My Visit with the Willie Wonka of Denim: SwissJeansFreak
People have always been hard for me.
I’ve never been at ease in large groups of people unless, oddly enough, I’m standing in front of them talking. Free form happy hours and networking events give me cold sweats. I never understood as a kid that boys communicated love through ribbing and jokes. I’m also selfish and I can lack enough empathy to feign interest when I should and there’s probably a lot of weird narcissism mixed in there too.
This is a roundabout way for me to say that hanging out with people I don’t know in a setting where I don’t have a very defined role—interviewer, teacher, employee, employer, speaker—I get nervous.
Which is kind of how I was feeling standing on the sidewalk in Zurich in May of this year waiting for @SwissJeansFreak, Ruedi Karrer, to show up and take me up to his Jeans Museum.
I really should have known by now that the world of denim nerds is full of very kind people and Ruedi, the best ambassador for this hobby (obsession?), is one of the kindest. But, old habits die hard.
Ruedi eventually arrived on his bike and we climbed a few flights of stairs to the Jeans Museum.
The Jeans Museum isn’t so much a museum right now, as it is two rooms filled with yards and yards of fabric and years and years of memories. The main room is piled high with stacks and stacks of jeans. Some are crisp and stiff. Some have been worn within an inch of their lives, been repaired and worn back out again. Ruedi swears there is a system. I almost believe him.
The walls are hung with jackets and jean advertising paraphernalia. My eyes are immediately drawn to a Blue Bell Wrangler jacket. The words Wrangler Jeans Shirts are embroidered on the back in a vibrant, canary yellow. It’s a beautiful jacket. I see jeans from old favorites and European brands I’ve never heard of. Ruedi picks up jeans, unfolds them, tells me their story, shows me details and refolds them. It’s a lot to take in.
It is wonderful.
Someone, soon, will hopefully start a proper crowdfunding effort or funding drive or something to get Ruedi the space his collection deserves. As we’ve seen, all too recently, this history can fade away if an effort isn’t made to preserve it.
And what Ruedi is doing needs preserving.
Because he’s doing more than collecting jeans for travelling exhibits or building a world class collection that chronicles the history of denim pants and jackets. He’s doing all that, but he’s doing a lot more.
Ruedi’s collection is a time capsule. It’s an oral history told through warp and weft. Calling his museum just a museum is like saying your favorite pair of jeans is just a pair of jeans. Hell, even people who don’t care about loom tension, hidden rivets and chainstitching can trace their youth through a pair of blue jeans.
Which is why Ruedi’s collection is important. His jeans are worn by normal people. They aren’t archival pieces dug up in dustbowl mines that Levi’s will deconstruct, recreate and paint to sell for $500 a pop.
These are jeans worn by a Japanese fella Ruedi chased down and convinced he should trade his beat up and perfectly worn jeans for a fresh pair. These are jeans that Ruedi wore as a teen. These are jeans that have been mailed in from all over the world representing the big brands like Lee and Wrangler and the one-man shop artisans like Roy and WH Ranch, the Japanese heavy hitters and every questionable 70’s and 80’s and 90’s choice and every goddamn style decision you made when you were 17 and thought you were hot shit that you look back on now and laugh about.
The collection also contains a pair of jeans worn by a very lucky American who thought he’d never make it through college, never see the world, never get to work as a writer and never, ever get paid money to write about clothes because he just couldn’t leave Switzerland without leaving Ruedi his Mister Freedoms (there’s that narcissism again.)
Ruedi’s Jeans Museum is a treasure— even if you’re not a jean nerd who wanted nothing more than to dive into it like Scrooge McDuck and backstroke on a 14 Oz wave of blue gold. It’s a treasure because the intent, and the man, behind it are pure and good.
If you’ve ever posted a photo in the Instagram denim world, you’ve probably gotten a comment from Ruedi. It was, most definitely, a positive comment about what your jeans were or what they were going to become in a few months, years, decades. Ruedi is not a person who has a social media presence and a real life presence. He’s as kind and stoked and awesome in real life as he is on Instagram.
The Jeans Museum is a realization of passion. It’s the energy and care and community that Ruedi has manifested. Let’s all just hope it is preserved properly for the next group of clothing nerds who have problems around people but can find a pair of pants that makes them feel invincible and realize that this whole clothing thing can be about craft and care and evolution.
Benzak made a great video about the Jeans Museum: