each.
- The Big Three: Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler
- The Mall-Brand Mainstays: Gap, J.Crew, Uniqlo, Madewell
- The Reliable Upgrades: RRL, Todd Snyder, Levi’s Vintage Clothing, Supreme
- The New-School Denim Enthusiasts: A.P.C., Acne Studios, 3sixteen, John Elliott
- The Freaky-Deaky Envelope-Pushers: Kapital, Y/Project, Tender
- The Artisanal Stalwarts: Orslow, Studio D’artisan, Samurai, The Real McCoy’s
- The Small-Batch Master Craftsmen: Glenn’s Denim, Paul Kruize, Keruk
- The Designer Labels With Legit Denim Chops: Diesel, Rick Owens, Our Legacy
The Big Three
In the denim world, Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler are the most influential denim brands of all time, having (literally, in one case) invented the category and spent more than a century shaping how we think of blue jeans. As denim went from mining gear to workwear to closet staple for every human on earth, these three brands’ impact on menswear and fashion is incalculable. They’re all also massive brands, some of which have sub-brands (we’ll get to those), so knowing how to parse The Big Three’s massive catalog is crucial to getting historically good denim at solid prices.
Not including Levi’s in this list would be like omitting Michael Jordan from the Hall of Fame. Levi’s isn’t just the most well-known jeans brand on the planet, it’s the one that literally invented the damn things (way back in 1873). After all these years, they’re still the yardstick by which all other jeans brands are measured. The straight-legged 501 remains thee iconic pair of jeans, available in a million fits and rinses. The 505 has a slightly roomier thigh, a bit of taper, and a zip fly (versus the 501’s button fly).
Lee was one of the early denim pioneers, and the first to use a zipper fly. (Oh, and it invented overalls, too.) Today, the brand tends to ride on the budget side of the spectrum, with fits and washes that trend particularly dad-like. That said, Lee’s denim continues to deliver on the brand’s legacy of hard-wearing, good-value jeans.
As the name suggests, Wrangler is geared toward cowboys—and that’s not just some southern-fried fashion branding. Wrangler’s long been the official jean of professional rodeo hunks, and at one point even claimed to make the heaviest denim in the world (14 oz., if you’re wondering). The brand still lists denim weights on its website—a sign that it speaks the language of good jeans—and has since expanded into even hardier cuts. Though most of its jeans come with washes and distressing, Wrangler is one of the few brands that offers real raw denim at such a low price.
The Mall-Brand Mainstays
The death of the shopping mall has been somewhat over-exaggerated. Besides, the best mall brands are very much alive and well on the Internet, with fast shipping, easy returns, and often some eye-opening sales that include their denim. That said: not every mall brand is bringing an indigo A-game, so pay attention. Gap and Uniqlo have raised the bar on the denim you can get for under $100, while J.Crew and, more recently, Madewell are offering a wider range of on-trend fits and washes than before.
Gap’s iconic khakis commercials from the late ’90s made the mall brand a mecca for dusty tan chinos, but the brand is rooted in denim. It continues to produce solid jeans at reasonable prices while offering a smattering of more upscale selvedge options, too.
J.Crew’s jeans selection is reliably solid; its bread and butter 484 slim-straight fit is a particular standout. But look to J.Crew’s workwear-inspired Wallace & Barnes sub-label and you’ll find some genuinely great jeans with vintage details that would raise the brow of any denim connoisseur.
Uniqlo’s mastered the affordability-to-style matrix better than any other brand in its category, and it excels at knitwear, outerwear, button-ups—and, of course, denim. The mega-retailer is a consistent go-to for anyone looking to cop their first pair of raw jeans. Just $50 for Japanese-milled selvedge? Still can’t beat it.
Though Madewell’s mall brand status doesn’t quite live up to its workwear-y moniker, the company makes decent jeans for anyone looking for well-fitting silhouettes and denim with a smidge of stretch.
The Reliable Upgrades
Sometimes the best jean brands are the ones that take what you know and love, and bring it to a new level. These brands tend to raise the bar on quality, which you’ll see reflected in the price tags. They’ll use high-quality Japanese denim or selvedge denim in tandem with top-quality hardware, more artful distressing, and more minute details. None of these brands stray far from the classic five-pocket blue jean formula, plus they’re readily available both online and often at a nearby store if you’re in a city.
Is it at all surprising that do-it-all brand Todd Snyder also makes flawless fastball-down-the-middle denim? After all, the guy’s CV includes stints at Ralph Lauren and J.Crew. Plus he’s got a knack for high-quality fabrics and expert tailoring, not to mention an doctorate in Americana.
Levi’s Vintage Clothing
Levi’s Vintage Clothing is the reproduction arm of Levi’s, delivering strict, stitch-for-stitch recreations of styles from the brand’s vault. That includes hyper-accurate raw denim 501s from, say, 1944, but it also includes facsimiles of thrashed and shredded jeans picked up at high-profile auctions—with real-deal holes and patches reproduced from an actual pair of very rare vintage jeans.
The secret of Supreme is that its often the brand’s less-hyped pieces that deserve your attenion—and its jeans may be the ultimate proof. Look past the wild-style options with insane graphics splashed all over and you’ll realize that Supreme’s standard impeccably-fit jeans use some very good mid-weight selvedge denim that’s built to take more than a few nasty spills on a skateboard.
The New-School Enthusiasts
Sometime in the ‘90s, a fresh wave of indigo helped re-introduce jeans to a generation that had grown up on Silver Tabs and Gap. Brands like A.P.C. and 3sixteen became gateway drugs for budding indigo obsessives looking for a new fit and dipping into their first pair of raw denim jeans. Meanwhile, Acne Studios and John Elliott founded brands that filtered a streetwear mindset into workwear’s #1 hit. Today they’re all part of the denim establishment, in the best way possible.
For many menswear fans, A.P.C. was a gateway not only into raw denim but into menswear as a whole. A.P.C.’s minimalist aesthetic coupled with high-quality fabrics made its logo-less jeans a hit in the late 2000s, when fashion was beginning to sober up from logomania. To this day, the Paris-based label continues to produce streamlined jeans and denim products better than most.
Acne Studios is better known these days for envelope-pushing fashion, but the Stockholm-based brand opened its doors as a film studio back in the ’90s. When it started making a limited run of jeans exclusively for friends and family, the brand found its bag. Acne’s got its hyper-sensitive finger on the pulse, with beautiful washes, full cuts, and surprising details like detachable denim belts.
3sixteen’s lives, eats, and breathes denim, and the NYC brand expends a ridiculous amount of energy guaranteeing its wares trounce the competition. The brand’s specialty jeans are crafted using custom fabrics from the legendary Kuroki Mills in Okayama, Japan—a name to know as you level-up your collection, whether you’re on your sixth pair of jeans or your 60th.
John Elliott made it in Los Angeles streetwear thanks to his focus on elevating the humble sweatpant, spurring on luxury athleisure’s near decade-long dominance. But aside from hefty hoodies and tailored sweats, Elliott’s jeans offer some of the most energetic distressing around, and have been spotted on countless elite-level fashion plates.
The Freaky-Deaky Envelope-Pushers
A lot of jeansmakers like to look backwards. But some of the best jeans brands think of the 501 as Cro-Magnon denim, with so much more evolution to come. They’re combining artisan techniques with cutting-edge printing technology, doctorate-level pattern-making, and wild ideas to reimagine the experience of buttoning up in blue.
Bonkers knitwear, threadbare sashiko jackets, woven puffer vests: Kapital fuses chaos and craft into an off-the-wall fun that rockstars and NBA athletes flock to. The brand’s denim range stands out in particular for the insane level of detail and handwork that’s often hidden behind the jaw-dropping ideas. Even on a patch-encrusted pair that would make a Boy Scout jealous, the intricate chainstitch embroidery, hand-done details, and top-notch fabric prove that quality never takes a back seat to the concept.
Designer Glenn Martens decade-long run at the legendary Y/Project has yielded some of the most viral jeans of the 21st century. Not hard to see why when your jeans also look like cowboy boots. From sculptural delights to trompe l’oeil, Martens’ denim jeans are really denim creations, and feel like art school experiments in the best way.
Tender’s approach to denim does not look like most other jeans you’ve ever seen. The U.K.-based brand focuses on clothes inspired by turn-of-the-century rail-worn designs, often employing natural dyes, indigo-alternatives, and unique pattern cutting to produce some of the most delightfully off-beat (and often heaviest) jeans you’re likely to see.
The Artisanal Stalwarts
Blue jeans were born in America, but Japan has been the epicenter of the world’s best denim for decades now. An early ‘90s Americana fascination saw Japanese jean brands sprout up, each one digging deep into the century-old history of denim. From the cotton to the exact shade of indigo to the silhouette and construction, these denim-obsessed brands pursued a perfection that they (and many others) felt had been lost in America for some time. Today, Japanese denim fabric is considered the best in the world, and you’ll see it bragged about by everyone from J.Crew to Rick Owens. That said, these brands are carrying the revivalist torch that was lit some 30 years ago.
Out of the Japanese brands influenced by—or outright reproducing—period-correct work jackets and 1950s-era dungarees, Orslow is one of the most straightforward and accessible. The brand doesn’t so much revive über obscure references as it does recreate jeans ripped straight from the kind of movie scenes that litter a menswear inspo board. From mid-century Ivy-inflected slim-straight jeans to classic 501-esque straight-leg five pockets with a classic redline selvedge detail, Orslow is a jeans brand that plays the hits just the way you want them.
Gather ’round, kids, for a quick history lesson. Studio D’Artisan is one of the famed “Osaka 5,” the group name for five Japanese denim brands launched in the early ’90s that were all dedicated to reproducing vintage Levi’s with painstaking accuracy. (The other members: Evisu, Denime, Warehouse, and Full Count.) Where the other four brands expanded their missions, Studio D’artisan remains arguably the most revered because it hasn’t wavered an inch. It produces the same grail denim season after season while laser-focused on craft—particularly by sourcing top-shelf materials like super rare Suvin gold cotton.
Samurai’s aesthetic is that of a Japanese biker blasting American rock ‘n’ roll. In keeping with its love of extremes, the brand makes some of the heaviest jeans around, including some with a truly bonkers 21 oz. denim. That’s nearly twice as heavy as your average pair of Levi’s, making Samurai’s denim both a physical challenge and a badge of honor among denim cognoscenti.
The Real McCoy’s
The Real McCoy’s aims to create some of the most accurate vintage reproductions around—and it succeeds phenomenally. One example of the brand’s obsession: its denim is woven from scratch on specific vintage looms to get the right tension and texture, making them nearly indistinguishable from genuinely vintage jeans.
Ralph Lauren’s heritage Americana-inspired RRL sub-label is known as the triple-distilled essence of the menswear legend’s personal cowboy-flavored aesthetic. Where Polo exists for the masses, RRL dives headlong into obscure references pulled from the company’s bottomless vintage library. Witness the filled belt loops, hidden rivets, and throwback-style waistbands. And in the realest nod to modern denim reality, most of RRL’s jeans are made in the U.S. using Japanese selvedge denim.
The Small-Batch Master Craftsmen
The most rarified of jean brands are smaller than small-batch. They’re one-man masters of the denim genre operating at the level of a Savile Row tailor. These folks are obsessive about every part of the process, from sourcing to cutting to sewing—and tend to offer custom denim, often made entirely by themselves.
Glenn Liburd is a real-life denim legend, having worked decades in the denim industry with The Big Three, not to mention a stint at Savile Row. His encyclopedic jeans knowledge has coalesced into a brand that is truly the cream-of-the-crop. Custom, American-made selvedge denim with masterful construction, somehow delivered at a surprisingly accessible price point? Yes, yes, and yes.
Paul Kruize’s jeans are bespoke, and the not-insignificant price you pay for that pleasure comes back in details you’ll see and feel. While most other brands use a range of machines to make a single pair of five-pocket blue jeans, Kruize operates a single machine to produce his product. Additionally, he stitches the buttonholes by hand and makes sure that every seam is felled (a.k.a., covered on the inside, which takes more work). The result? Jeans that are as beautiful on the inside as they are on the outside.
No machines: just two pairs of hands, needles, and thread. That’s all Keruk needs to make a pair of jeans. It’s extremely rare for anyone to make a garment without a sewing machine, which makes these the ultimate grail for any denim enthusiast.
The Designer Labels With Legit Denim Chops
Designer denim sometimes gets a bad rap as being expensive without merit. That’s not always wrong. But a select group of fashion-first labels are spinning jeans in futuristic ways while ensuring that the quality matches the head-spinning concepts. Brands like Diesel, Rick Owens, and Our Legacy in particular prove that legit designer denim exists, and can be just as expressive of a brilliant vision as anything else on a runway.
If you’re looking for some of high-quality denim jeans with all the subtlety of an airhorn, welcome to Diesel. The Italian brand hasn’t yet met a pair of jeans it can’t warp, wash, and bedazzle into a maximalist showoff’s dream. Under the creative direction of Glenn Martens, Diesel’s denim innovations have helped put brand back on the fashion map, with its jeans regularly selling out.
Rick Owens’ dark, brooding designs are instantly recognizable, but his wild takes on jeans still manage to steal the show. To be clear, they range from very expensive to very, very, very expensive. But of the countless designer brands taking their slice of the blue jeans pie, Owens is one of the few that actually delivers on quality by using serious, heavy-duty Japanese denim to make his mind-bending creations.
Our Legacy’s eye-catching designs—the dialed-in Swedes cultivate a vibe that’s somewhere between punk and sleazy—has earned the label legions of devoted followers. The brand’s Camion boots are a big hit with fashion fiends, but the real innovation happens in the jeans department: think tromp l’oeil denim prints, slashed panels, and reflective trims.