Denim continues to be one of fashion’s key markets, even though it has faced multiple struggles in recent years. For this special issue, WeAr has asked some of the world’s key denim insiders, including both young and established brands, fabric and fiber manufacturers, finishing specialists, denim retailers and trade show executives, what the industry could do in order to return denim to its former glory. Some answers were so detailed and fascinating that we have created a special page on our website to reflect the richness of ideas proposed by our interviewees.
FRANÇOIS GIRBAUD, CO-FOUNDER AND OWNER, MARITHÉ + FRANÇOIS GIRBAUD
Aside from the above, I have also been asked these questions for decades:
- What will replace the denim industry?
- What will replace jeans in our everyday lives in the coming years?
Jeans are the most popular item of clothing in the modern history of fashion: 6 billion pairs are produced annually worldwide. It takes 5,678 litres of water to grow the cotton to make a single pair of jeans + 70 litres to wash each pair. Let’s not forget the insecticides – 25% of the worldwide production is used by cotton growers, or the chemicals used to wash and artificially age the jeans – some of the most toxic that exist. I’ve been speaking about these facts and figures for years now, most of the industry will know them off by heart now.
We all know that petroleum derivatives, among other things, are not biodegradable. Do we want to create a continent of plastic floating on the ever-rising tides or add to the mountains of indestructible throwaway clothing? So, what are the alternatives? What resources will replace cotton or can be integrated into the existing supply chain: beans, stones, nuts, plants, stones, minerals, plants?
How are we going to be able to clothe the inhabitants of our planet and which country and workforce are we going exploit next to improve profits?
We keep going back to cotton, which, for all its faults, inspires us. It tells great stories about adventures in the open air, bikers, campers, guitars and Cadillacs… everything we’ve always wanted.
We can continue to believe that the solution is to use buzzwords such as recycling, organic, circular economy, transparency and traceability to ease our consciences. But we know all too well that we don’t have much time left and that the next generations will have to deal with the mess we leave behind!
As designers, brands, an industry, we have to accept responsibility for what we do and the message we communicate. There are no excuses today, everyone has to be held to account. The creative possibilities of jeans as a product are enormous, but I can’t envisage any real change coming from an industry in full transformation. The big fashion houses are all eager to embrace street culture and the youth market. Sneakers and jeans are part of this package, but not innovation.
Jeans have been endlessly transformed, from workwear to streetwear to luxury wear. I believe my responsibility as a designer is to create garments with long-lasting appeal that will stand the test of time and endless successions of short-lived trends. To this end, I’m working on re-establishing the practice of constructing garments to flatter the body through innovative and precise cuts, and the development of a new generation of sustainable fabrics. I’ve developed environmentally friendly methods such as the ‘Watt Wash’ to reduce the negative impact of the production of jeans on the planet and the people working in the denim treatment industry. We now have revolutionary laser technology to allow us to endlessly transform denim without destroying the planet; the only limitation is our creativity.
Modern techniques made by hand still applies to our work and we should never forget that the forefront of technology is the human touch. Our clothes are made with love for life. I don’t know about denim’s glory days, but I would like to come full circle and make workwear for today, adapted to our urban lifestyles. Jeans are no longer indicators of social class, generation, or signs of protest, they’ve become a uniform for all, from baby boomers to Generation Z.
MARK WERTS, FOUNDER, CEO, AMERICAN RAG CIE
Decline in denim?! Many years ago, I shared what I thought to be a brilliant entrepreneurial idea with a multi-millionaire, a used clothing dealer called Jim Johnson, based in Brownsville, Texas. Jim always had a toothpick in his mouth. I explained my idea to this extremely successful man, and he was skeptical but pondered a bit and then replied to me in a strong Texan drawl: “Ah shit Mark, anything’s good if ya do it good.”
Denim is fine. There is no decline. Here at American Rag Cie we’re experiencing robust sales of denim and denim-related products. Anyone that isn’t “doing it good” is in decline. Denim is a white canvas that depends on the artist who is painting on it. Paint beautifully. “DO IT GOOD!” F**k decline.
P.S. I just checked our denim sales, both men’s and women’s. We are single digit “up” in both categories. We have experienced ZERO decline in 2019. I don’t buy into self-fulfilling prophecies.
RUDY BUDHDEO, CEO, SON OF A STAG, LONDON
We are still doing extremely well with denim probably because our choice is much greater than other retailers and we have a huge selection covering all style wishes to the widest choices in sizes & lengths up to 41″ inside leg. It is important to give the very best choice in the market place & show total confidence when buying and presenting. Our staff are dedicated to having the best product knowledge because the consumer is now much more aware about manufacturing processes & we are able to offer strong knowledge how the fabric will evolve, shrink and fade.
We offer free of charge shortening on the original chain stitch machine on the spot and can even make other denim tailoring adjustments including taking in the waist, moving pockets, tapering from inseam with top stitch and meaning the selvedge is unaffected. We also have a huge choice of denim shirts and jackets in additions to the jeans category. We study our customers’ wishes and make the impossible possible. A lot of customers know that we have unique fittings on much of the stock we carry so that the same model they buy from us will fit differently if they try it at another retailers somewhere else in the world – we often have the styles recreated with adjustments in particular with the rise of the jeans and taper gradings. This means that we have to do bigger minimum orders and pay extra to our suppliers, but we have learnt it is much better to have the perfect product. It is great to also have brands which have very select distribution that include Smith-Sato-Suzuki and our own brand Soldier Blue London. This way our customers are super loyal.
JEFFREY RUDES, CO-FOUNDER, J BRAND AND CEO, L’AGENCE
Why a downturn in denim? We are missing newness. New fabrics, finishes and fits are what are needed. Regarding style, I wouldn’t change a 5-pocket classic to a fashion jean. I think the consumer always identifies with a 5-pocket. It’s familiar, reliable and she trusts them. Denim jeans are soft right now although color, print and coated finishes are doing extremely well. Today you need to be innovative and create new treatments and textures. L’Agence has everything that is working, which is why our denim business is substantially ahead of plan and why we are a leading brand in premium denim.
ADRIANO GOLDSCHMIED, PRESIDENT, HOUSE OF GOLD
I totally feel that if denim is not cool right now is almost entirely our responsibility as we have made important strategic mistakes. For many years we have been fighting for sustainability, for changes within the production cycle, from cotton to indigo, to the dyeing system and obviously the finishing. We have been pushing the envelope to the limit with innovation and technology and we honestly achieved substantial and remarkable results. The fact is that we totally forgot about and underestimated the value of design, creativity and new communication ideas. This is what makes jeans an object of desire. We should be learning from sneakers… let’s bring back new ideas and creativity – and be brave!
SEBASTIAN KLINDER, MANAGING DIRECTOR AND OWNER, MUNICH FABRIC START EXHIBITIONS GMBH
Driven by the disruptive millennium, we will soon see an evolution in denim which will be similar to what we have seen recently in sneakers, athletic gear and urbanwear among others. This will require the involvement of technological discoveries, starting with alternative raw materials – new fibers mostly of sustainable origin; or high-performance innovations, such as carbon or conductive end uses. Denim is becoming inherently more performance-oriented, with garments offering climate control features, or worn as protective items for urban mobility. Designers are already embracing new practices and techniques which make jeans smarter and more wearable. Automation will play an essential role in the jeans manufacturing process.
Combined with new ethics and environmental rules, which demand more responsible means of production and manufacturing, we will see an increase in the range of treatments created with almost zero impact. We are about to experience a brand new, brave blue world – let’s enjoy it.
FATIH DOGAN, GENERAL MANAGER, CALIK DENIM
We are currently in a price-oriented market for denim due to the sector receiving significant investment, resulting in surplus capacity and subsequently high costs and prices. The strategies we believe to be key to reinvigorating the denim market and moving away from this price-led approach are as follows.
Firstly, we need to focus on product differentiation, including value-added and sustainable products, as well as prioritizing investment in research and development. For product differentiation, it’s vital to expand the uses for denim beyond the fashion industry. In terms of production and distribution strategies, sustainability is hugely important to move denim into the future, responding to the changing demands of the consumers and the planet itself.
Then, in terms of communication strategies, we believe in the power of collaboration, both within and outside the sector; providing the power to act and communicate together, to help drive change and create a wider impact both within and beyond the denim industry – by working with universities, brands and developing non-profit initiatives.
ENRIQUE SILLA, CEO, JEANOLOGIA
I wouldn’t say that denim is living difficult times. It is true that we are facing overproduction, but consumers still love authentic blue jeans. To build a brighter future, and to sustain the blue jean legend, in Jeanologia we are working hard on 3 concepts:
- A complete elimination of water and toxic chemistry on 100% of global jeans production. Our aim is to “dehydrate” and “detox” the global jeans production by 2025. If as an industry we achieve this goal, the new generation will understand that we are still rebels and will be proud to wear jeans.
- Making mass customization a reality on blue jeans through laser technologies.
- Introducing a new sourcing model that combines production in low-cost labor, duty-free zones and finishing near the consumer in America, Europe, China and Japan. All of this is already possible thanks to technologies like laser, ‘G2 Ozone’, ‘eFlow’ or ‘H2 Zero’.
For the first time in history we have the necessary technology that allows us to make short and fast series, making it possible to produce what sells instead of selling what is produced.
GUGLIELMO OLEARO, DIRECTOR, DENIM PREMIÈRE VISION
Despite the macro analysis showing a continuous growth in the denim market, the contingent situation is difficult for most of the actors. The market is more fluid than ever and the needs of the customers are evolving faster than in the past. On the other hand, denim clearly has an incredible appeal, considering its presence in almost all the [fashion] collections, the growing amount of new denim brands and the fact that is considered a pioneer element in the sustainable textile improvement.
The big challenge is to transfer to the new generations of denim lovers all the values behind the “denim” brand. We need to focus on the PRODUCT and re-build knowledge around it. Collaboration within the value chain is paramount, along with a comprehensive and transparent vision. This is one of the key targets of Denim Première Vision too: we focus on responsible fashion collaborations and on share of knowledge.
- connect and collaborate to analyze, define and share best practices in order to improve the quality along all the value chain.
- increase the standard of true responsibility in all the segments of the value chain.
TRACEY TAN, CO-OWNER, QUEEN’S COUTURE / THE DENIM STORE, SINGAPORE
We have seen the denim business go through a challenging period in the past couple of years. We also see many brands digging back in their archives and reproducing exact replicas of the past. It is not a bad thing to look back to get inspiration. However, as a retailer and in order to get customers excited again, we hope to see new silhouettes with vintage fabrics, details, construction, etc.; or past silhouettes with a modern take on fabric and other innovations to suit the modern lifestyle.
GORDON GIERS, CEO, CLOSED
Denim currently has big chances in terms of ecological improvements as there are innovations strong enough to really make a big step forward in terms of more sustainable jeans. At Closed we started our Eco Denim line ‘A Better Blue’ three seasons ago. By now, many of our denim competitors are also using sustainable fabric developments from Candiani or other mills. But we’re doing the entire process, 360 degrees [in a sustainable way]. We are using fabrics from Candiani that are recycled or at least organic cotton. We’re sewing the line in Italy. And we are washing it, obviously, in Italy, with our long-term partner Everest. We’ve developed washing techniques that are outstanding and, I think, very unique. ‘A Better Blue’ jeans probably have the lowest possible impact on the environment.
We wanted to create a sustainable product that has the same aesthetic as the conventional jeans in our collection. So we tried really to get at least the same result in terms of the washings, in terms of the fabrics. They look the same but are so much more sustainable.
FABRIZIO CONSOLI, FOUNDER AND CEO, BLUE OF A KIND
My impression is that a certain change the denim industry has “suffered” is here to stay. A market polarization is underway: on one side we are flooded by mass products meant to last a season or two; on the other, denim is increasingly becoming a premium item, “what vinyl represents for music,” as a big player in the industry told me recently.
Technology is definitely key to instigating a change from a sustainability standpoint, nowadays an indispensable attribute. Nonetheless, we all feel the cultural clash in using science and progress to produce “antique” visual effects and finishes.
So now more than ever a change in perspective is needed. We must flip the way people relate to jeans, bringing back the “love story” consumers once had with them. We need to narrate the product to highlight the uniqueness every pair gains with time, in a one-to-one relationship with its owner.
JASON DENHAM, FOUNDER, DENHAM
Denim has always been great, and it will stand the test of time because there is no cloth like it. Denim’s roots are in quality: it is hard-wearing, versatile, durable and since the 1850s this cloth has evolved to become the highest performance, most technical and sustainable fabric you can wear.
We are in a new era of communication, product life cycle and consumer habits. The denim industry is still as dynamic as it always was. There are more players now from the high street, the big online channels, the brands and the catwalk, and everyone is doing denim in their own way. Production, distribution and communication have never stopped evolving over the last 50 years and right now we are in a peak of change. Sustainability is at the core of every denim manufacturer’s priorities list, and rightly so. Online sales have transformed the distribution landscape and communication is digital. Embrace it; never stand still.
MENNO VAN MEURS, CEO, TENUE DE NÎMES
The first and most important thing we need to do to get denim back on top of the game is to quickly step away from the idea that denim can be something cheap, or worse; something disposable. Let’s put denim back where it belongs: the strong and durable center point of our wardrobe. The future of fashion is about consuming less but better. Well-made jeans should be considered the bright future of our industry. Denim is the only thing we actually appreciate becoming older. Jeans are the sexiest, most versatile and personal garment out there. Let’s consider jeans as workwear again: 21st century workwear. Anyone should choose one pair, invest in it, wear it, love it, repair it and love it even more. To me, well-made and honestly produced jeans are the perfect start of a new paradigm in clothing: buy less and pay more! Wear jeans!
FATIH KONUKOĞLU, CEO, ISKO DIVISION
At Isko we don’t feel that denim is having a difficult time right now.
This is perhaps because two of our core brand pillars are innovation and citizenship. Our Research and Development center is the heartbeat of Isko, located at our headquarters in Inegöl. Here, a team of physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and textile engineers work to solve real consumer problems and needs, in order to impact people’s lives in a positive way. As a result of this, we are continuously bringing new products onto the market, keeping our offer fresh and exciting.
An example is our Isko ‘Vulcano’ finish. This is a new laser friendly finish that delivers natural, denimy, clear effects in laser applications. It eliminates the need for dry and chemical processing, making production faster and more efficient in terms of energy used. So, we can safely say that ISKO ‘Vulcano’ is both beautiful and responsible.
JORDAN NODARSE, FOUNDER AND CREATIVE DIRECTOR, BOYISH JEANS
I believe denim is having a re-birth actually. Manufacturers, brands, and even consumers are now opening their eyes to the extensive supply chain behind denim and its impact on humans and mother earth. I think the most change that needs to happen is within brands though. Manufacturers have had the technology for a more sustainable supply chain for a long time but the brands are too focused on reducing their costs for a higher profit margin because they know that they cannot sell all their goods at full price. That is a ridiculously backwards way of thinking.
If brands look at their impact and deliver a clear message of true transparency all the way to the farms that produce the fiber that goes into their fabrics, they will see that their consumers care more about their products and put a higher value on them. After all, 60% of a jeans impact comes from the fabric, 30% from laundry and CMT, then 10% to the remaining trim and other items on it. So, the most impact one can make is with their fabrics.
However, just make sure you certify and audit your supply chain with professionals. There are a lot of lies going on out there. For instance, only 0.5% of the worlds cotton is actually truly organic. Oh, and stop using recycled plastic in every day garments that get washed and dyed extensively. Micro fiber shedding is a real thing and a huge problem. These microplastics are ending up inside our stomachs and there is already eight billion tons of it in the oceans. So, if you’re a brand, stop trying to take short cuts by putting abnormal amounts of recycled polyester or nylon into your garments. Even if you take ocean plastic and make it into recycle fiber, thats not a solution. The plastic is still ending up back in the ocean but this time it’s more damaging!
TSUYOSHI NOGUCHI, DIRECTOR, MINEDENIM
In recent years the Japanese denim industry has been quite saturated. MINEDENIM which launched during the A/W 16 season thinks of itself not as a denim brand but rather a brand where standard and innovation coexist. We tend to limit the details and focus on the beauty of silhouettes. One of our strengths is that we own our factory in Okayama prefecture, a place internationally renowned for denim manufacturing. Thus we can guarantee the quality of the fabric, finishing and techniques. Naturally, the price point is higher compared to China and Vietnam; however, we believe that the price is justified for the quality. We’ve been collaborating with fabric mills to reduce the environmental impact during the washing process. By honing our production process and schedule we have managed to limit their waste as well.
DEBORAH TURNER, MARKETING AND PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT MANAGER, VICUNHA
The denim industry needs to keep pushing for more transparency throughout the whole production chain and bring more information to the customer about the products they are buying. This market is driven primarily by price, but sustainability needs to be seen as equally important. I am always astonished how little the end consumer actually knows about the sustainability of the products they buy, I think we can improve greatly on this with better, clearer marketing.
We will always refer back to the heritage of denim but we need to look forward to a new era. There is always a cycle of fashion and denim has its highs and lows, it has however over time broadened in category and now comes is many more guises.
We need to move forward and face the challenges of change, embrace new yarns, technologies and production methods to meet the needs and wants of the future consumer.
DANIEL GRIEDER, CEO, TOMMY HILFIGER GLOBAL AND PVH EUROPE
Tommy first got into fashion by selling bell-bottoms from the back of an old VW van when he was 16, so denim has been a timeless staple at the core of our classic American cool DNA from the start. But we are always evolving, and our strength has come from experimenting with innovation, sustainability and customization techniques that consumers are looking for and that are essential to the future of our industry.
We all share a responsibility to manufacture products in a more thoughtful way. At our Product Innovation Center in Amsterdam we are setting new standards for producing denim styles using techniques that can reduce water, energy and chemical consumption by up to 70%. We work with best-in-class partners and state-of-the-art equipment on-site to refine our processes and further push the boundaries of our denim collections. The Center also allows us to experiment with innovative fabric and finishing techniques in real time without needing to send samples back and forth between vendors […] Only by continuing to fuel this important discussion through transparency and the sharing of best practices can we drive our industry forward for good.
REINHARD HAASE, CEO, UNIFA GROUP
In the past, retailers looked out for new denim products and developments in trade shows, but today, fairs are no longer visited as much as showrooms, and even there retailers only really look at brands with which they have pre-scheduled appointments. Take True Religion: multiple retailers still associate the brand with thick seams and therefore categorically reject it [even though the brand has moved on]. Buyers have to travel more and become curious again. As someone who has been in the business for so long and has worked as a retailer with Jades, as well as a producer, distributor and agent, I can also say that denim has cycles and we are now at a stage where the customer wants new qualities. But that’s not unusual; we’ve gone through these stages several times. That’s called a trend. We sell denim well, more for women than men, because there are too few good men’s retailers, but the hype for the blue fabric is missing – it must be pushed again.
MARCO LANOWY, MANAGING DIRECTOR, ALBERTO
Denim works through new brands or those that are always reinventing themselves. Just a new wash is no longer the core business of denim. We have success with our Premium Business Jeans, but they are often not displayed adequately on the retail floor. Why is there hardly a super denim world in retail? Most denim floors in stores look the same throughout the year and do not create any new impulses.
AGOSTINO POLETTO, GENERAL MANAGER, PITTI IMMAGINE
The jeans industry is showing clear signs of dynamism and positive evolutions that we will see more and more in the coming seasons. We are following with great attention the new phenomena involving the denim world: big brands and denim players are undoubtedly demonstrating their stylistic strengths, a series of innovative efforts in terms of marketing and communication, and all these movement are creating a lot of new buzz towards denim and revamping sales, also among young generations. In fact, I see that younger consumers are crucial in leading the most prominent changes in these field. Among the drivers of the evolution I see fashion collaborations – which are becoming a strategic tool to target new consumers and create new interest around a brand and its style. And another strong current is related to high-tech customisation options: features that could enlarge the possibilities for the consumers and the occasions for them to be dressed in denim. Actually, we have in mind denim-focused projects for the next editions of Pitti Uomo: we all love denim and in fact it is one of the most versatile and fashionable fabric, able to add a very contemporary and fresh attitude to your style.
FRANCO CATANIA, CEO, GIADA S.P.A.
Giada has always adopted a certified, eco-sustainable policy for the realization of its products, from denim dyeing, which occurs with natural indigo color, to washes that employ reduced quantities of pumice stone and water, which is later recycled. In addition to this, Giada has developed the ‘Ice Finishing’ system a few years ago: an eco-friendly washing process carried out with the use of ice. The Bronte plant is our success story. All energy is self-produced, and 60% of total water is recycled through water purifiers. All this allows our jeans to have a lower business impact. With Hand Picked we also try to develop intelligent sample sets, avoiding warehouse overloads with goods to be disposed of.
KRIS PARK, CEO, SIWY DENIM
When you are facing a slower growth in your industry, do not panic. Denim is like life, it has its ups and downs… but it is also timeless, and everyone always comes back to it.
In those difficult times, the most important decision to make is to never compromise on the quality of the product you are offering to your customers. Always search for the best fabrics, develop the best washes, techniques etc.
It is also fundamental to constantly offer novelties and fashion pieces to your customers, to remind everyone that denim is not only a basic outfit that you keep in your closet forever, but also a strong fashion item that adapt to the trends and sometime create them. You must take risks; however, you shall always follow your initial DNA. That is what we do at Siwy, and this year we are celebrating our 15th Anniversary.
Finally, living in a world of competition, where denim (among other apparel products) is offered in many places at very low prices, It is essential to communicate directly with your customers, and to educate them about your product, Its origin, Its manufacturing process..
Why your denim is different? Where is it from? how is it made? the quality of the fit, the work, the efforts, the ethics, and the people behind your product. Those are the values that it is imperative to share with the world.