A Brief History of JNCO Jeans
It’s the 1990s. You’re a cool, hip skateboarding teenager hanging out with your cool friends sipping Ecto-Coolers and doing radical moves on half-pipes. Suddenly, an adult appears and asks you to take off your pants. Do you tell your parents something strange is afoot? No, you don’t, because that adult isn’t a weirdo at all. He’s a marketing executive for JNCO jeans engaging in a little grassroots marketing, and JNCO jeans are the trendiest fashion item going. Everyone wants them—and he’s got samples.
These ultra-wide-legged jeans look ridiculous today, but back then, JNCOs were the pants that defied authority ... as well as common sense and many school dress codes.
Dressed for Success
Haim Revah was born in Morocco and raised in France. When he was a kid growing up in the 1970s, Haim, who later went by the name Milo, watched a lot of American television like Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. To Milo, America was full of extremely good-looking police officers who wore a lot of denim on the job. But that wasn’t the only reason Milo got interested in fashion. His father was in the denim sales business, so when Milo and his younger brother, Yaakov (known as Jacques) moved to Los Angeles, California, as adults, getting into the apparel game was a natural fit. By day, they studied the business. At night, they learned English with the help of a tutor.
But one does not simply get into fashion. It’s a cutthroat business with plenty of competition. So how did the Revah brothers do it? In 1985, with $200,000 in savings, they started a company called Revatex, and their approach was simple but effective. Most retailers who ordered private-label clothing and rebranded it had to wait about six months for overseas manufacturers to fulfill orders. But the Revahs owned a factory based right in Los Angeles and could fill orders in just eight weeks. That meant their customers could have them make more of what was selling and less of what wasn’t, making Revatex an invaluable partner.
The Revahs spent years making apparel that would then get another company’s name slapped on it. They were successful, but eventually, the brothers wanted something they could call their own. For inspiration, Milo turned to the Latino community of East Los Angeles, a vibrant culture he had long admired. There he found young men who favored a specific style of jeans that were wider around the ankle and hung low on their waists. In an era of Levi’s, which took a straightforward approach to jeans, Milo believed that a mass-marketed design along these lines could appeal to a subset of teens who wanted an alternative to the Classic 501s.
Revatex had a style, but they needed a marketing hook. To capture the urban feel of the jeans, they enlisted Los Angeles graffiti artist Joseph Montalvo, who went by the name Nuke, to design a logo they could slap on the jeans. They settled on the name JNCO, though it was never made explicitly clear what the letters stood for. Some say it was an acronym for Judge None, Choose One, while others said it meant Journey of the Chosen Ones. It also might have meant Jeans Company. The Revahs never addressed it because they hardly ever gave interviews, preferring to let the commercial side of the business take a backseat to what they hoped would become a hot new trend. It did, but not in the way anyone expected.
JNCOs debuted in 1993—and for a long time, not much happened. The jeans were a steady seller in specialty markets and had a home at Merry-Go-Round, where the Revahs had an existing relationship with buyers. The stores were able to target the trendy teen shoppers that JNCOs needed to become a success. But by the early 1990s, Merry-Go-Round had become a victim of its own success, expanding too rapidly to sustain business at over 1500 locations of its various brands across the country. After losing $46 million in 1993, they were forced to declare bankruptcy. By 1996, they were liquidating all of their stores and offering steep markdowns on unsold inventory, including JNCOs.
Losing their major retailing partner turned out to have a silver lining for Revatex. All of those JNCOs being sold at a discount were snatched up by boutiques, who resold them at regular price and introduced the jeans to a whole new market.
At the same time, the Revahs decided to recruit a marketing guru named Steven Sternberg, who had successfully made B.U.M. Equipment a big name in jeans. Sternberg was blunt in his assessment of JNCOs. He explained that the Revahs needed to pay much more attention to the suburban market in order to grow the brand. To test this theory, he turned to the standard-bearers of suburban counter-culture: surfers and skateboarders. If they thought JNCOs were cool, well, so would teenagers. To prove his point, Sternberg went to a surf trade show in Orlando and set up a JNCO booth at a hotel across the street from the convention. He took orders for $120,000 worth of merchandise from skate and surf shops. JNCO jeans were about to see the inside of fitting rooms all over the country.
Off the Cuff
After Merry-Go-Round imploded, JNCOs started springing up at cool mall shops everywhere, from Ron Jon Surf Shop to Pacific Sunwear to Hot Topic. Most of these stores didn’t even carry Levi’s or Wranglers. They specialized in brands that felt a little underground, with names like Menace. There, shoppers would be confronted with jeans that didn’t conform to the standard tapered leg or acid-washed look. They had logos, racing stripes, and neat silhouettes.
JNCOs weren’t adult jeans. They were jeans for teens who wanted to rebel against adults. And there were more rebels than ever. In the 1990s, 31 million teens were going shopping an average of 54 times a year and buying eight to 12 pairs of jeans annually. It was a good time to get into the teen-targeted denim game.
The secret was in the wide leg. Typical jeans have a cuff about 16 inches in circumference with pockets 6 inches deep. While the most popular JNCO style was 23 inches, the company offered versions exceeding 40 inches. At one point, you could buy a 69-inch opening, which was more like having two skirts attached to your knees. Some pockets were 17 inches deep. A JNCO leg was so wide and hung so low to the ground that the cuffs could completely obscure shoes and catch discarded gum on the sidewalk.
Many teens bought JNCOs to get a taste of rebellion, but that wasn't their only appeal: Kids compared them to shorts, saying the lack of a tight ankle cuff made the entire pair feel more comfortable. In a 1998 survey conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, teens named JNCOs the 12th coolest brand, behind companies like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger but ahead of Calvin Klein and Mountain Dew.
But the real reason JNCOs took over may have more to do with marketing than anything else. Revatex hired graffiti artists to draw on walls near high school cafeterias in California where kids could sit outside and get a dose of “subversive” advertising with their square pizza. Employees hung out at skate parks to hand out those free samples we mentioned earlier. The company also sponsored extreme sporting events and their athletes, like BMX biker Todd “Wild Man” Lyons and street luge star Sean Mallard. JNCO ads popped up in skateboarding magazines like Thrasher. The jeans grew popular in the rave scene, where Revatex hired breakdancing teams to perform and represent the brand. DJs got free pairs. The members of Limp Bizkit were courted by the brand.
In 1995, sales of JNCO jeans were reported to be around $36 million. By 1998, the company’s sales were $186.9 million. At one point, JNCOs were responsible for 10 percent of all sales at Pacific Sunwear. But the edges were beginning to fray.
Like any teenage trend, adults weren’t crazy about JNCOs. In fact, they tried to ban them. At least, some schools did.
The wide-legged jeans presented a hazard to students, who might trip over their own attire. The cuffs were also prone to being worn down, which some faculty found less than attractive to the eye. Some administrators in Orange County even believed students could hide weapons in the cuffs, though there were never any documented cases of kids stowing illegal contraband in their JNCOs.
Kids violating dress codes were generally asked to change into a gym uniform or call their parents and have them bring a change of clothes. One student speaking to The Los Angeles Times claimed he had a friend who was forced to remove their rave pants and put on pants so tight that he “couldn’t kick a football.”
Revatex had another problem that only comes with success. Copycats. Brands like KikWear introduced wide-leg jeans and took up some of that new market share. Existing brands like Lee tried a modestly wide leg, though nothing close to the massive legs offered by JNCOs.
At least those attempts were legal. When Revatex executives landed in Chicago to meet with retailers, they found some stores already selling what was supposedly legitimate Revatex apparel—but the clothing was counterfeit. Although the company hired private investigation firms to track down the culprits, they had already taken away some valuable business.
But counterfeiting wasn’t the worst of it. JNCOs would soon be threatened by the very forces that had made them a success in the first place—the changing taste of teen trendsetters.
Revatex had their best year ever in 1998, with sales approaching $200 million. Just one year later, sales had plummeted to $100 million. Part of it was the fact that Revatex had too many orders to keep up with demand, forcing some retailers to get important back-to-school stock late. Not wanting to upset their partners, Revatex wound up buying some of the inventory back.
But the real problem was that JNCOs were meeting the same fate as every trend. If something gets popular enough, it stops being cool.
When JNCOs found widespread success at major mall chains, it was hard to maintain the kind of counter-culture appeal the brand was built on. Jeans that were once endorsed by extreme athletes and seen at raves were now being sold at J.C. Penney—where, incidentally, they were very big sellers. The more kids were turned on to JNCOs, the more other kids were turned off.
Revatex tried to avoid the fickle factor. They branched out into khakis—which also might have gotten around some school dress codes on a technicality—and offered shoes and tops. They started marketing to teenage girls, which hadn’t originally been their focus. But their teen overlords were already beginning to move away from the trend. Baggy jeans were out. Drawstring and cargo pants were in. Pacific Sunwear was one of several stores that had to eventually mark down JNCOs just to clear out their inventory. At Gadzooks, the $48 to $58 jeans were lowered to $29.99. The skate aesthetic had been overcome by Polo and Tommy Hilfiger.
The real blow came from no less an authority than Cindy Levitt, a merchandise manager for Hot Topic, who said the chain began to worry when JNCOs started showing up in other storefronts. They were, in Levitt’s words, “uncool,” which must have pierced JNCO devotees like a knife in the heart.
By 2001, Revatex had closed their massive 10,000-square-foot factory in Los Angeles, shifting much of their production to local contractors. By 2003, the Revahs had largely stepped away from JNCOs, with different licensees reviving it periodically over the years. But in 2019, Milo Revah returned to the brand and relaunched it with the help of his daughter, Camilla, offering a line of products up to a classic 50-inch leg in an effort to capture an older and possibly more nostalgic customer.
But why did JNCOs resonate in the first place? They actually had a practical application—if you were a skateboarder. The jeans could easily fit over kneepads or Rollerblades, making them easy to wear if you wanted to skate in stealth mode. But for most kids, they didn’t have any gear to hide. They just wanted to adopt what they perceived to be the style preferred by those on the outskirts of society—or at least the fun, relatively safe section of the outskirts that appealed to suburban teens. The more adults complained, the more kids wanted to wear them. JNCOs were just the latest in a long line of fashion trends, from bobby socks to bell bottoms, that announced a kid had their own identity and could make their own choices. JNCOs may have looked silly to some, but that’s exactly the reason they felt so right to others.
This story has been adapted from an episode of Throwback on YouTube.