Jan. 20, 2011 — -- Canadian college student Josh Le has redefined distressed denim by turning his own pair of jeans into a science experiment, wearing them for 15 months without washing them.
"You break it in and it becomes a second skin," Le said. "There's no other pair like it in the world. You wear it like a canvas and paint it with your life."
As Le headed back for his second year of study at the University of Alberta in September 2009, he bought a new pair of jeans for the new school year. Le paid $165 for a pair of Nudie Jeans. He chose a completely untreated pair of denim called raw denim.
Le certainly got his money worth. He wore the jeans 330 times without washing them between September of 2009 and December of 2010, he said.
While sitting in an introductory to textiles class, he got the idea to turn his denim into an experiment.
"My professor mentioned that she researches on textiles and bacteria, so it piqued my curiosity there," Le said. "I half jokingly said we should do a bacterial analysis on them [Le's jeans] and that's where it sort of started."
The dark denim jeans lightened, creases sprouted, holes popped out in the thighs of the jeans, below the pockets. The jeans had an adventure of their own, dealing with the freezing temperatures of Edmonton, Canada, to the heat of California and Mexico when Le traveled there.
"Wearing a pair of jeans every day, for one thing, it takes away the stress of what to wear in the morning, sometimes I even slept in them to help accelerate the fading process," Le said.
Le documented the evolution of his jeans on Facebook and in a YouTube video.
The 20-year-old student carried around paper towels to dab out stains.
"One time I was eating grapefruit, I'd finished the meaty part and was drinking juice and spilled it on my jeans, my heart stopped for a second," Le said.
He got the stain out and said it didn't leave an odor. Still, Le knew that his choice to wear the same pair of jeans day in and day out might raise eyebrows.
Josh Le Did 'Smell Test' on Jeans
"If you don't wash your clothing, it raises questions. I was very careful with odor. I did the smell test in the morning," Le said.
If the jeans smelled, he might stick them in the freezer overnight or let them hang for a few hours.
His parents never quite understood what he was doing.
"My parents, they're a bit old-fashioned," Le said. "My dad's words were, 'Back in my day, people washed clothes after each wear.'"
After 15 months and one week, the time came to test the jeans. He enlisted the help of his professor, Rachel McQueen.
"I've been very impressed by Josh," McQueen said. "He's very inquisitive and this sounded like a fun project."
She and Le first swabbed the jeans before washing them. Then they washed the jeans and let him wear them for 13 more days, similar to a more normal amount of time between denim washes, and tested them again.
"There did not appear to be differences in the bacterial carriage depending on whether the jeans had been worn for 15 months or only 13 days," McQueen's findings read.
The bacteria present on the jeans came mostly from Le's skin and was not harmful, McQueen said.
Le and McQueen stress that their research isn't scientifically sound because of its small scale but, McQueen said, not washing jeans after every wear is good for the environment and good for your jeans.
"I personally think 15 months is a bit long," McQueen said. "It's better not to wash your jeans after each wear. It takes wear and tear on your jeans. By not washing frequently, you're extending the life of the jeans."
Notable denim maker Levi Strauss did a life cycle assessment on its denim and found that consumers can help decrease their energy use by washing their jeans once a month, instead of once a week. That move reduces energy use by about 40 percent and water use by about 35 percent.
For Le, he has already moved onto another pair of jeans.
"My brothers bought me a new pair for Christmas," he said. "They knew it was what I wanted. They are unwashed since I started wearing them Jan. 1."
This time, Le is competing with a friend to see who can wear their jeans the longest.
"The saga continues," he said.