Historical events are not always defined by guns and bombs, they’re not always front page news or taught in history lessons at school. Sometimes they’re simply down to two people with different skills meeting and deciding to work together. And it’s not necessarily in a political context; change occurs on all levels of social interaction, with equally long-standing consequences. Clothes, when they are good, always tell a story and therefore garments are as much part of society’s cultural context as art and music. Fashion, quite literally, is the fabric of history.

In 1872, a Latvian refugee and a German immigrant met in San Francisco, California, and began a working relationship that would come to permanently change the way we dress. Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss didn’t invent denim per se, but – through patenting the riveting process, which made the garment durable and reliable – they introduced denim to a worldwide audience, revolutionising our clothing style.

Today, denim is equally worn by pensioners and Presidents. Our fascination with the fabric is partly down to its longevity and also, because you can wear these items for years on end, the special bond many wearers form with them. By not washing raw denim, you create a pattern unique to you, the way you sit makes for specific creases. “I see it as one of few fabrics in menswear that genuinely gets better the older they are, whereas most other clothes just look tattier the more wear they get. Denim has a democratic ‘everyman’ appeal,” says Josh Sims, a journalist, author and denim connoisseur.  

Like with all fashion garments, the styles and fits of jean have changed over the years, but denim has been surprisingly stagnant when it comes to innovation and sartorial development. For a long time, the Levi’s 501 jean defined the garment in terms of colour, fit, material, purpose and production process. But over the last 10 years, as menswear in general has been reignited, the denim industry has been seen to welcome new technology. New indie labels regularly pop up, designer houses launch jean lines and the established denim giants push themselves forward. Nowhere is that as obvious as with Levi’s: last year the multi-million dollar company set up a new studio at its San Francisco HQ dedicated to denim innovation and the creation of sustainable materials. Headed up by Bart Sights, Director of Global Development Network at Levi Strauss & Co., the Eureka Lab aims to make denim as relevant in the 21st century as the last. “We like to think of this as the fashion equivalent of a test kitchen, constantly redefining the limits of what is possible, within a highly organised framework,” Sights explains.

Perhaps influenced and reinvigorated by the entrepreneurial spirit of the nearby Silicon Valley, Sights describes Levi’s as a “160-year-old startup constantly asking itself how Levi’s is going to get things to last for the next 160 years?” This approach to creativity might sound obvious to outsiders, but in an industry that’s been globally transfixed with a singular way of doing things, the Levi’s attitude is very welcome. “We’re continuously reinterpreting our Levi’s icons for each generation of fans, with elements like sustainability and craftsmanship in mind,” Sights says. And it’s not just Levi’s who are pushing the denim envelope; Japanese brand Edwin is a main player on the market today. “We conduct research every season in order to evolve the collection within Edwin. Historically, we have explored some incredible processes and ideas in many areas of denim fabric construction,” says Edwin Europe’s creative director, Rey Gautier. He agrees denim innovation has been put on ice until now, though. “Yes, it has in many ways remained unchanged for generations but [now] there are infinite possibilities in evolving the fabric for a multitude of different functions – this is what makes our work so interesting,” he says.

But it is not always that straightforward for the big brands to lead in this area, sometimes it’s easier to look back as opposed to forward. “The bigger names are anchored to their heritage values, so authentic and vintage looks are always going to be hugely relevant for them,” explains Katy Rutherford, denim editor at renowned trend forecasters WGSN. Rutherford’s point is valid: for years denim brands have exploited their heritage and emptied their archives in search of traditional denim. The recent ‘heritage’ trend in menswear fuelled this design direction. But, as Bart Sights points out, that’s the inherent definition of a cult classic: “The fact that some pieces are as relevant today as they were when first developed speaks to their iconic status in fashion and to their remarkable adaptability from a style perspective.” He’s right; those pieces are design treasures, as much in need of preservation as paintings and sculptures. But this is not the time to live in the past; it wasn’t necessarily – as the saying goes – better in the good old days. “Absolutely not. Denim was a standard product that people wouldn’t pay more than £50 for,” Sims argues. But looking at the current denim climate, he’s also able to identify who’s trying to develop denim beyond ‘standard’. “Historically the [true denim brands] would have to be the likes of Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler, but only Levi’s is doing anything interesting today.”

And just below that trio in the denim hierarchy, jean specialists like Gautier’s Edwin are helping to re-introduce quality denim to both old and new customers. Partly this is down to a fundamental and personal understanding of the fabric’s social importance: “Denim has accompanied me from childhood into my 40s, having witnessed all stages from climbing trees and skateboarding, to fathering children and building houses,” Gautier reminisces. Today, Edwin is dedicated to enabling new generations do the same in their jeans, and maybe even more. “Yes, there are technological developments which play an exciting role in the future of the fabric, including Gortex-bonded denim, Zylon denim, which is almost indestructible, and fabrics deigned to keep you cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.” Over at WGSN, these are just the kind of innovations Rutherford is tasked with documenting. “Technology will continue to have a huge influence on denim, from laser technology and waterless washes, to synthetic yarn blends and incredible stretch fabrics that look super rustic.” So the future has only been traced, not yet sewn up. “We’re currently tracking the influence of premium core and everyday utility as key themes for directional brands. The paring-back of detailing and modernisation of traditional icons leaves much room for creativity in denim constructions, dyes and laundry techniques,” she says.

Talk to ‘denim heads’ and industry experts and they all say the same thing. Like other creative disciplines, denim – be it jeans, jackets or bags – needs to challenge itself to grow and develop. “The next frontier for denim is going to be about functional, high-tech linings,” says Men’s File publisher Nick Clements. “Imagine a blanket-lined Pointer Brand denim barn-coat or a Lee Storm Rider jacket with a layer of Gore’s Windstopper material between the two main layers. It would be incredible. I’m not sure why no-one has done it yet.” At the same time Clements, who runs the magazine and a vintage clothing store, The Curator, from his base in Devon, still embraces another way forward for denim: the artisanal one-man operation. “At the moment I’m interested in ‘studio denims’,” he says. “That’s to say a few people in a workshop making individual garments or bags.” Even though the heritage trend is finally on its way out, there’s still a strong case to be made for the kind of denim brands Clements advocates. Considering our recent love-in with quality craftsmanship and small quantities of hand-made products, certain clothing brands are spot on. “The brands who work closely with mills and offer new exciting fabrics, especially when it comes to casts and constructions and smaller home-grown brands, like Tender, OrSlow, Three Animals and Story mfg, are exploring the roots of indigo craft to inform fresh contemporary interpretations,” Rutherford says. Other examples of this phenomenon are spread across the UK. In Cardigan, a small town in west Wales, Hiut Denim is reviving the British denim cottage industry with 12 staffers hand-making jeans with a ‘quality over quantity’ motto. In Brighton, Dawson Denim are busy doing the same thing. And all of a sudden, British denim is back – not in a big way but in a good way.

Traditionally, denim has been a two-way game between America and Japan. As Paul Harvey, former Stone Island designer and current creative director at C.P. Company, puts it: “The Japanese, who bought all the old looms from America, are now selling their fabrics back to America.” Jeans, as we know them, might have been ‘invented’ in California, but it’s Southeast Asia that sets a lot of the denim direction. “We’re using the best mills and selvedge fabrics from Japan, following many of the time-tested expert techniques which the denim artisans in Japan master,” explains Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, designer at the Tokyo-based Mastercraft Union. But of late, there are new denim super powers emerging, Turkey being one of the strongest contenders. ISKO, founded in 1983 and located in north west Turkey, is one of the main domestic mills, annually selling over 200 million metres of denim fabric to worldwide brands, Hiut Denim and Paul Harvey’s C.P. Company being two of them. “Among our true innovative concepts is a new hybrid denim called ISKO BLUEJYM, a fashionable interpretation of denim that’s ideal for an active lifestyle as it combines denim twill lines, slubs and beautiful indigo shades with the comfort and feel of a knit fabric,” says Marco Lucietti, ISKO’s global marketing manager. For Lucietti, the future of denim is all about anticipating his customers’ needs. “They expect the denim to fulfil their demands, both in terms of technology and performance, but without forgetting the aesthetic. Consumers increasingly ask for 24/7 comfort and extreme functionality with maximum adaptability to any mood and occasion, from work to parties. But at the same time they want to look trendy and beautiful!”

ISKO is known for its organic denim, the mill is a go to place for sustainable fabrics. Though eco-friendly fashion in general struggles to get a firm grip on the market, organic denim has managed to make a mark. “There is a conscious effort to use more natural processes and organic and recycled yarns; [products with] better quality are more durable and therefore will deteriorate much more slowly than low quality products, encouraging longer-lasting wear and less consumption of cheap products,” says Rey Gautier of Edwin. Katy Rutherford at WGSN agrees but takes it even further: “It’s not just about buying organic but also about a deeper understanding of natural and sustainable materials, and alternative methods of manufacturing.” Also Levi’s has this new approach to denim high on the agenda, even at Sights’ Eureka Lab. “Yes, our Levi’s 501 jeans and the Levi’s Trucker jacket, for example, are available in great ‘Water<Less’ finishes, which are made using substantially less water in the finishing process, up to 96% less in certain models,” he says.   

But technology isn’t the only answer when prophesying‎ the future of denim, according to Josh Sims. “High-tech solutions like hemp, Kevlar and waterproof denim are only one aspect – I think we can expect a shift towards ever so smaller batch productions by micro companies going forward.” Though smart technology will no doubt engulf the fashion industry further going forward, taking denim from analogue to digital, there are still occasions when nothing beats a pair of well-stitched and hand-dyed raw denim jeans. “I’d like to see more experimentation with historic styles, going as far back as the late 19th century,” Clements rounds it off, perhaps finding the perfect balance between heritage design and futuristic performance technology.

In 2001, having produced 35,000 pairs of jeans each week for 40 years, the Marks & Spencer denim factory in Cardigan, a small town near the west coast of Wales, shut down. As a result, around 400 people lost their livelihoods. The production was moved to countries with cheaper staffing costs, first Morocco and then Bangladesh. At the time, this development was typical of an industry cutting ties with domestic factories in search of higher profit margins abroad. Today, 13 years later, the same factory is up and running again, admittedly employing far from the original numbers of workers, but at least bucking the trend. Hiut Denim, founded by David and Clare Hieatt, has only been operating for two years, but has grown organically since. “We have 10–12 people working here but, between them, they have 200 years experience of making jeans,” David says. Finding suitable staffers for Hiut was no problem: just about everyone in Cardigan has, at one point, worked with denim.

Hiut is, in many ways, the very opposite of the previous factory owners. As a small company with limited resources, Hiut is focused on quality over quantity. Only three styles of jeans, in two different kinds of denim, are produced – all of them unwashed raw denim. For Hiut, that’s the chosen path: “Grow slowly, build a team, learn to say ‘no’ to distractions, keep the products on offer narrow and focused… and in our case, that’s jeans!” This business plan isn’t just plucked out of thin air, the Hieatts have experience from large corporations as well; in 1995 the pair founded Howies, a lifestyle sportswear company acquired by Timberland in 2006. David and Clare left the company three years later. “Lots of lessons were learnt from Howies and we took them onboard for Hiut. Running Howies was a bit like serving an apprenticeship ahead of Hiut,” David says, looking back.

The couple launched Hiut on February 27th 2012. “It’s still taking baby steps – it’s a great deal of fun, but running a factory is hard work,” David admits. Setting up a local denim company with limited funds is difficult in a market dominated by established giants but, according to him, that’s also Hiut’s strongest asset. “Denim is an odd industry, the last piece of real innovation happened in 1873 when Levi’s patented riveted jeans – it’s an iconic piece but not a lot has happened since.” The Hieatts’ way of doing it is based on solid ideas and concepts. “It’s all about creativity and ideas – money isn’t a real issue when you have good ideas,” he explains. “The old factory had 400 people working for them, we need to take on 382 people to replace that… and how do we get those jobs back? Only good ideas can change this industry.”

For Hiut, the History Tag project and the Denim Breaker Club exemplify two of these good ideas. The History Tag allows jeans to tell their story. “I was in San Francisco looking at 140-year-old denim, and I was wondering what stories they could tell… did they strike gold?” The Hieatts know that jeans are analogue and that we live in a digital world, but the Internet is no foe of Hiut. “I’m intrigued by storytelling and the Internet is great for that, and so is denim. Lots of denim pieces are handed down or sold second hand.” The History Tag jeans come with unique serial numbers, which, having been registered on the Hiut site, mean you can upload text and images, documenting where you’ve been and what you’ve done. “Jeans get better with age, all of them are different depending on how you crease them and how you sit, for example.”

The Denim Breaker Club is a way of making your Hiut raw denims look distressed without washing them. Members of the club agree to wear the jeans for six months without putting them in the washing machine. Once returned, Hiut ‘expert washes’ them and sell them on, giving the original wearer 20% of the retail price. You’re essentially getting paid to wear jeans, plus the end customer gets distressed jeans that have only been washed once. “I think it’s nutty that it traditionally takes longer to distress jeans than to make them, but today 98% of the market is pre-washed denim. Back in the day, the river used to turn blue when they washed jeans in Cardigan. We want to avoid that,” David says.

Another eco-friendly aspect of denim is the organic cotton Hiut use in parts of its selection. “We’re keen to use organic denim, cotton is notoriously pesticide heavy – hopefully one day all our denim will be organic.” The ISKO mill in Turkey is especially good for organic denim, and it’s one of two mills that supply Hiut with denim. “Their denim has less of an impact on the environment, but also on the staff as they say it doesn’t itch as much as synthetic dye denim. Fashion comes and goes but the impact remains, we need to educate our customers and make them realise there are extraordinary advantages with organic denim.” Hiut aims to make it all organic, “but we can’t buy 5,000 metres of denim in one go, it’s all about baby steps for us and that’s fine.”

Hiut also work with the Kuroki Mill in Japan. Situated between Kyoto and Hiroshima, Kuroki denim is hand-dipped in indigo 10 times, giving the denim long-lasting qualities. “Indigo is a root vegetable with an earthy smell, and it needs to get to the core of the cotton,” David says. “There are a handful of great mills. Cone [Mills in North Carolina] is good but the Japanese are taking it to a new level – they are the artisans of selvage.” Hiut Denim are artisans themselves, dedicated to producing the best possible product within their means, one that is in tune with the environment. Such pre-conditions are slowing down the rate at which the company is growing, but for David Hieatt that isn’t a problem. “We make 100 jeans a week – Rolls-Royce make more cars a week than that, but that’s fine. We don’t want to grow too quickly, we’ll expand when we are ready and the customers are ready.”

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Before moving his catwalk collection from Milan to Paris, Umit Benan said one last farewell to the Italian fashion week with a very personal SS14 collection. Featuring traditional Turkish tailoring in sombre colours, Benan – born to Turkish parents in Germany – made his models wear fez hats and face masks, made by the mask artists at La Scala in Milan.

Benan looked to the history of Turkey for inspiration: “I was influenced by my past and the past of my nation. I looked towards Ottoman men and how they used to hang out in meyhanes, which are like a wine bars.” Benan used the collection and show to highlight the plight of the country, however: “As it was, and still is, tough times for ‎Turkey, I didn’t want to make it too somber and more sad than it already is. Instead I wanted to lighten up the image.” Benan decided to add the additional face accessories. “As fabric colours and inspiration were serious, I wanted to break that up a bit with a cartoon and caricature effect.” The effect was felt throughout the audience.

Beyond creating a focused and accomplished collection, there was no doubt Benan was commenting on a place and situation that is close to his heart. “All of the masks where based on a Turkish gentlemen I photographed on the streets of Istanbul.” As such, Umit Benan’s SS14 collection found the perfect balance between wearable fashion and a personal, artistic statement.

Illustration by Kate Copeland

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For next season, Dior Homme’s creative director, Kris Van Assche, is expertly mixing up the Parisian house’s traditionally formal tailoring with elements of khaki colours and washed denim, creating a new sartorial foundation for a 21st century wardrobe. “This collection offers the individual all kinds of possibilities. The spirit of the tailor-made suit handed down from Monsieur Dior toys with contemporary reality – a classic suit worn with a stone-washed denim waistcoat,” Van Assche explains. By juxtaposing pinstriped suits with army inspired hues of green and blue jean duffel coats, Van Assche not only continues Dior Homme’s principal aesthetic but also helps push the brand forward. “Here is a bridge between all Dior men, wherever and whoever they are.” 

Photo by Joost Vandebrug, styling by Alex Petesatakis

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Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have nurtured their fascination with Sicily for a few seasons now, each time looking at slightly different aspects of the island’s culture and history. Attending their shows makes you want to travel there for the sights, food, wine and art. The current SS14 collection looks closer at Sicilian mythology, with Greek origins still visible in the island’s impressive amphitheatres at Valle dei Templi of Agrigento and the Tempio di Apollo of Syracuse. Representing the ‘modern day Ulysses’, ordinary Sicilians were hand-picked to walk the collection, wearing prints representing the faces of Zeus and Apollo, as well as the antique coins of cities like Catania, Syracuse, Taormina and Messina.

Photo by Joost Vandebrug, styling by Alex Petesatakis