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Trending / October 2020

Sustainable Denim and Conscious Consumption

You’re reading SecondHand Stories, our series that examines the relationship between sustainability and style. In honor of the Levi’s® SecondHand launch, we’re sharing interviews and firsthand narratives from influential leaders who are bringing awareness to climate change, conservation and social justice issues.

Rachael Wang is a New York-based stylist, creative consultant, and ethical fashion advocate. Here, she sits down with Callia Hargrove, founder of Backstory Consulting and CD Denim, for an open conversation on the beauty of secondhand denim, social justice and how anyone can become a more responsible consumer.

Rachael Wang in vintage Levi's® 501® jeans.

Callia: You have one of the most enviable vintage denim collections, and your secondhand Levi’s® are especially impressive. How’d you get started collecting vintage denim?

Rachael: When I was in middle school, my mom got really into antiquing. Without much else to do, I joined her, waking up before dawn to drive an hour or more to the flea market of the week around the LA area — The Rose Bowl, Long Beach, Pasadena — where she would haggle over old wingback chairs and light fixtures. As I got comfortable with the routine, I began cruising up and down the stalls, trying to figure out what I was into.

Levi's® cutoffs from Rachael's personal collection.

My favorite thing about hanging out at the flea market was the chatty vendors. A good story would almost always compel me to hand over my babysitting money. Most often, I found myself drawn to old jeans amidst piles of plastic toys, dusty books, records and tangles of jewelry. I think jeans tell stories about life better than any other object. I’ve been collecting secondhand jeans for over twenty years now and each pair is a treasure to me.

Rachael Wang in vintage Levi's® 517® cropped jeans.

What's the story behind your first vintage pair?

Rachael: They were a pair of 517 jeans, bootcut with a zip fly. I learned from the Long Beach flea market vendor that this particular style, with its orange tab and high waist, was from the 1970s. The jeans had previously been hemmed by hand to a cropped length which made my older brother roll his eyes and ask me if I was preparing for a flood. I was the only kid in my school wearing jeans from the seventies in 1998, and it made me feel special. 

Callia: I’ve held onto some of the same pairs of jeans since high school. How do you make denim last?

Rachael: Wash them less often and air dry. When they develop holes, learn to mend and patch them yourself. When your body changes or you want to update the silhouette, take them to the dry cleaner or a Levi’s® Tailor shop for alterations. A pair of jeans will be one of the hardest-working and longest-lasting items in your closet. The best thing we can do to reduce our environmental impact is to keep them in rotation as long as possible.

Portrait of Rachael Wang wearing Levi’s® Trucker Jacket and vintage 505 jeans.

Stack of Rachel's vintage denim

At home with Rachael and a portion of her secondhand Levi's® collection.

Callia: What got you into sustainability and how has your relationship to it changed over the years?

Rachael: In 2016, I traveled to North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the Water Protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline on sacred native land. That experience — learning about the intimate connection and delicate balance between humans and the planet from Indigenous youth, whose cultures were built on inherent sustainability — was the rally call that woke me up.

Rachael Wang in vintage indigo and white Levi's® jeans.

Callia: In 2020, we find ourselves at the crux of a pivotal time in history with so many societal issues converging. How are you reacting?

Rachael: Collectively we are experiencing trauma as COVID-19 has affected most of us in some way. Simultaneously, there is a social reckoning happening that is building upon decades of work to denounce the systems that have oppressed people for hundreds of years. It is a tremendously empowering and inspiring time. I am constantly reminding myself to stay open, stay emotionally available, to learn, to unlearn and to show up physically and emotionally. It’s easy to want to hide right now. It takes a lot from us emotionally to engage with this kind of collective work, but one day in the future, when I look back on this time, I want to be proud of the person that rose to meet the occasion. I want to be on the right side of history.

Portrait of Rachael Wang wearing vintage Levi’s® flared cords.

Photographs provided by Rachael Wang 

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