By ERIC WILSON
WHENEVER people say, "You remind me of someone," I try to change the subject. Having been compared to Alfred E. Neuman, Doogie Howser and, during what seemed an eternal 1980's adolescence, Chip from "Kate & Allie," I fear this is a parlor game in which the cards are not stacked in my favor.
But a few years ago someone with a kind heart and poor vision suggested I looked a bit like James Dean. It was such an improbable surprise that I set out to emulate his look with white T-shirts and skintight jeans with rolled cuffs. That is, until I went looking for just the right pair of jeans. All of the stores were promoting boot-cut styles, which to me — or on me — looked like bell-bottoms.
Walking by Barneys New York a few weeks ago, I was reminded of that quest. A pair of $340 Acne jeans on a mannequin in the window were as snug as denim hosiery. Skinny jeans, as you may have heard, are back.
"After you wear them, you don't ever want to put on boot-leg pants again," the designer Mark Badgley had promised me. This spring Mr. Badgley and his partner, James Mischka, have been buying skinny jeans from labels with off-putting names like Acne and Nudie. The sudden popularity of those styles is most remarkable because they are skinny to an extreme. Some are even hard to put your foot through — or in my case, calves.
A possible reason for their unlikely appeal, as I discovered after road-testing a few models, is that the skinnier the silhouette, the easier it becomes to project another personality. But that, and the tight fit, can also be cause for discomfort.
One day I wore a pair of black jeans from a new label called Cheap Monday. They sell for $65 — hence the name — at a handful of retailers like Seven New York and Colette in Paris. The jeans stretched over my calves and bunched up at the knees like black earthworms, but they had the desired effect, drawing comments about Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and the Ramones. People stopped to reminisce about buying skinny jeans at places like Trash and Vaudeville or Lip Service.
But before long my lower back was aching inexplicably, perhaps from too much pressure on my spine, and all of the teasing about Keith Richards made my head ache (though not as badly as his). The skinny jeans had a life of their own, one that was exhausting and seemed to call for a lifestyle more exciting than spending Thursday nights at doggie obedience school.
"I have a saying that is ridiculous, but true," said Jonny Johansson, the creative director of Acne. "That is, 'Jeans are the perfect canvas for everything.' Pop culture, from the 50's with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, and every interesting subculture that has happened since then, is built on an image of jeans. It is the most generic product and the most interesting product at the same time."
There are high-concept skinny jeans from Rick Owens with seams that trace the quadriceps. There are skinny jeans from Alexander McQueen that are stained to appear as if they had grown mold; these are sold with a disclaimer that says, "This denim may leave traces of color when it comes in contact with light clothing and furnishing fabrics." The Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane, who gave wings to the louche aesthetic with his springtime homage to Pete Doherty, offers whiskered rock jeans in pale pink and pistachio, for $580.
Karl Lagerfeld's new collection includes skinny jeans sewn in Frankenstein patches, and John Varvatos designed a style that is a hybrid: roomy up top and strangling around the calves. Some feel nice for a few moments, as if your legs are being gently hugged into shape, but after walking a block, they become as claustrophobia-inducing as a fierce case of static cling. When I tried on a pair of Tsubi jeans in my normal waist size (30, thank you), I could barely button them, then turned around to discover the denim equivalent of a double chin.
After a day or two of wearing size 32 Tsubis (with stretch), I began to notice double takes from people on the street and started to feel like a pervert. The jeans stirred up body issues I never knew I had. By Friday I considered the possibility that I had become fat. To hide myself, I wore a boxy jacket and claimed it was part of the 80's trend.
"Some guys are just not comfortable being that well defined," said Alexandre Plokhov, the designer of the men's wear line Cloak. "But skinny jeans are pretty much a backlash against the boot-leg cut. When all the masses go right, a few people will go left."
For his store on Greene Street, Mr. Plokhov produced 200 pairs of a skinny style made of Japanese selvage denim with straight seams and trouser pockets that seem to magically eliminate unsightly bulges. At $390, they had nearly sold out.
Mr. Plokhov said he was surprised by the reaction, but mainstream denim makers suggest that more than a few people are going left. Greg Chait, the chief executive of Tsubi in the United States, said the company will sell $20 million in skinny jeans this year, about 40 percent of them for men. Tsubi's most popular styles, Dee Dee and Joey, both skinny, high-waist cuts, are named after members of the Ramones.
The market for denim styles with escalating prices has become so sophisticated that some companies claim to be able to predict where the skinny trend will lead. "Somewhere between October and next February, it will hit all parts of the country," said Jeff Rudes, the president of J Brand, which expects to ship more than 140,000 pairs of skinny women's jeans this year, with leg openings as narrow as 10 inches around. "This cycle is then good for 18 months to two years. It can't get any narrower than this without stopping blood flow."
I understood what he meant when I tried on the Acne jeans at Barneys. A mirror revealed that the results were not so much "Rebel Without a Cause" skinny as they were "West Side Story" unseemly. I blame the jeans.