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.