By  on June 25, 2009

It’s not often you find outdoor enthusiasts wishing for rain.  Keen to test out their newly acquired pairs of water-resistant jeans, dubbed Jeanius, last fall dozens of outdoor types in the U.K. kept their eyes on the skies. And test them they did: pouring water on them, taking showers in them, hiking in Snowdon, biking in downpours. Some went skiing; others, kayaking or rock climbing. Their largely positive reports, which run more than 20 pages on manufacturer Alpkit’s online forum (the prototype pair was sold at a discount in exchange for feedback) has prompted the young outdoorwear company to introduce a collection for men and women, which is being finalized. Alpkit isn’t alone. This fall, Timberland-owned Howies will launch a line of water-resistant denim, O’Neill will go into its third season of snowboarding jeans and Peak Performance and Rohan are among firms considering the technology, dubbed Epic, for future denim collections. “People love wearing jeans day in, day out, but when the weather turns, normal denim can become restrictive, and people are immediately hesitant about wearing them,” observes Alpkit’s co-founder Colin Stocker. While the company doesn’t recommend its prototype for the mountains, it suggests horseback riding and motorbiking among activities where you might need something more hard wearing and water resistant. “But for us, it’s the more mundane stuff where they come into their own,” says co-founder Nick Smith. “Like putting tents up in the rain or going climbing in the Peak District, where it’s probably not going to rain, but if it did, normal jeans would never dry out in the pub.” “In the real world, unless you’re doing really extreme stuff, most people actually prefer to wear cotton,” notes Peter Cook, European business manager at Epic, who makes the technology behind the outdoorwear players’ drive to denim. It’s a technique used to equip Special Forces in the U.S. military.

Unlike other methods of waterproofing, Epic encapsulates yarns inside the fabric, filling the air spaces with a fine layer of silicone polymer. Its big advantage is it doesn’t hugely alter the feel of the fabric (though some of Alpkit’s testers reported a slightly more slippery feel to the denim). “Most attempts at waterproofing a jean come from coating it. This stops the jean from feeling, well, like a jean,” says David Hieatt, founder of Howies, which will introduce an organic line using Epic this fall. “[With Epic], you pour water on it and it just rolls off like beads of mercury. And yet the jean feels like a jean. That’s the magic.” Epic, says Cook, offers the opportunity for all kinds of technical brands, whether outdoor or sportswear, to be able to offer natural fabrics like chino and denim but with a genuine technical performance story. “Previously, if they were just going to put their own brand on a pair of jeans, you had to wonder who’s going to buy an ordinary pair of jeans from a technical brand at a big price when they can buy a pair of Levi’s or whatever,” he says. Of course, the technical story isn’t everything—even for outdoor types—when it comes to picking a pair of jeans. “The fact is that people buy denim as an emotional purchase and have a specific desired fit and want their backside to look good in them,” says Piers Thomas, creative director at Random Moment Limited, whose clients include Patagonia and Helly Hansen. “Outdoor companies generally think they can come in with one fit and some technology and rock, when the truth is you need 15 million different fits,” he points out. Indeed, aside from mentions of a chemical smell (which wore off after several washes), fit proved to be a major gripe from Alpkit’s testers and something the company has taken on, offering what it calls a “more regular fit” for its full collection. “The challenge ahead for Epic is to promote an invisible technology,” says Thomas, who has been using Epic for an outerwear collection. “Since you can’t see it, Joe Public is not always going to be prepared to pay for it,” he says. “Even some of my techno clients don’t get it.” At a time when frivolous spending is no longer in fashion, double-duty denim could, however, prove just the ticket to persuading customers to part with their cash. Alpkit’s Epic jeans run about $90. Writes one potential future customer on Alpkit’s site: “It would be great to go away for a weekend with a few less pairs of trousers in my bag.”

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