Here’s something you should know about me: I only buy cheap jeans. Generally, I have nothing against expensive stuff—over the last couple of years, I’ve treated myself to more than a few pieces from designer labels I love—but I just can’t get behind the idea of paying $200 for a pair of jeans. And it’s not just about the money: I haven’t found any premium denim brands that flatter me as much as cheap jeans.
I wasn’t always like this. In 2003, designer denim was just starting to creep into the retail landscape—that was the year brands like James Jeans and Citizens for Humanity were founded and labels like 7 For All Mankind, Earl, and Rock and Republic were starting to gain steam. That was also the year I came back to my hometown of New York City from my small Pennsylvania college where Mavi was on par with Prada and started to notice my friends suddenly looked exponentially cooler and more modern than I’d remembered.
“It’s the jeans,” my friend Alyssa said, stripping off her faded blue, perfectly snug, slightly flared pair and handing them to me to try. The brand was Paper Denim & Cloth, and I’ll never forget the feeling of looking in her full-length mirror and being amazed that my body—still hanging on to a few rogue freshman-15 pounds—could look like that in a pair of basic blue jeans. Everything looked tighter, lifted, and, well, better.
Obviously, I hightailed it to the newly launched Denim Bar (!!!) at Bloomingdale’s, where I proceeded to cough up $120 for those Paper Denim & Cloth jeans and quite literally wore them until they fell apart. I replaced the button; I had them re-hemmed; I patched the ass—let’s just say I got my money’s worth.
But as someone who’s borderline compulsive when it comes to acquiring (read: a functioning shopping addict), I found that one pair wasn’t enough for me. I got extremely caught up in the novel concept of department stores having denim bars—dozens of brands and styles in one place with fun neon signs on the walls!—and proceeded to buy pair after pair of $100-plus jeans, despite the fact that I never loved any as much as those first ones.
A few years later, with my Paper Denim & Cloth pair hanging by a thread—and my closet filled with other premium denim that never measured up—I wandered into a Marshall’s, where I spotted a pair of no-name dark jeans that I could tell would fit remarkably well. That they did—all those feelings I felt that first time I tried on Alyssa’s jeans came flooding back. I looked thinner, tighter, and again, better. They were $16.99.
Since then, I’ve never really looked back. Sure, I’ve tried on a few pairs of jeans by fashion-industry-approved labels while shopping, but—despite some great washes—I haven’t found a pair that fit my body as well as styles I’ve come across from stores like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Zara. I’m sure one day I’ll try on a pair of jeans, and they’ll look so perfect that I’ll be absolutely elated to hand over $250, but until then, I’m sticking to my cheap jeans.
Just in case you’re curious, here are the seven places I usually find the best cheap, flattering, and stylish jeans:
My all-time favorite jeans are from Urban Outfitters’ private label, BDG. I’m partial to styles with a high waist, which flatters my 5’3″ frame, and I love the selection of colors, lengths, and washes. They’re $59 a pair, but the store frequently offers denim deals where they’re marked down to $39. Boom.
2. Forever 21
One of the best pairs of jeans I own are F21’s high-rise skinnies—and they’re $12.90. Other styles at the fast-fashion emporium range from $7 to about $30, and they look just as good on me as a pair of $200 jeans, if not better.
3. American Apparel
I love, love, love the way American Apparel‘s basic high-waist jeans look and fit. I cut the bottoms off, because apparently the store thinks all women are gazelles, but they’re super-flattering and slightly retro. At around $90, these are my splurge jeans.
I find myself reaching for my $65 Topshop Moto skinnies because of the stretch—every pair has just enough—and because they come in an endless variety of washes and lengths.
5. Joe Fresh
Always packed with stylish denim, Joe Fresh has ripped-up boyfriend jeans and slim dark-wash denim for $29. I recently discovered the store also carries super-sharp raw-denim jeans for $49; they hit right at my ankle and are beyond flattering. There are also cool patchwork styles for $69, sleek jeggings for $39, and flares for $25.
For trendy jeans—I’m talking slashed, bleached, weirdly colored—I head to unapologetically trendy spots. Much of Necessary Clothing’s offerings would look more appropriate on my 14-year-old cousin, but I’ve found that the stretchy cheap jeans—around $35 a pair—fit remarkably well and look rad when paired with my decidedly non-teenage pieces like oversize sweaters, overcoats, and men’s button-downs.
Shocker: I’m obsessed with Zara. You might be relying on the retailer for well-cut Céline knock-offs or Gucci-esque pussy bow blouses this fall, but check out the shop’s denim—it’s insanely flattering, and the washes look high-end.