Refining a Classic

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could be the motto for denim fabric makers.

While denim mills play around with color, wash and weight to create newness, many mill executives say they continually look to the past to inspire the next season’s fabric.

Although it goes against the trends in other markets — think of all the hangtags promoting technical fibers in the apparel section of a sporting goods store — there’s something about denim and vintage that goes hand in hand. And it doesn’t go unnoticed by consumers or jeans vendors.

The J. Crew, American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch and Levi’s Web sites all use words that reference the past when describing their denim merchandise, such as antique, rustic and authentic. Not to mention catchphrases including “new retro,” “destroyed vintage” and “sandblasted vintage.”

Stefano Aldighieri, creative director for Seven For All Mankind, believes it comes down to the culture surrounding denim.

“You can introduce new fibers and try different finishes,” said Aldighieri. “At the end of the day, to make a beautiful pair of jeans you need a nice cotton denim with a beautiful indigo color and nice construction. That’s the soul of denim.”

Further, Aldighieri also said the strength of the denim market during the last few years hasn’t provided a reason for mills to develop new denim concepts.

“When the market’s hot, you don’t have to develop,” said Aldighieri, “Most of the mills already had good lines and they were selling like crazy.”

Aldighieri said he’s developed some product in the past using different fibers and techniques, such as jeans with Kevlar, the DuPont fiber found in bullet-proof vests. Even though some were successful, they can be difficult to sell to the consumers, he said.

For Joe Ieraci, director of product marketing at Burlington Industries, there’s less new technology in denim than in other fabric markets. Ieraci said he’s getting more requests for denim with a vintage look, similar to when denim looms were 30 inches wide, rather than today’s 60-inch standard.“A lot of customers are asking to go back to the old way of making denim,” said Ieraci. “Though most customers won’t pay to have that done, so they want the look but done in today’s production capacity and price range.”

Ieraci said adding too much technical innovation to denim goes against the idea of what denim is really about. Instead of making something out of synthetic materials that is perfect, Ieraci argues the imperfections of cotton are part of what makes it desirable. Spinning cotton with spandex is now the most common innovation, he said, but even that has hit a plateau.

“It has to do with the fact that there is so much out there,” said Ieraci. “I think manufacturers were assuming that everyone wanted to wear stretch jeans, but there is a percentage that doesn’t. They just want comfortable, nice jeans.”

Kara Nicholas, vice president of new product development at Cone Mills, also said the new technology incorporated into activewear and sportswear can only be translated to denim to a certain degree.

“At the end of the day, you want to make sure you maintain the beauty of denim, which is the indigo dyeing process and that the product gets more beautiful as it ages,” Nicholas said. “It’s a different animal than sportswear.”

Though Nicholas said there is room for innovation, much of the inspiration for denim comes from the past, including vintage garments.

“You try to replicate the beauty of how those yarns were dyed in the past, say pre-1950s,” said Nicholas. “Then you use technology to create those looks. So some of the innovations don’t seem that earth-shattering.”

About 10 years ago, Santanderina, a mill based in Santander, Spain, started introducing products to the market on a continual basis. In earlier times, it would create collections for each season, similar to how most European mills offer their lines. Now, the company creates collections every six months and adds new innovations every two months, according to Joseph Gomez, director of U.S. operations at the $155 million firm.

Currently, Santanderina makes 100 percent cotton fabrics and cotton blends with Tencel lyocell, polyester or Lycra spandex. About 80 percent of its offerings are in bottom-weight fabrics and 25 percent of the company’s overall products are geared at the denim market.Gomez said the biggest trend in denim now has more to do with being creative in terms of washes and silhouettes rather than new innovations on the fiber level.

While those fibers have made their way into the active apparel market with ease, it’s more difficult with denim since jeans designers continually look at vintage garments as inspiration for jeans in the future. At Santanderina, cross-hatch, slubs and overdyes are all reminiscent of vintage garments, and continually do well for the mill’s customer base.

Textile and denim product developers said performance fibers are making their way into denim, but at a slow pace.

To cater to its customers and consumers that have a wide variety of tastes in denim, Santanderina offers a range of products. However, price limits how creative the mill can get with its developments, since consumers are so price conscious.

“If the customer can’t afford it, what good is it?” questioned Gomez. “Being a European mill, with the strong euro and weak dollar, our customers can still have problems with price.”

At Avondale Mills, texture is what’s driving the denim business forward, according to Doug Murphy, vice president of merchandising. About 50 percent of Avondale’s merchandise is denim, so yarn development is key for the Monroe, Ga.-based mill.

Trendwise, the most fashion-forward jeansmakers are attracted by visual texture in either the warp or filling with chunkier yarns that give a slubby appearance. Cross-hatched denim is also selling well.

However, Murphy said there is also a demand for crisp denim, so determining new emerging trends is difficult.

“What’s really happened is that the market has moved to a mid-weight range, from 10 ounces to 12 ounces,” said Murphy. It’s lighter, more comfortable and shows weaves and slubs a little more.”

To get a lighter-weight denim fabric that can withstand the rigorous washes and sandblasting that’s so popular right now, Murphy said weaving cotton with polyester helps build strength into the fabric.

As for business, Murphy said denim mills are being affected by the difficult retail environment and the fact that more overseas mills are entering the denim market.Like Murphy, Burlington’s Ieraci said lightweight denim is growing and what was considered lightweight two years ago, such as an 11-ounce denim, is now down to 8 ounces or 9 ounces. Though Burlington receives calls from customers asking for technical denim for men’s and women’s apparel, Ieraci said he thinks they’re really looking for direction on how to incorporate the idea of performance into their lines.

“But, because it’s a new area for denim, they just ask what we have,” said Ieraci. “They’re not saying, ‘Can you create a denim that wicks?’”

Burlington offers denim with Coolmax, DuPont’s wicking fiber. However, since branded fibers carry a premium and price is a driving factor, denim made with high tech fibers is only a limited piece of the market.

“We pretty much have to hold where we are in terms of price, but offer better product,” said Ieraci. “A basic ring-spun denim at $3 [a yard] is now a ring-spun fluff denim for $3. Imports are killing us, but hopefully, what we can bring to the table is development. Someone can come over and see me to develop product, and you can’t do that with someone who’s 5,000 miles away.”

Jim Wallis, vice president of sales at Mulhouse, France-based Velcorex, said a new product featuring the corded look and hand of corduroy — but is actually denim — has done extremely well in Europe for fall 2003. It’s created by using two different dye stuffs to lend a washed down effect. The dyes are actually reactive dyes instead of indigo, but the final result resembles denim in appearance, Wallis said.

“We’re expecting the U.S. market will grab onto it for fall 2004,” said Wallis. “Jeans producers are buying it overseas, including Diesel, Marlboro, Quiksilver and Tommy Hilfiger.”

Though most jeans manufacturers end up individually treating the garments by sandblasting them, for example, the wet processing technology was developed by Velcorex, according to Wallis.

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