They appeal to our need to be of-the-moment and, now, fit even better.

MIAMI – We – the only clothed species – have been down this road before.

We have lived quite well with something woefully plain, painfully practical, only to have those really important people in pop culture – celebrities – take a liking to our ordinariness, and then somehow, magically, the normal gets designerized and suddenly what we love is cool and hot and pricey.

Remember when coffee was Folgers and a house named Maxwell, before there were hip places to drink it and poetry was the only other item on the menu? Remember when cell phones were as heavy and uncivilized as bricks, before they added cutesy colors, soundtracks and digital eyes?

Staple of the wardrobe

Well, now, it’s our pleasure to introduce the newest darling in the fleeting world of pop culture, only it’s not really new. It’s the return of the designer jean, which appeals not only to our need to be of-the-moment, but to our need to look good. More than 150 years after the dawn of Levi’s, two decades after we sat on Gloria and Calvin, Sergio and Jordache and well after the Gap craze, the ubiquitous blue jean has gone decidedly upscale. The price matches the status: They start at around $100, hit $200 and can top $300, given the proper pedigree.

“We are in an era in which designer jeans are a staple in the wardrobe,” says Hope Greenberg, fashion marketing director of the shopping magazine Lucky. “Jeans have cleaned up, they fit better, they are sexier, they have gotten fancier.”

A ‘must-have’

A-listers who traffic in the glossies are as likely to wear these designer jeans as any beaded number. Britney Spears sports Von Dutch jeans. Jennifer Anniston doesn’t leave home without her Earl Jeans. Same goes for Gwyneth Paltrow, who prefers dark-wash Seven For All Mankind. Even Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who oozes old-world elegance, was so smitten with the Diesel brand, he had the company design denim pieces for his own Gallery collection.

“Right now, these designer jeans are a must-have. It’s not even which jeans as much as how many you own,” says Yosef Amuial, owner of Astoria Couture boutique in Miami.

As a commodity, designer jeans (for men and women) are appreciating in the fashion stock market, as its profile gets higher, less casual, more sophisticated. These days, a pair of urbane blues goes a long way, good for work on days other than Fridays, a funky alternative for a night on the town, even appropriate for cultural haunts like the theater (though we strongly suggest anything after five be worn with stilettos and a fab top, to avoid the slumming effect).

Uniform of laborers

Every generation has made the jean its own. In the 1800s, they were utilitarian, the uniform of coal miners and farmers and other laborers. In the 1940s, they made their casual debut as the weekend wear of World War II soldiers. A decade later, jeans finally began to flirt with the ambiguous concept of hip. They were the look of the juvenile delinquents (the gangstas of their day) and the uniform of choice in cowboy movies. Both looks were personified by James Dean, who wore them as a semi-delinquent in Rebel Without a Cause and a semi-cowboy in Giant.

Enters fashion world

By the 1980s, jeans had made their unlikely entree into the fashion world. They became the uniform of the overtly sexy (remember a teenage Brooke Shields’ promise that nothing gets between her and her Calvins?).

This season’s lineup includes Diesel, Miss Sixty, Seven For All Mankind, paperdenim&cloths, Citizens For Humanity, Earl Jeans, Juicy Couture, even Levi’s Type 1 – all of which have codified cool and thrust denim into cult-cum-celeb status. Let the boldface names explain.

“It’s really not rocket science. The new jean is super hip. You can rock it with casual with a T-shirt and or dress it up with leather,” says rocker Tommy Lee, who dropped into New York Fashion Week for a primer on tomorrow’s looks. “That’s all I wear, jeans.”

Michelle Statler, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., happened upon a pair of Earl Jeans at a store earlier this year. She wasn’t familiar with the brand, but she soon became a believer.

Wooed by the fit

“I would go out and see all these chicks in jeans that were dressy. They wore funky tops with them and high heels,” says Statler, 26, who works at a telemarketing company. “I think I was most impressed with how the jeans fit me. They are low and flare at the bottom, but they fit like slacks.”

It’s the same story all over: Denim fans are first wooed by the brand or the look, then fall in love with the fit.

Mostly because this generation of jeans is comfortable, made from softer twill; the lines are clean and modern, in some cases straight and narrow; and the fit is tailored.

“When the designer jean came back, it was a denim that had a feminine fit and came across sexier and upscale,” says Greenberg, of Lucky mag.

She says that despite the spotlight on pricier brands, the look can be achieved with less expensive brands, particularly low-cut offerings by Gap, Levis and Express jeans.

“The key to buzz about jeans right now is the fit,” Greenberg says.

Today’s designer jeans, like Starbucks coffee, have their own code. You need to know how they ride and rise, hug tight, how they can play peek-a-boo with the private parts. As such, they come in low rise, super-low, borderline porno low (our own term), groover, rockout, dark washed, light washed, distressed, whiskered and frayed.

The story of Diesel, the Italian propagators of the $100-plus, fast-forward jean – speaks to this moment. The company has been around 25 years, mostly as an anti-establishment fashion house. Today, the brand is ubiquitous, on racks in department stores, in outlets and boutiques. It opened 41 new company stores in 2002 with 30 more planned for 2003.

The demim collection is a huge part of the offerings at the Astoria Couture boutique.

“We are always looking for what is the most edgy, so we carry brands like Von Dutch, Citizens for Humanity, Blue Colt,” says Amuial. “People want to look like the celebrities so they are looking for nice fitting jeans with a little flare at the bottom to pair with a T-shirt. The look works.”

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