Oi Polloi

Interview: Ruedi Karrer and his Jeans Museum

Published: Tue Jan 05 2016

This article was originally published in 2014, but seeing as there's some fairly interesting bits in it, we thought it was worth shoving under your nose once again. Slip on a few pairs of jeans and take a read...

A few months ago a friend of the shop was walking around Zurich when he was stopped in the street by a man and complimented on his jeans. As the conversation developed it transpired that this man wasn’t just any part-time denim fan, he was the owner of the world’s only museum dedicated to denim — the Jeansmuseum of Heaviest Fadings.

Upon hearing this heartwarming tale, we managed to track this devoted denim disciple down in deepest cyberspace. His name is Ruedi Karrer and here’s what he had to say…

First things first, what is the Jeans Museum?

The Jeansmuseum of Heaviest Fadings is a place where all retired but well-loved denim projects can receive an eternal life in a safe place.

By showing the power of denim evolution on faded jeans and denim jackets to the visitors, the raw denim spirit shall be kept alive.

The museum was originally located in the Swiss mountains, when did you come to Zurich?

I started collecting raw denim in 1973 in the little mountain village where I grew up.

In 1980 I moved to the University to Zurich for my studies. In 2001 I opened the first room for the little museum and after five years I expanded with a second room.

Why did you decide to open a jeans museum?

Since we received two Levis pants in the end of the sixties in a clothing donation parcel, I became a total raw denim addict. Since then I’ve kept all of my personal worn out raw denim projects.

After I learned and realized the power of strong denim evolution I was so hooked on it that I decided to keep this raw denim spirit alive by preserving many samples for displaying to visitors.

This idea grew during the 80s and 90s and in 2001 I opened the first room.

How many pairs of jeans are in the museum now?

About 7000 jeans and 5000 denim jackets from the sixties until now have been collected since 1973 as well as some books, magazines, pictures, banners and some other items.

What’s the weirdest pair of jeans in your collection?

I have an unwashed Levis lined denim jacket from the 60s with some just crazy fadings that was worn hard for decades by an American farmer in the Rockies and a pair of Big Smith jeans from the 70s that have been never washed that were worn by a Japanese student. There are other crazy customized denim jackets and pants and some hard-core worn out rags with millions of stories left in them.

You’re clearly obsessed with denim. Where did this obsession come from?

When I was young I was shy and very weak and little compared with my friends who were the same age. But in my heart I always wanted to be a rebel and I tried to express this through the hardcore looking raw denim gear. It was for me a myth — a symbol for freedom, the Hippy era and all the things going on then, but I was too shy to live that way.

I imagine you must have worn a few pairs of jeans in your time. What are your favourite jeans?

I’ve had some crazy Levis 501 redlines, an awesome pair of G-Star US Short selvedge, Wrangler 13 MWZ Pro Rodeos and some Lee 101-Z. In the last few years my favourites have become Nudie Regular Ralfs, Strike Gold 23ozs and my current pair of Iron Heart 25oz.

For denim jackets I always loved the blanket lined Lee Storm Rider 101-LJ and, during summer, the unlined Lee 101-J version.

Other favourite jeans include Lee 23 oz, Atelier La Durance, Eat Dust, Benzak Denim Developers , Pike Brothers, Tulp jeans and others on my waiting list. I need some raw denim spare lives…

How do you go about breaking in a new pair of jeans?

I start by wearing them every day in a row for about 2 years. If they’re getting too stinky I downgrade them from my office to my outdoor pants for hiking, bicycling or skiing. When they’re completely falling apart I downgrade them to my work pants out in the forest or on construction sites. At this last stage, I don’t care about them being stinky or smelly as they stay outside in the bunkhouse anyway and don’t enter the living room area anymore.

Do you ever wash your jeans?

I never ever wash or soak my raw denim gear since I like the original colour tone much more than the royal blue colour you get on washed denim. To lower the risks of early crotch blow outs I wear my stuff one size too big. This also helps me to sweat less in them and keep them clean for a longer time. I also air them a lot.

Washing your jeans strengthens the fibres and extends the life of your denim fabrics. But I don’t care about this — the colour tone is much more important for me.

Your museum mainly focusses on jeans from the 50s to the 80s, why is it you decided to focus on this era?

I started collecting denim in 1973 so there are many items from the 60s until now in the museum. Since the Jeansmuseum encourages all people to wear the hell out of their raw denim as long as possible, we are always 5-10 years behind the market.

After many Levis, Lee, Wrangler, Rifle, Lee Cooper, Lois things like Nudie, APC, Edwin, Atelier La Durance and other brands have start dropping in slowly.

I haven’t heard of anything like your museum before, is it the only one?

Besides some great brand archives like the Levis museum in Buttenheim, the Levis archive in San Francisco or the Mustang museum in Germany there are no other such places in the world open to the public. In Japan there is the Betty Smith museum with some vintage denim stuff but the Jeansmuseum of Heaviest Fadings is still the only place worldwide displaying the power of denim evolution as far as I know.

You’re based in Zurich. What else would you recommend seeing there (apart from your museum)?

Switzerland is very small. So if you have a few days plan a trip in to the Swiss Alps, do a train ride with the Glacier or Bernina Express or check out a watch museum in the western part of Switzerland.

In the city of Zurich itself check out some raw denim stores like VMC, DEE CEE Style, Hudson Surplus and Kitchener. And I would recommend checking out the old city centre area called Niederdorf and eat some local food in one of the ancient restaurants. During summer time enjoy swimming in the Lake of Zurich or in the Limmat River.

What do you do when you’re not collecting jeans?

My other big loves are hiking high mountains by foot in summer and by skis during winter. I also love mountain races and bicycling. Beside that I do a lot of forest work and other jobs at my parents little old farm.

Do you ever wear trousers?

I always wear jeans and a denim jacket, no matter if I’m at a wedding, a funeral or a business meeting.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to remind all raw denim heads to wear your raw denim projects as long as possible and never ever throw them away. Build up your own private collection. And if you do want to get rid of your old jeans or denim jackets then give your retired stuff an eternal life at the Jeansmuseum to keep the raw denim spirit alive.

In the long term I have the vision that information about this unique Jeansmuseum will be spread to customers all over the world on the care label or on an extra flyer or something similar when they buy their jeans.

The best would be if all raw denim heads would bring back their retired stuff to their stores and the stores would forward them to the museum… and of course the customers could always send them directly to the museum.

If you want to see more, Ruedi goes by the name @swissjeansfreak over on Instagram.