NEW YORK — Wearing denim out of style has proven to be as difficult as wearing out a good pair of jeans.
“It’s the next best thing to black,” said Donna Karan, who has incorporated denim in her signature and DKNY collections. “Denim is a classic. It’s lifestyle. There’s just so much you can do with it.”
Styles might change from season to season, as do the most influential players in denim, from Seven, Habitual and Paper, Denim & Cloth to G-Star, Diesel and Energie. But on the designer runways, denim has developed a cachet of its own, where collections from the likes of Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent routinely feature some take on the classic denim lifestyle, as interpreted for the wallet of a luxury aficionado.
Case in point: Michael Kors’ best-selling satin slouch jeans for fall, made of wool and silk, which retail for $1,195. He’s already booked 250 pairs.
The American cowboy trend that solidified this month in the spring men’s wear collections also signals that a windfall for designer denim makers is in store on the women’s front. After all, where would Roy Rogers be without his Dale Evans, except alone on the range?
Designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Zac Posen are breaking into the denim market this year as a means to diversify their product offering with the seasonless and versatile attributes of the category.
“I wanted to address a need in the life of the Zac Posen woman to be able to go from day to evening,” said Posen, who introduced a collection of jeans and jackets called Z Jeans for resort this month.
Posen’s fall collection included a style of stretch leather jeans that garnered an impressive result at trunk shows, inspiring the designer to expand the category. His offerings, blended with 2 percent Lycra spandex to give them some elasticity, include a tight style that rests at the hip, hidden pockets at the yoke and an inside vent at the ankle to give the elongated appearance of a boot cut, but without the bulk. A signature touch is featured along the waistline, where a belt loop is sewn in the shape of a large Z, the diagonal leg serving as the actual loop.Posen also created a tuxedo skirt and a fitted jeans jacket geared to push up the bosom, all accented with mint green stitching that plays back to the palette of his signature line. The launch is expected to start at retail at $395, which is at the low end for denim in the designer realm.
“Denim combines chicness with durability,” Posen said. “Jeans will always be around because you have the ability to be as casual as you want and at the same time dress them up and still be comfortable.”
Kors uses denim in his signature collection wherever he feels it’s appropriate. From the fall line, he also featured tuxedo jeans and special items that were studded.
“Denim works on a collection level as long as it is special,” said a Kors spokeswoman. “The reality is that collection customers do wear denim. Ours just don’t go to the Gap. They still want denim that looks polished. It’s all about knowing who your customer is and designing into her lifestyle, while still staying true to our design aesthetic.”
Designers from all walks of life have made the transition into denim something of an art form. Even an eveningwear specialist like Marc Bouwer has crossed over into the medium occasionally with a denim maxi coat and matching pants, which Toni Braxton once wore to an awards ceremony.
“Denim has been played with in so many extraordinary ways that it’s just become another fabric, like chiffon or jersey,” Bouwer said. “It can be very smartly tailored or casual and grungy looking. It’s what you do with denim that counts. It has a casual appeal, but when designers play with it and twist it to give denim a dressy edge, that’s what makes it much more fun and different looking.”
However, the irony of the designer embrace of denim — and the denim industry’s concurrent drive toward its own designer products — is that it threatens to overwhelm the category with a glut of indigo and eventually turn off consumers. Chaiken designer Jeff Mahshie noted that designers must make a conscious effort to maintain their signature look when working in the medium in order to differentiate their products from fashion jeans coming from brands like Earl and Seven.“We never did a basic denim,” Mahshie said. “We’re certainly trending into it. When I first came here in 1999, we showed a bleached denim that was a huge success for the first few seasons, and then we’ve done ombré, tie-dye, crystal studded and a denim jacket. The reason why we have more interest in that is because we’ve always tried to treat denim like any other cloth. There has to be a little more signature in the collection than just another jeans company.”
Jill Stuart, whose incorporation of denim in her signature collection inspired a Jill Stuart Jeans spinoff, pointed out that denim has become as important as any other category in fashion today, reflected by what celebrities wear to movie premieres and in magazine editorials.
“Most of the time it’s about mixing denim in a way that is innovative and fresh,” Stuart said. “[But], the denim craze is like every other facet of fashion. By the time everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon, it’s time to start something new.”
Still, for some designers, the novelty has already worn off. While Posen has been wear-testing his own styles for inspiration, Tocca designer Ellis Kreuger claims to own only one brand of jeans, a pair from Martin Margiela.
“I think it’s over and done,” Kreuger said. “It’s interesting to see denim done in a novel way, but the whole thing has gotten very rote. It’s always the new wash, the new blah. My favorite jeans are the jeans of my teenage years, the 501s, Wrangler or Lee. It’s a classic that really shouldn’t be messed with. When I reach for something now and I want to dress causally, I go to cords because that’s much more exciting to me than denim.”
Then again, classics never really do go out of style.
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