The Best Vintage Jeans—Plus Recycled and Upcycled Denim—to Shop in 2021

·6 min read

In 2021, shopping for denim means sorting through some of the best vintage jeans and upcycled denim options; because if you’re going for that vintage-look, why buy new? It’s boom times for pairs of all-American Levi’s (which remains the most in-demand denim brand on the planet), while the hunt for runway relics of designer denim sourced from across the globe is real. Below, we’ve done some of that legwork for you, with vetted Etsy sellers and hard-to-find pieces unique to their era—like an ’80s Azzedine Alaïa denim moto jacket, or 1995’s colorful, cigarette-slim Versace jeans that are somehow stripey on the front and jazzy on the back.

Investing in vintage jeans becomes especially appealing once one takes a step back at the scope of the industry and factors in the environmental impact of denim production. According to the National Resources Defense Council, producing a couple of pounds of new cotton (the main fiber in denim is known as a “thirsty crop”) requires almost 8,000 gallons of water. That’s a hundred times as much water as it would take for the same weight in tomatoes. Next, the dying and distressing processes specific to jeans require even more water, more toxins, more energy, more waste. When said waste is so often created in an effort to make denim look like it’s vintage, going directly to the source starts to make sense.

Of course, the term “vintage” has become rather flexible. Technically, twenty years need to pass for an item to be considered true vintage, though nostalgia is building for pieces that are barely a decade old in our age of constant newness and abbreviated attention spans. To mix it up further, designers like Samaria Leah are creating technically new pieces by reworking old jeans, while Maison Margiela is notorious for recycled denim on the runway. The real goal is to help valuable materials live another day.

Below, the best vintage jeans, our favorite recycled denim, and some upcycled options which help to bring new life to the beloved twill trouser.

Vintage Levi’s Jeans

For vintage Levi’s jeans, there’s a spectrum to consider. Some of the best pieces to invest in are untouched 501s or ’90s boyfriend cuts that stand the test of time. Still, brands like Another Tomorrow (which notes that “extending the life of garments dramatically reduces carbon footprint and raw material usage”) and Etsy sellers have figured out a sweet spot for customers who want that look, but updated. Gentle tailoring adjustments create an updated, modern fit with the classic tag.

Levi’s 501 straight jeans

$248.00, VESTIAIRE COLLECTIVE

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Slim-leg vintage reworked Levi jeans

$79.00, ETSY

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1980s vintage Levi’s high-waisted denim short

$88.00, FREE PEOPLE

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Honey, I Got a Shrunken Fit vintage Levi’s jacket

$90.00, FREE PEOPLE

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Re/Done 1970s vintage Levi’s 501 mid-rise jean

$350.00, THE YES

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Vintage reworked Levi shorts

$72.00, ETSY

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Re/Done 90s Boyfriend jean

$350.00, THE YES

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Another Tomorrow vintage Levi’s 501 tapered-leg jeans

$290.00, MATCHESFASHION.COM

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Vintage Designer Jeans

The post-runway appeal of vintage designer jeans places them amongst the most-searched items on resale platforms like Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal. The low-slung, slightly bootcut fit of ’90s Helmut Lang feels fresh after seasons of raised waists, while Fiorucci’s Y2K collection of candy denim (which Elio Fiorucci launched as the line’s “Lollies” jeans in 1999) is designed to be folded to show not only the valuable selvage, but also an interior wash of color.

Versace slim jeans

$372.00, VESTIAIRE COLLECTIVE

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1990s Helmut Lang dark grey denim

$145.00, 1STDIBS

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Fiorucci straight jeans

$112.00, VESTIAIRE COLLECTIVE

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Diane Von Furstenberg vintage 70s high-rise jeans

$80.00, ETSY

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Christian Dior vintage logo heart pocket denim jeans

$330.00, ETSY

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Chloe by Stella McCartney Spring 2001 sequin vintage jeans

$394.00, 1STDIBS

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Recycled + Upcycled Denim

The recycled and upcycled category of denim gives way to new designs that lean on old-school materials. Chloe’s stretchy ’70s flares incorporate recycled denim, while Vika 2.0’s A-line skirt relies on 100% recycled cotton for dark-wash denim visually plucked from the ’50s. For Still Here’s jean bike shorts, the brand sourced materials from the New Denim Project, a family-owned circular textile mill.

Samaria Leah Josie lace-up straight-leg high-rise upcycled denim jeans

$240.00, SELFRIDGES

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Maison Margiela spliced-thigh recycled jeans

$785.00, SAKS FIFTH AVENUE

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Agolde Mara organic and recycled denim jumpsuit

$360.00, NET-A-PORTER

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Chloé recycled stretch-flare jeans

$385.00, SAKS FIFTH AVENUE

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Samaria Leah Simone embellished straight-leg high-rise upcycled jeans

$290.00, SELFRIDGES

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Vika 2.0 high-rise recycled-cotton denim A-line skirt

$267.00, MATCHESFASHION.COM

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Chloé braided boot-cut recycled denim jeans

$895.00, NEIMAN MARCUS

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Still Here Technicolor frayed embroidered recycled denim shorts

$285.00, NET-A-PORTER

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Vintage Jean Jackets

The vintage jean jacket is unrivaled in its unisex versatility. It’s a look worn by actual royalty and pop culture royalty alike, in every iteration. There’s something very Never Been Kissed about Moschino’s daisy-bedazzled adaptation, while Balenciaga’s bleached-out pointed collar begs for a stage.

Vintage Moschino “Love Me, Love Me not” daisy collar denim jacket

$725.00, 1STDIBS

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Balenciaga pointed collar denim jacket

$640.00, 1STDIBS

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Mugler fitted denim jacket

$795.00, 1STDIBS

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Azzedine Alaïa 1986 vintage denim jacket coat

$2500.00, 1STDIBS

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Vintage 80s Fiorucci denim jacket

$93.00, ETSY

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Valentino vintage denim jacket

$253.00, 1STDIBS

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Vans embroidered shoe denim jacket

$72.00, ETSY

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Vintage Denim Vests + Corsets

The fitted denim vest is experiencing a revival, while the corseted silhouette of the noughties plays well with the oversized shapes of the moment. Even the “tiny little vest” seen on celebs like Dua Lipa emits a casual Friday look ready for an office return. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s safety pin version nods at the Elizabeth Hurley Versace dress that swept ’90s tabloids, and Calvin Klein’s shrunken fit seems to have escaped from Kate Moss’s collection.

Vintage Jean Paul Gautier safety pin denim vest jacket

$755.00, 1STDIBS

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Vintage Jean Paul Gautier safety pin white denim vest jacket

$634.00, 1STDIBS

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Vintage 1970s/1980s women’s Calvin Klein denim vest

$50.00, ETSY

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Saint Laurent vintage bustier denim lace-up corset top

$1850.00, 1STDIBS

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Originally Appeared on Vogue