On Tuesday, Chip Bergh, CEO of American denim pioneer Levi Strauss & Co. admitted that the jeans he was wearing while speaking at Fortune’s ‘Brainstorm Green’ conference hadn’t been washed since he purchased them over a year ago.
And people are freaking out.
“These are one of my favorite jeans—[they] are maybe a year old, and they have yet to see a washing machine. I know that sounds totally disgusting… but believe me, it can be done.”
Moderator Andy Sewer too seemed a bit taken aback, asking Bergh the age-old question: how often should one be washing their jeans then? He answered, “Not very often. If you talk to real denim aficionados, they’ll tell you, don’t wash your blue jeans.”
Sure, Bergh was clearly using his statements to plug his company—Levi’s 141st birthday, its new sustainability initiative “Wellthread” (a line crafted from fabrics that require less energy and water), and even his former employer, Tide (which he says can be used to help clean jeans, alongside a sponge or toothbrush).
Bergh’s right, it does sound disgusting. But does he have a point?
Washing denim has always been a complicated and hotly debated issue—how often it should be done, what tools should be utilized, whether or not it collects bacteria, etc.
“They have these jeans you don’t have to wash now—or so they say,” Anderson Cooper told Stacy London (of What Not to Wear fame) on his namesake show in December 2012. “It’s true!…I went to this store APC which has really nice stuff. And you buy these things and the person said to me, ‘Don’t wash them for a long time.’ They mean like six months, I think…[I’ve washed my jeans] maybe twice in six months.”
Last October, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger agreed with Cooper’s testament, admitting to TMZ that he never washes his Levi’s because he likes the “broken-in feel.” So are some of the world’s most beloved men seriously suffering from bad hygiene, or are they on to something? A 2011 study conducted by the University of Alberta compared bacteria levels on a pair of jeans not washed for over a year with a pair washed after almost two weeks of wear, and found that they were practically identical.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Rachel McQueen, assistant human ecology professor at the university, said. “What I found was just normal skin flora. The counts were really, really similar. The bacteria load from the swabbed areas were pretty much the same.”
While some myths about preserving both quality and hygiene have been debunked—like storing jeans in the freezer to kill bacteria—it’s impossible to deny that less wash equates to retaining the denim’s color, size, and shape.
It may sound gross that Bergh (and Hilfiger and Cooper) don’t throw their jeans in the laundry after every wear, but are they actually gross? No, not really. So why are we freaking out?