NIMES, France — Cowboys may have made them stylish, but if it weren't for the sleepy town of Nîmes, France, also known as "de Nîmes" or "denim," jeans would never have become the true-blue fashion success story.
Today, the town, which shelters a Roman coliseum, remains a spiritual home for the fabled fabric. It has inspired French denim entrepreneurs, the vast majority of which hale from the nearby bustling port town of Marseille, to take their denim skills across the Atlantic to create cutting-edge brands.
While California-based jeans brands like Blue Cult, Yanuk, Guess, Citizens of Humanity, Seven For All Mankind, 575, Taverniti So and Antik Denim may all sound very West Coast, their origins all point back to Marseille.
"It's part of our heritage," said Frank Mechaly, the Marseille-born president of 575, a Los Angeles-based premium label.
Denim design runs in the Mechaly genes. Mechaly's father, David, founded Blue Cult Jeans in Los Angeles in 1999 after heading Mac Keen, one of France's most popular denim labels, in the Seventies.
"At the time, there were two brands that really influenced the denim market and budding denim designers — Mac Keen and M.G.A.," Frank Mechaly said.
His father also had a close working relationship with the M.G.A denim brand. M.G.A. was founded by Marseille brothers Maurice and Georges Marciano, who later relocated to Los Angeles to form Guess Jeans in 1982.
The exodus of French designers from Marseille to California added French flare to West Coast denim styles.
"We brought French fashion sophistication and added it to vintage American styles," said Philippe Naouri, designer of Los Angeles-based Antik Denim, a premium jeans collection inspired by vintage Levi's, Lee and Wrangler styles.
Like many of his Côte d'Azur contemporaries, Naouri's first foray into the denim industry began by way of vintage shops.
"Everyone wanted to buy into the American dream in Marseille, so I opened a store specializing in exclusive vintage jeans," he recalled.
In a similar vein, Frank Mechaly's first job was selling vintage denim in Naouri's shop."It was part of our tradition, which was carried through time even when the fabric factories closed in the region," said Martine Nougarède, curator at the Musée du Vieux Nîmes (Museum of Old Nîmes), which boasts a section devoted to denim. "As soon as you have tradition for a certain production, you have craftsmanship and knowledge, which dispatches itself through time and through location."
While the first traces of the fabric, or "serge de Nîmes," date back to the 17th century, it wasn't until the late 19th century that the material made textile history. In 1873, Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis received a patent from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to make work pants from serge de Nîmes reinforced with copper rivets. As the story goes, the Genoese used a blue dye for flared pants worn by sailors, which the French would call "bleu de Genes," later shortened to blue jeans.
While many French designers chose California as a home base, Marseille still boasts a plethora of brands.
"Paris was the capital of ready-to-wear in France, but Marseille has always been the streetwear capital," said Laurent Emsellem, general manager of Kaporal 5, which he created in 2004.
Emsellem, who can trace his denim manufacturing heritage back three generations, said sales increased 30 percent to $52 million last year. The mid-range line, which retails for 80 to 100 euros, or $108 to $135 at current exchange, targets 15- to 25-year-olds and will open its first Marseille-based flagship in July with more store rollouts, including a Paris location, expected before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Le Temps des Cerises remains one of Marseille's most popular denim labels for southern European denim lovers. Founded in 1998 by Gilles Richardière and his son, Lylian, the Richardière's dominance in denim can also be traced back to the Seventies when the family ran multibrand stores specializing in denim. The vintage-inspired range boasts lavish embellishments and embroideries and intricate washes. Jeans retail for 80 to 120 euros, or $108 to $162.
The firm also makes Japan Rags, a collection for men, as well as Lord Richard, a slim-fitting line selling for around 50 euros, or $67. Sold in Europe, Japan and the U.S., Le Temps des Cerises also boasts a full fashion and accessories line to round out the denim collection."In southern Europe, embellishments and detail are very strong," said Richardière, who recently opened a Paris-based flagship on the tony Rue Etienne Marcel. "European designers have a savoir faire that they apply to the American invention of jeans. The combination is a winning formula."