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Recycling Jeans: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Trend creates a trove of vintage jeans for resale.

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PARIS — Two disparate trends are converging in the denim world: real vintage jeans and recycling of old pairs as part of the green movement.

This story first appeared in the December 4, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


They are personified by photographer Laurent Julliand, who decided his skinny jeans were impractical and returned them to the APC store where they were purchased — and then walked out with a new, looser-fit pair at half price.

His two-year-old jeans were marked with his initials, then washed and repaired, before being put out for resale. More than 100 pairs, including one from fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, have been handed in since the summer. The collection, dubbed the Butler Wornout Series, is APC’s answer to denim’s latest trend — vintage.

“Every brand is seeking how to make the most authentic-looking vintage,” said Philippe Freedman, a designer for Rad Rags, an Italian denim supplier.

Although Freedman said the logistics involved make selling secondhand denim a niche market, trend experts expect other brands to follow.

“This is something very new, but it’s a trend we’re going to see take off in the future,” said Blandine Boudet, a fashion designer at Nelly Rodi, a Paris-based trends agency.

“Some people like their jeans raw, some do not,” said APC founder and president Jean Touitou.

Rather than what Touitou criticizes as bogus aging from four minutes of grinding and two wash dye cycles in a Macao factory, fans of worn vintage looks can get the real deal. The drawback is the sizes and styles are random.

“What is great about this concept is that they are finding synergy with two different customer requirements,” said Claire Hamer, a former Topshop buyer who is now a sustainable design product expert for Vectra International, an international consultancy network. “There will always be those who want clean-looking denim, and their old denim will simply end up in a landfill, and then there are also those who like the more worn look.”

Italian brand Onvis, founded this year, follows the same reasoning. Each pair of raw denim comes with a label telling the wearer to “use it, destroy it, live it.” Consumers who send their jeans back to Onvis receive one euro, or $1.27 at current exchange. However, if the label decides to replicate a worn-out look as part of its Truestories collection, the customer is eligible to receive as much as 5,000 euros, or $6,300, in royalties. The original pair will eventually be auctioned off.

“It’s about getting back to the roots of denim, not a fashion tool,” said Onvis founder Shannon Sadler.

Denim giant Levi Strauss also has been encouraging consumer recycling. This spring, U.S. shoppers could exchange anything denim for a 20 percent discount on a new pair of Levi’s jeans. The denim collected during the campaign, dubbed “Take Your Jeans Off,” was sold in Goodwill thrift stores. In December 2007, the company introduced a shoe made of reused denim to the European market. The Levi’s Re-Used Jeans Shoes program was expanded into the Asian market in June.

In an industry criticized for its environmental track record, fashion has motivated an environmentally friendly action, Hamer noted.

“This postconsumer use of denim means a reduction in pesticides, water use, pollution, carbon footprint and energy use that would otherwise be used to make another pair from scratch,” she said. “Landfill is a huge challenge, and APC is taking a cradle-to-cradle approach to reduce its environmental footprint — something that all brands should be doing.”

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