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A couple months back, one of our PR friends offered to send us a courtesy pair of Levi’s newly-announced 511 “skinny” commuter jeans. Being that I’m of the narrowish nature, the boys in California decided that I should be the one to try them out. I received a pair in the “chinchilla” color (they’re also available in indigo). I’ve ridden in them for a number of bike adventures and am ready to share my thoughts…read along.

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First, a bit from Levi’s website description:

Overview
Stretch fabric provides mobility and comfort;
water-repellent NanoSphere® nanotechnology and antimicrobial Sanitized® technology
Utility waistband specifically designed for U-lock storage;
higher back rise offers more coverage
3M™ Scotchlite™ reflective tape on interior cuffs provides the visibility of 500 candles
Reinforced belt loops, double-layer back pockets, and seat
Twill, 98% Cotton, 2% Elastane, 9.8 oz. – Imported

Fit & Sizing
Skinny Fit Sits below waist, 10 1/8” front rise
Skinny, 14 3/4″ leg opening
Measurements are based on a size 32W x 32L

These jeans are packed with features. The folks at Levi’s really did their homework in terms of the types of features bicycle commuters might want on a pair of pants that could go straight from the bike and into the office. The execution of some of those features, however, have me scratching my head. We’ll get to that in a moment.

The fit of the Levi’s 511 jeans is quite snug, but the little bit of stretch built into the fabric makes quite a difference. I never felt like the snugness hampered my movements. Some folks have questioned whether Levi’s addressed the inner crotch seam — and wonder how anyone can ride a bike with that seam pressing into one’s “tender bits”. The seam is still there, but I didn’t unduly notice it…but I’m pretty sure these jeans wouldn’t be my first clothing choice for a really long ride. As a concession to movement, Levi’s gusseted the crotch area for a bit extra room down below, and that helps with on-bike comfort (diagonal stitching in the photo below):

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A really nice feature of the fabric is its stain-and moisture-repellency. As we all know, the odd rain shower or chain grease stain doesn’t do well for our appearance once we arrive at our destinations, and the “nanosphere tech” on these jeans seems to do a reasonable job of keeping water and stains at bay. Don’t believe me? Check out the coverage of the Levi’s rollout party in San Francisco, as reported by the dashing Stevil Kinevil of All Hail the Black Market…folks getting stoopid, pouring beer on one another and marveling as it beads up and rolls away.

The feel of the jean fabric is one of toughness. Despite the stretch, these jeans feel durable. Of course Levi’s is known for their tough stitching and reinforcement of pocket corners, belt loops and other high-stress areas, and they didn’t skimp on the 511s. Another plus of the fabric is that it stays relatively wrinkle-free and looks “crisp” even after repeated wearing.

Let’s talk about some of the built-in features. First, the reflective cuffs: Levi’s stitched two strips of 3M Scotchlite reflective tape onto the inner leg seams of the jeans. Simply roll them up a few inches (my jeans had a bit of excessive length, as my legs are short), and that reflective tape is revealed for the world to see. It’s a nice touch, but I question the placement of the tape on the sides rather than the back of the leg. Think about this…when you’re riding at night, you really want those car headlights to illuminate you from pretty far back. And, the rhythmic bobbing up-and-down motion of a reflector as one pedals really catches motorists’ attention (that’s why pedal reflectors are so useful). On these jeans, I’m afraid that the side strips of tape simply don’t catch the light at the right angle. Yes, side visibility is important too, and we all know that sometimes such visibility is lacking in our choices of front and rear lights and bike-mounted reflectives pointing behind us. I’d like to see more reflective fabric incorporated in the Levi’s jeans — in particular, a band that goes all the way around the leg the way Betabrand’s “Bike To Work” pants do.

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The waistband of the 511 jeans has a built-in U-lock holster (sized for a Kryptonite Evolution Mini or other brands’ equivalent). The holster is situated right above the back pocket so that the U-end of the lock slips right in. That’s a nice feature if you’re not carrying a bag or other means of toting a lock around. Here’s the funny thing, though: that holster is along the same plane as the belt loops, so if you’re wearing a belt, the holster is covered. Of course, you can use your belt as a holster in that case. Maybe folks don’t wear belts these days…in any case, the holster is a neat if rather curious addition.

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Sewn into the right front pocket is a divider, ostensibly to protect your cellphone from scratches and dings. However, the combination of the snug fit of the jeans, the smallish pocket openings, and my giant hands conspired to keep me from using that divider successfully — the inner pocket created by the divider served as a “black hole” where change and small items hid. I just about had to take the jeans off to fish anything out of there! I’ve seen other jeans and pants with discrete (and completely separate) cellphone pockets, and such a pocket may be useful on a future version of these jeans.

Now, let’s talk about something — as these are created as and billed as “commuter jeans”, able to go from the bike to the workplace, I wonder what sort of workplace Levi’s has in mind? Despite the office-friendly color and the crisp-looking fabric, these still look like jeans. You won’t be fooling anyone into thinking you’re wearing snug chinos, in other words. I don’t know about you, but MY workplace frowns on jeans except on casual Fridays. In my mind, jeans should be jean-colored, and office chinos should, well, look the part by being a neutral color and having a more traditional chino cut. Perhaps I am not the demographic Levi’s intended for these jeans…I know a lot of other workplaces in the “creative class” industries have a more casual dress code, and perhaps these jeans are better suited for day-to-day wear for some of them.

The 511 Commuter jeans retail for $78. That’s a bit more pricey than a lot of we frugal commuters are comfortable with, but the built-in features and the attention to detail drives the price up a bit. I have no qualms paying that kind of money for well-made and durable jeans, but my personal feeling is that I wish these were a bit more flexible in terms of “look”…something that bridges the gap between jeans and office chinos style-wise.

I think Levi’s is on the right track with the features and fabric of the 511 jeans, and I hope that in the future they broaden their offerings to cover more commuter scenarios. I also hope that they figure out a way to make the features more useful, particularly the reflective tape in the cuffs. For now, Levi’s offers 4 pieces in their “commuter wear” line. Something less jeany and more chino-y would be a fine addition to this line. If you’re looking for a tough and durable pair of jeans that you can actually ride in, these might be up your alley.

My wife does say that these jeans make my butt look nice, and to me, that’s worth every penny!

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