The Best High End Athletic Fit Jeans, From $ to $$$

Historically, most selvedge denim brands come in billowy straight fits and maybe a skinny fit, but neither of those fits are ideal for guys who squat heavy or are simply thicker than average. My genetics happen to only put muscle on my ass and thighs, so getting into the world of high quality jeans has been heartbreaking — many iconic brands just don’t offer the fit that I need.

I’ve written about the reasons people pay for selvedge denim jeans, which differ from American brands like Levi’s because they’re woven on antique looms, but the main reasons this kind of denim is better are that it tends to be more durable, thicker, denser, have more interesting textures, require more labor and skill to create, and they fade beautifully.

As they are often inspired by vintage styles, they tend to just come in straight leg fits. That’s how people used to wear denim, after all; they needed loose-fitting jeans to make it easier to work in, not slim fits that would be restrictive in the field. 

But no more are you confined to jeans too tight in the thighs and too loose at the waist.

What’s An Athletic Fit? It’s (High Rise Relax Tapered)

Through painstaking trial and error, I have found selvedge brands with the right fit for guys who lift, and that fit is: the high rise relax taper.

What’s a High Rise?

Men who squat have large butts, and damn it, that’s something to be proud of. The glutes are the largest muscle group in the body and they’re responsible for every one of your athletic movements, somthey need a big denim house to live in. A high rise means a high waist: the jeans sit closer to your belly button than most modern fits. If the description of your jeans says “medium rise,” kick it to the bricks.

chuck taylor deadlift

What’s a Relax Tapered Fit?

A relax tapered fit means your jeans have ample room in the thighs and then taper from the knees to the ankles. A taper, in other words, means they follow the natural shape of your body, unlike straight fits that remain the same width all the way down the leg.

It’s true that the muscular dude can also wear high rise relaxed fit jeans without a taper and he’ll achieve the goal of having pants that don’t tightly hug the thighs, but a relax tapered fit follows the shape of your legs and looks much more modern.

Funnily enough, a high rise relax tapered fit is also the ideal fit for guys who are overweight: they’ll likely need more room in the thighs and glutes than usual.

With that out of the way, here are the brands that I wear the most, in order of price.

[Related: 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Raw Denim]

unbranded brand denim

1. The Unbranded Brand (The Relax Tapered fit) ($88-$126)

  • Very inexpensive
  • Limited range
  • Japanese selvedge
  • No frills at all

This is entry number 1 on this list but it’s owned by entry number 3 on this list. The reason Unbranded comes first, though, is that it’s cheapest, and we’re going in order of priciness. The point of Unbranded is to be as no frills as possible, and they offer no wacky motifs or gimmicks: it’s just high quality, simple, Japanese selvedge denim.

In line with their what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach, the fit you’re looking for is simply called Relax Tapered Fit, which we understand is a carbon copy of Naked & Famous’s Easy Guy (below). Grab it in muted but classic hues like a lightweight 11oz stretch ($110), 14oz indigo ($88), and even a beefy 21oz — the priciest offering at just $126. 

[Shop The Unbranded Brand’s Relax Tapered Fit]

aw selvedge jeans
AW Selvedge’s raw “Tom” jean

2. AW Selvedge ($125-$175)

  • Japanese made fabric, assembled in China
  • Great price ($125-$150)

They say the AW stands for  “All Weather Workers & Travellers,” but they picked that name because of the owner Andrew Williams, a former NFL running back for the New York Giants and the SD chargers. That’s a dude who obviously knows the struggle of thick quads, and the brand is also cool for another reason:  they’re very inexpensive.

Selvedge jeans typically cost $250-$350, but you can grab yourself a pair from AW Selvedge for just $125-$150.

Their George raw jeans are 13 ounces with organic cotton from Kuroki Mills in Japan, so they have all the bells and whistles that denim hobbyists love. They also use organic cotton, which is vastly better for the environment.  Just make a note of which jeans are raw and which ones aren’t; the raw ones will shrink after the first wash, so buy them a little big and wash or soak them right away.

They’re super cheap and super glute friendly, though the price is low because while the fabric’s made in Japan the jeans are made in China. I’ve heard they’ll soon be made stateside which will presumably come with a price increase, so buy ’em now while they’re inexpensive. 

[Shop AW Selvedge’s collection here]

3. Naked and Famous (The Easy Guy fit) ($130-$220)

  • Inexpensive
  • Variety of fits
  • Huge range of fabrics
  • Sanforized, so it’s easier to find a fit in the store

Naked and Famous is probably the best known and most successful selvedge denim brand on Earth. They’re made in Canada, usually with  Japanese fabric, and if you’re reading this you’ll want to take a look at their Easy Guy fit. With a very high rise, relaxed thigh, and tapered ankle, it’s a terrific option for bigger dudes. It’s also a fantastic company because of the sheer range of fabrics they put out. Of course, they sell plenty of traditionally made favorites like Left Hand Twill, but throughout the years they have sold a tremendous number of weird and wonderful fabrics like Scratch and Sniff, Rainbow Core, milk yarn, and more — they’ve even created the thickest jeans in history.

The fits that just about all their products come in are Weird Guy, Super Guy, and (thank goodness), Easy Guy. The Left Hand Twill I own and reviewed is $130 to $160, which is great value for the quality on offer and one of the biggest pros for the brand.

[Shop Naked & Famous’ Easy Guy here]

4. Oni (The Spike Taper or 902 fits) ($240-$290)

  • Legendary OG Japanese brand
  • Considered a ‘must buy’ for selvedge purists

Let’s get premium.

Here we have Oni, an Okayama-based brand. Legend has it the founder is the son of the man who imported the denim that made the very first pair of Japanese jeans in the 1960s.

Oni is one of the very, very biggest players in this scene. On this list, they’re similar in size and stature only to Pure Blue Japan, and like Pure Blue Japan, they’re bad at marketing and hard to buy. Japanese brands tend to forge relationships with vendors, and many have maintained exclusivity with them even as online shopping became the public’s preferred method of buying clothes.

But Oni is fire. Two of their fits are best for the thick thighed: the 902 fit (which I own in black) and the Spike cut, which has a higher rise and slightly more aggressive taper, giving the illusion of a slim fit while still having a lot of room in the thighs. Keep an eye on the rise, though; I almost got sucked in by the 640 Relax Strong Tapered cut, until I saw it described as “perfect for those who are looking for a youthful low-rise.” Ick.

Oni’s not super cheap, but are reasonably priced for Japanese denim, which usually runs over $300. My pairs have all run under that threshold.

 [Denimio’s Pure Blue Japan collection — “STRIDEWISE” gets a 10% discount on your first order]

[Redcast Heritage’s Oni collection — “STRIDEWISE5” gets a 5% discount]

5. Pure Blue Japan (The 019 fit) ($250-$320)

  • One of the most popular and well respected Japanese brands
  • Fantastic attention to detail very clean stitching
  • More experimental than more traditional brands

My personal favorite is Pure Blue Japan’s 019 fit. My most worn and most faded pair of jeans among all the ones I wear is the NP-019, so named because it’s wondrously neppy, a term that means the jeans are somewhat bumpy and fuzzy to the touch — “nep” refers to bits of cotton poking through the fabric.

I own two pairs of 019 jeans, the other is an intensely light blue called the BG-019.

pure blue japan bg019

It’s indigo weft and grey warp, and I want to wear them enough that the brightness mellows out a bit.

Pure Blue Japan is an extremely popular brand which means it’s available in a huge range of stores, though my favorites are Redcast Heritage and Denimio, where you can get discounts!

 [Denimio’s Pure Blue Japan collection — “STRIDEWISE” gets a 10% discount on your first order]

[Redcast Heritage’s Pure Blue Japan collection — “STRIDEWISE5” gets a 5% discount]

6. Tanuki ($285-$350)

  • Melds tradition and streetwear
  • Modern fits
  • Great customer service

My favorite luxury denim brand is Tanuki. They’re a newer Japanese brand with some really interesting denim, and almost everything they do is high-rise relax taper. 

That’s because Tanuki has a streetwear bent to their brand, and that fit is becoming increasingly popular among the cool kids in Tokyo. Apparently, the city’s skinny guys are attracted to billowing thighs and strong tapers for some reason, but that fit also is great for dudes with bigger thighs. So this is an entire brand you can pretty comfortably browse around, and the best part is they sell everything on their website and they have a native English speaker running their Instagram and customer service so they’re actually responsive to queries, unlike Oni and Pure Blue Japan. It’s disquietingly rare in the world of selvedge denim, where many brands like to cultivate mystery and opacity.

For more on this brand, check out my reviews of Tanuki’s $660 jeans and their bright blue Kaze denim, which I admit I got a couple of sizes too big.

[Grab the lowest price on Tanuki at Denimio, where you can get 10% off with the code STRIDEWISE when you make a new account]

iron heart 888 fit
via @f31_hyc on Instagram

7. Iron Heart (The 888 fit) ($310-$475)

  • Thick, sturdy
  • More focused on smoothness and toughness than character and gimmicks
  • Free lifetime repairs

Iron Heart is an absolutely legendary Japanese brand. They’re not known for the most inventive denim — you might consider them the opposite of Naked & Famous — but they are known for extremely sturdy, durable, tightly woven denim that would fit in with a gang of greasers in the 50s.

My first pair of Iron Hearts were the 633 fit, a straight tapered fit that didn’t have enough room for my quads. Enter the newer 888 fit, which I recently purchased in black, and I’m in heaven. The rise is higher, the thighs are looser, and the taper isn’t as dramatic as some other brands like Tanuki’s, making it a more democratic fit that’s sure to be popular. I just purchased 14oz denim, but Iron Heart is well known for their armor-like 21oz denim. This should be your go-to brand if you want to start wearing heavyweight jeans. 

[Shop Iron Heart’s 888 fit here — just make sure you’re not clicking on the slim tapered 777 fit!]

united overalls jeans

8. United Overalls Co (The ED-1 fit) ($430)

  • 100% English milled and made selvedge denim brand
  • Soft and comfortable raw denim, quick break-in
  • Tiny, independent brand — worth supporting!

I had the pleasure of meeting Tom Lyons, the brains behind this brand, during a recent trip to London. Like AW Selvedge, United Overalls is small and underground, but to a greater degree — Tom still has to work his day job to pay the bills and they only sell one fit: The ED-1.

Fortunately, the ED-1 is a perfect fit for guys who lift or anyone who wants a modern looking pair of jeans: high rise, relaxed thighs, gentle taper.

This brand is worth knowing about, particularly because they’re as British as you can get. The denim isn’t milled in Japan but rather in London, and the jeans are constructed from a 14oz, 100% cotton selvedge denim woven by Hewitt Heritage Fabrics in London on a 1950’s Northrop Loom. Finally, it’s assembled by Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, who I filmed a short documentary with that’s being released later this year. The ED-1s even have WWII Laurel Wreath style buttons,  they give you a matching denim face mask, an extra patch in case you need to do repairs, and they’ll hem them for free.  The only downside to all that Britishness is the British price: they’re £320, or almost $430. 

British selvedge. It’s a thing if you want it.

[Shop United Overalls Co here]

Raleigh Denim Workshop
Image Source: Raleigh Denim Workshop Website

9. Raleigh Denim Co: Grahm Work Taper Fit

  • Small company
  • Made in America
  • Uses proprietary denim
  • Chain stitched hem that will develop roping

Raleigh is a very small jean manufacturer from Raleigh, North Carolina. They design their jeans in-house and make them all in the States using high-end denim, including their proprietary fabric called Original Denim.

They also have a laser-like focus on details. Everything from the hand-stamped leather patch to their shaped pockets supposedly makes your butt look good. They use a Union Special 43200G to chain stitch hem. Chain stitching is desirable because it makes roping — twisting on the hem after being washed. The Union Special is one of the first machines that create a chain-stitched hem.

They’re great jeans, not cheap, but excellently made. They have extra room in the waistband, thigh, and a tapered leg that works better for guys with muscular builds. 

[Shop Raleigh Denim Co Here]

Honorable Mention: Studio d’Artisan (The G-3 or G-003 fit)

  • Sturdy, durable, thick denim
  • Partly lined pockets
  • Good for cold weather
  • Great and unique fade potential

Lastly, I want to give a shout out to Studio d’Artisan for their G-003 fit, which was my first pair of raw denim. I had to shrink them in a garbage bag of hot water because I didn’t have a bathtub.

It’s got a very high rise and very roomy thighs, and they’ll always have a place in my heart. Of all these brands, they’re the hardest to find and you can’t buy from their website, plus they have fewer people stocking them than Oni and Pure Blue Japan. So they’re here more as a bonus entry in case you happen upon them, because they can be tough to source. (If you really want to try, start at Denimio and Self Edge.)

studio dartisan denim jacket

Wrapping Up

That’s it, guys. If you’re a bigger and/or athletic dude and you want a durable pair of quality jeans that will last for years and look better with each passing day, one of these brands will definitely work for you. Leave Levi’s and American Eagle behind and get some jeans that are made like they used to be. 

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Nick English

By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places.By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots.Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: [email protected]

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