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Designers and Denim: Teaming Up

U.K. designers join forces with denim brands to produce custom spring collections.

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Special Issue
WWD Denim In Depth issue 11/06/2008

A clutch of London designers are lending their quirky aesthetic to some established denim brands for spring. Giles Deacon, Henry Holland and Meadham Kirchhoff have teamed up with Lee Cooper, Levi’s and Brazilian textile company Vicunha, respectively, to produce either customized denim or to incorporate denim fabric into their spring collections’ myriad silhouettes. And while denim labels best known for turning out basic jeans get a valuable shot of buzz at a time when consumer spending is being squeezed, the designers are in turn granted access to a plethora of denim fabrics and the brands’ production knowledge.

Holland, who covered pairs of washed-out Levi’s 501s with screen printed flowers and polkadots as part of his spring homage to “Beverly Hills 90210,” said that the partnership meant he had the freedom to use denim, which in the past had been off limits due to fabric factories’ minimums. “It’s a really hard fabric to try and get hold of,” said Holland. “I didn’t know anything about denim so the [collaboration] taught me a whole new set of skills.” Levi’s provided Holland with a number of pairs of 501 jeans in his chosen washes, which he then customized with laser-cut polkadots, screen-printed polkadots and printed roses, to produce six different styles.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Kirchhoff of the London-based label Meadham Kirchhoff said that he and his design partner Edward Meadham were drawn to working with denim to show that the fabric isn’t about “automatically diffusing” the collection.  “It’s quite a versatile fabric that’s usually portrayed as one thing or the other,” said Kirchhoff, who also acts as a consultant for a denim brand, whose name he declined to disclose. “We treated everything here in the studio, [we used] hardware, specific threads, reinforced rivets. We tried to develop it and give it a realness.” Meadham Kirchhoff’s denim pieces for spring include stonewashed jeans with black lacing up the leg, pale denim jeans sewn with knee pads and black ripped jeans with leather lacing. “The fabric technique verges on the boundaries of taste,” said Kirchhoff. “It could be really tacky but it [turns out] really nice.”

And the three denim brands said that they were open to the designers’ new interpretation of their storied names — and the attention that can bring. “In a way Giles is sort of naïve about denim, he doesn’t have to follow the rules that we do,” said Earl Pickens at Lee Cooper, referring to how Deacon’s denim designs meant that the company, which is based in the U.K. and France, approached new factories or used different techniques so that Deacon’s denim pieces could be made. His collection included crisp, lightweight denim shift dresses, jeans and denim shirts. “He started with a dress cut with one piece of fabric, with one pleat from the back that darted round the front onto the hips, which is a really unusual piece for us,” said Pickens. Pickens added that the partnership had been “excellent” in public relations terms for Lee Cooper. “We’ve had calls from all over about the pieces.”

Andrea Moore, marketing director for Levi Strauss U.K., said that Holland’s collection has also been a boon to Levi’s profile in Europe, where the company has recently launched a campaign called “Live Unbuttoned,” specifically to promote 501s. “Levi’s has benefi ted from having another angle to tell the 501 story, integrated catwalk presence at London Fashion Week…and the main window at Selfridges for three weeks,” said Moore. “We wanted to remind consumers that the 501 is the original jean in a creative and fun way.”

And it seems that Holland’s collection has gone beyond being a marketing tool and has proved popular with consumers and buyers, too. Seventy pairs of his unisex Levi’s jeans went on display in Selfridges’s men’s Superbrands department immediately after Holland’s spring show in September, and most of the designs sold out. The jeans, which retail for between 150 and 200 pounds, or between $230 and $307, will also be sold at stores including Dover Street Market in London and Joyce in Hong Kong for spring.

Kirchhoff also said that the duo’s extravagantly detailed denim pieces are some of the best performing pieces in the designers’ collection so far, despite wholesaling for
up to 525 pounds, or $808, for black jeans with leather detailing, putting them among the most expensive pieces in the line. “The world doesn’t want safe at this point,” said Kirchhoff, referring to the rocky economic climate. “People want something that is special and amazing.” Stores including Browns Focus in London and Opening Ceremony in New York will carry Meadham Kirchhoff’s denim pieces for spring. Kirchhoff added that the denim collaboration is for one season only. And though Thomas Dislich, chief executive of Vicunha Europe, said that the company doesn’t take a proportion of the designers’ profits from the denim pieces, he added that the partnership both boosts the company’s profile and acts as a source of inspiration.

“We don’t take a direct commercial view of this project,” said Dislich. “Meadham Kirchhoff cater to a smaller, very high-level audience, so volume is not the objective. It is about image and about fruitful ideas and interpretations, which may… filter back to our mainstream activity.” In addition to its collaboration with Meadham Kirchhoff, Vicunha also runs a program with the Geneva Fashion School, as part of which students experiment with denim. The company runs a similar program, which it calls a denim university, in São Paulo, Brazil. “I think that we have to keep in touch with the up-and-coming kids,” said Dislich. “They are fully tuned in and the source of new things to come. We want to deepen this collaboration next year.”

Meanwhile, Pickens said that Deacon’s collection for Lee Cooper isn’t just a one season affair. Deacon has already produced prototypes for his fall collection for Lee Cooper, which like the spring collection will be distributed through Deacon’s established channels for his mainline collection, rather than through Lee Cooper’s distribution channels. And Pickens said that the designer plans to play on all the fabric’s possibilities for fall. “There are little features that I want to show [Giles] such as stoning, scraping and acid washing, now that we have more time [with this collection],” said Pickens. “But you know, Giles is very unique in his thinking to the point where I really just follow.”

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