NEW YORK — The future success of the denim business lies in fully embracing product innovations with cutting-edge sustainability practices.

That was one of the key points made during last Friday’s panel session, titled: “From Fiber to Fashion, Style to Sustainability: New Visions for Denim,” at the 17th annual New York Fashion Conference at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

This year, the conference theme was “trailblazers,” and the denim panel had two industry pioneers: François Girbaud, founder and owner of Marithé+François Girbaud, and Adriano Goldschmied, aka the Godfather of Denim. They were joined by Jean Hegedus, global director at Invista; Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the Museum of FIT, and Mark Messura, senior vice president of global supply chain marketing at Cotton Incorporated. The panel was moderated by Jeffrey Silberman, professor and chairman of the textile development and marketing department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Girbaud and Marithé Bachellerie were one of the first to use stone and acid washing techniques on jeans as well as engraving with light. Later technical innovations included using lasers and ozone for various denim effects. Girbaud said the idea of using acid washes, “was to give it some look of aging. And we tried other effects. I think if you gave me some sort of nuclear bomb to destroy jeans, we would have used it.”

In retrospect, Girbaud said it was a mistake — which resulted in the development and use of more sustainable practices, and less chemicals such as lasers and ozone techniques. “Fashion is changing, for the better,” he said, adding that people have become more environmentally aware following the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in 2011. “People are realizing we are sharing the same water. And we share the same planet.”

Goldschmied, whose brand résumé includes Goldie, Diesel, Replay, Gap 1969, Citizens of Humanity, AG and Goldsign, agreed, adding that traditional cotton approaches require a lot of water, which is why he has incorporated use of cellulose fibers such as Tencel and Modal by Lenzing in his products. He’s now also using Lycra for stretch denim, “which is a totally new innovation in denim — a revolution, really, or an antipasta, so to speak.”

“We look toward more sustainable trends — using much less water and chemicals,” Goldschmied said, adding that early influencers like himself and Girbaud “are responsible for using harmful, environmental effects such as acid washes — so we both feel responsible for fixing it.”

“[The denim industry] has to adapt processes that have much less impact on the environment,” Goldschmied said. Innovative product development is also needed. “So technology is the real partner of innovation of the industry today.” That’s one of the reasons Goldschmied’s latest endeavor, a soon-to-launch activewear line called Acynetic, will use stretch denim. And not only in bottoms, but for tops — including sports bras.

“The technology is creating a level of comfort that is totally new,” Goldschmied said. “And it is opening up a new era.”

Hegedus said technological advances have ushered Lycra — invented at DuPont in 1958 — into this new era, “but it has taken trials and tribulations. Eventually we figured out how to make it stretch and still have the denim aesthetic.” Invista’s latest rollout is Lycra Hybrid Technology, which features low shrinkage and multidirectional stretch, she said.

For his part, Cotton Incorporated’s Messura said technologies such as lasers and ozone finishes have resulted in significant declines in energy and water use in the market, which has also seen an uptick in more responsible sourcing methods. New products such as water-repellent “storm denim” is also helping to evolve the denim business.

To add some historical perspective, McClendon unveiled a new exhibit at the FIT museum next month titled, “Denim Fashion’s Frontier,” which will examine the history of denim from handmade work pants of the 19th century through to today’s latest fashions.

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