More of the Curatory’s square footage is devoted to assemblages of worn wood, old machine parts in glass jars, and spools of thread than to clothing and accessories. There’s a vintage guitar amp next to a fiddle-leaf fig tree, a metal scale weighing a paper airplane against two pinecones in an inscrutable moral judgment. Next to it sits a trucker cap printed with ginkgo leaves for $55. There’s no music playing, but there is an old piano in the middle of the store. A small brass plaque invites the customer to play a tune—“if you are good.”
Though there is clothing, jewelry, bags, and wallets for men and women alike, the space is calibrated toward the masculine. The Lodestone brand candles bear scents like Bonfire and Resin and Forest Hunt. Besides denim, brown leather is the most popular material, followed by the earth-toned canvas of a few sturdy bags. The walls are painted black, although the large windows let in enough light that the space still feels airy.
As I leaf through the women’s clothing rack (a tailored chambray dress for $425, an oxford shirt made of the most delicate white cotton for $225), two young men enter and begin to browse. Their outfits are simple but pristine, anchored by crisp white tees. One wears black jeans, black low-top Chuck Taylors, and a blue denim jacket. The other’s jeans are sandblasted to a pale blue, cuffed to show off space-age-looking orange and white sneakers. Their hair is shaped into stylish halos. As they look through the jeans, the woman at the desk asks if they’ve been there before. They haven’t, the man in the black jeans tells her, but they like limited edition things. The woman explains how every item in the store is numbered, each a unique object within its run. The jeans are even signed with the Sharpied mark of the jeansmith who sewed them.
I try on a pair of women’s jeans in the largest size they make, hoping they won’t be too small—Raleigh does not court the plus-sized customer, and I hover at the edge of this honorable distinction, depending on the brand. The two curtained dressing rooms are in the back of the store, by a brown leather couch and a reclaimed-wood-and-iron coffee table sitting on a muted floral rug. On top of the coffee table there’s a wooden box full of denim scraps—the bottoms of pant legs that have been custom-hemmed.
The jeans, which have some stretch, fit. Fit well, even. There isn’t a mirror in the dressing room; by design, it seems, I have to step into the faux living room to check out my reflection. As I’m contemplating whether the pants lift my rear as promised, the two young Black men leave the shop and two older white women enter. They are excited to tell the woman at the desk that they’re here from California, just visiting, just exploring, just saw the shop and decided to drop in. This leads the woman at the desk to explain about the specialness of the denim, about Cone and White Oak and Vidalia, about how the owners used to have a shop in New York before they moved back to Raleigh. I am robbed of the chance for the desk woman to tell me how good the jeans look and to convince me to buy them, which is for the best because I can’t afford them.
But then, what does it mean to be able to afford them? What is a fair price? How much of that $225 goes into the jeansmith’s pocket? As it stands, a pair of $225 jeans would send my checking account into the red. If not today, then when my next autopay bill hits. Of course, I could put it on a credit card, pay it off over a couple of months, and if I wore them twice a week for the next three years . . .
The loud voices of the California women and the lack of positive reinforcement from a sales associate help keep my impulses in check. I dart back into the changing room and remove the jeans. But I do make a purchase before I leave: a small cardholder for $18. It’s not a proper wallet, just a rectangle of leather with the company’s logo pressed into it sewn to a rectangle of Cone denim, open at the top for sliding in a few IDs and debit cards. I pay the woman at the desk and leave, tucking my money between the leather and the denim as I head through the lobby and back to the quiet street.
The tattooed shopgirl, the young Black trendsetters, the California tourists—I doubt any of them would feel they had much in common with the more conservative members of the Cone Mill Villages Facebook group. Neither do they have much in common with the original blue jeans wearers—gold miners and ranchers who bought the dungarees because they were cheap and sturdy. But this idea of work, preferably hard manual work, suffuses the denim with a certain magic. You worked hard for what you have. A hard worker made these jeans, and these jeans can handle hard work, in the case you should have to do some.