Summoning the jean genie
Despite recent crazy designs, most celebs are opting for the no frills straight-leg denim look. But finding a pair that flatters can be a form of sweaty hell. That's why Meadhbh McGrath called on fitter Julie Allen
This year has seen the fashion world launch an attack on denim. No longer content with skinny, straight or flared, we've had distressed bell bottoms slit up to the knee, extreme oversized double denim and 'bare butt' jeans with a zipper running up the backside by cult French brand Vetements.
Just when you thought you'd seen it all, along come 'thong jeans', which made their catwalk debut in designer Thibaut's spring-summer 2018 collection at Tokyo Fashion Week. Worn over a nude bodysuit, the front and back panels of the legs were completely removed, leaving nothing but the seams and an uninterrupted view of the model's rear end.
It's difficult to keep up with the ever-more ludicrous denim trends, especially when most of us find shopping for regular jeans a unique form of torture. But the surprise new season must-have is just that: blue, straight-leg jeans - no wild flares, no frayed hems, no double denim layering, simply a low-key pair worn with a heap of confidence. Victoria Beckham (below) opted for classic straight jeans and a white T-shirt for her moment in the spotlight after her New York Fashion Week show, and Lupita Nyong'o sat in the front row in a similarly no-frills look.
So this is the new pared-back uniform, which should be cause for celebration, but strikes fear in my heart. I loathe buying jeans. Is there anything that makes you feel more fat, squat and out of proportion than the moment you make eye contact with your reflection in an unforgiving changing-room mirror, your forehead slick with sweat from the store lights, your legs contorted, ripples of cellulite spilling out over the skin-tight waistband?
I have short legs and thick thighs, and tend to avoid jeans as much as possible. I'll buy one pair on the high street and wear them until the seams split, to avoid having to try on any new ones for as long as possible. I'm not the only one, and stores are starting to cop on to the horrors of jeans shopping. Brown Thomas has enlisted 'expert denim fitters', like a personal shopper just for jeans, who will patiently guide you through the store's 'denim bar' until you find the so-called perfect pair. When I hear about this, I'm sceptical. I refuse to believe there is a perfect jean for every person, and certainly not for me.
Nonetheless, I went to meet fitter Julie Allen at Brown Thomas Dublin. Julie is tall and slim, the kind of person I imagine could effortlessly slip into any style of jeans, even those ridiculous front-slit bell bottoms, and pull it off, so I wonder how much help she'll be to me.
The 'denim bar' houses more than 16,000 pairs of jeans, with some 250 styles, so she insists we will find the 'perfect' fitting pair. I accept I'll need to have the legs taken up (the standard leg length is a 32, and I'm a 28) but the store offers denim alterations that can be completed in an hour.
Julie begins by asking what my favourite cut and colour is, and looks genuinely stunned when I tell her I have only one pair in my wardrobe. I prefer a straight leg and a medium blue tone, and am keen to stay away from anything distressed or embellished. Like most women, I'm conscious about the dreaded muffin top effect, which seems to be particularly egregious with jeans, so I'm firm about wanting a high-waist pair. I assumed the selection on offer would be very expensive, but prices start at a reasonable €75, ranging up to €350 for 'premium denim' labels like J Brand and Paige, which Julie explains are pricier because the jeans are handmade and hand-dyed in the USA.
"It's like cosmetics, once you find a brand that suits you, you'll stick to it," Julie says. "Most denim brands have a loyal customer that comes back and won't look at anything but that one brand or style."
A brand with a particularly loyal following is Salsa, a Portuguese label that sits at the lower price point, between €75 and €100. This is the first brand I try, and she explains the sizing is different from regular UK sizing: customers often have to go a couple of sizes up because the fit is much neater, which typically results in some affronted grumbling. Julie gives me two pairs to take to the fitting room, then she scoots around the floor and brings in other options once we know my exact size.
She explains that the key to finding the right size is "as tight as you can bear them without it being uncomfortable". After a few wears, the denim loosens up, but won't fall out of shape, so it's better to go tighter than opt for a roomy pair. She often hears complaints from customers who were given bad advice elsewhere and found their 'perfect fit' jeans gaping at the back and sagging at the knees after three or four wears.
So in I go: just me, a mirror and soon we've racked up a dozen pairs of jeans. It is not pleasant. Jeans shopping is not a style challenge to take on lightly - it demands at least a couple of hours, and negotiating my way into stiff denim proves to be akin to taking a HIIT class.
"It'll never be as fun as trying on dresses or occasionwear," Julie concedes. "Women often leave here sweating."
She notes that straight-leg jeans tend to be mid-rise rather than high, so I sweat my way through a raft of pairs, a few of which Julie insists look good but leave me self-consciously hugging my waist and cringing with discomfort. She shrugs it off: "Even if the mid-rise can suit you, the most important thing is you want to feel comfortable."
The high-rise jeans on offer aren't any better - the stiff 'secret tummy tuck' effect on the waistband packages fat in a ghastly bulge at the front, while at the back, the excess fabric renders any hint of a bum utterly flat.
I begin to lose hope, until one of Julie's colleagues unearths a pair of vintage-style high waist jeans by 7 For All Mankind, similar to the look VB sported on the catwalk. It's a miracle! But what is it that makes these work and the others so unsightly?
According to Julie, it's partially because the denim is softer, so it's more comfortable on the hips, and a lot of it is down to where the back pockets sit. Some brands might use one size pocket for three different sizes of the same jeans, while other brands will tweak the pocket for each individual size.
"When the pocket is smaller, that can flatten the bum and if they place the pocket lower, especially on a high rise, it can elongate your bum," Julie explains.
Luckily, these pockets are just right. The perfect jeans don't come cheap: at €240, they're the most expensive ones I've owned, but I find myself furtively admiring my reflection for a change. The shape is good on the stomach, the legs and the all-important back side, and since the jeans have been shortened, I've been wearing them every weekend and changing into them when I head out after work - they look smart with heels and laid-back with trainers or boots, while the colour works for day or evening.
I'm a convert.