Fashion historians don't all agree on where and when denim originated — some say Levi Strauss popularized the textile he found in a French town called Nîmes, while others claim that Christopher Columbus first brought it to America on a ship with sails made of blue denim. But one thing's sure: Denim is now one of the most universally worn and best-known textiles in the world. Whether you know what Tencel or modal look like, you almost certainly recognize denim wherever you see it.
Denim's been around since at least the early 1840s, according to FIT curator Emma McClendon's book "Denim: Fashion's Frontier," meaning that it has a long history of being worn and loved, especially in the US. But it also means that the fabric is ripe for an update. Read on to learn about the biggest innovations happening in the denim industry in recent years, as told by visionaries at established labels like Levi's and G-Star Raw as well as up-and-coming names like AYR and Öhlin/D.
Recycling and Upcycling
Upcycling isn't exactly new, but the degree of its popularity in the denim space — especially when it comes to jeans — is. The patched-together Frankenstein jean popularized in part by labels like Re/Done and Vetements has become ubiquitous at fashion week in recent years. For brands like Frame, the popularity of this look has provided a unique opportunity to upcycle denim from the brand's own archives to create the Nouveau le Mix collection, a favorite with Instagirls like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner.
"The genesis of the Nouveau Le Mix collection was essentially a creative and positive solution to utilize our overstock and archival styles," Frame co-founders Jens Grede and Erik Torstensson told Fashionista via email. "We like to think that we're doing a small part to reduce our footprint through this collection."
Other brands, like independent label Öhlin/D, have chosen to recycle by working with denim that's never been used before, but was destined for the dumpster as deadstock.
"To help minimize the continuous output that the fashion industry is guilty of as well as the massive amount of waste we send to landfills, as a brand we seek out fabric that is designated to be thrown out," says brand founder and president Anne Deane. "A large amount of our denim comes to us this way."
One of the things that makes denim such a popular fabric is its sturdiness — it can put up with more wear and tear than most of the textiles in your closet. One problem that has arisen from that sturdiness, though, is that the rigidity and thickness of the fabric can be uncomfortable. Mixing in materials like Spandex that add stretch has been changing that, but finding the right combination that has give but still holds its original shape takes some balancing.
"Yarn technology has evolved radically in the last 10 years," notes Jac Cameron, the co-founder and creative director of LA-based brand AYR. "When I started my career in denim over a decade ago, the stretch percentage available in denim was 2 percent. Currently in our line we work with fabrics that have 30-50 percent stretch and the most incredible recovery."
Since AYR's customers say that comfort and "holding power" are the two biggest concerns for them when they're looking to purchase a pair of jeans, it's unsurprising to learn that other labels are also looking to perfectly marry the two. G-Star Raw has introduced "3D sculpted denim" to address these issues, with women's design manager Rebekka Bach claiming that "clothing should not be two-dimensional — it should be sculpted to fit a three-dimensional figure."
Denim may have a durability that makes it more likely to be re-worn and less likely to end up in a landfill, but the process to produce it is still an extremely wasteful one that uses massive amounts of water and dye. Innovation leaders like Levi's and G-Star Raw are out to change that by employing new processes and greener fabrics that lower the impact of denim production.
Levi's has been working with a type of long-staple Supima cotton grown in California that's developed to be drought-resistant. "It's the longest cotton staple ever cultivated, which yields roughly two times the strength of any conventional cotton, and exceptional softness," said vice president of product innovation Paul Dillinger at a panel on ethical manufacturing at Parsons this week. "So you get durability and softness without using any chemistry."
Dillinger also noted a host of other efforts on Levi's part to reduce the impact of producing denim, from a dyeing process that saves about 75 percent of the dye to the use of organic indigo and cotton.
G-Star Raw similarly works to reduce its impact on a textile level by experimenting with unusual materials like nettle, recycled ocean plastic and even the brand's own garment waste. "Hydrite denim, another fabric that we work with, uses innovative dyeing and finishing processes that reduce water drastically (to up to 95 percent), and consumes less energy and chemicals," Bach said via email. "We closely collaborate with our supply chain to improve our products and practices."