Siwy Denim

Headache or more of the same? That’s the question that jeansmakers and mall owners in California are asking as the state moves to comply with Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order to cut water use by 25 percent amid a devastating drought.

LOS ANGELES — Big headache or more of the same?

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That’s the question that jeansmakers and mall owners in California are asking as the entire state moves to comply with Gov. Jerry Brown’s historic executive order to cut water use by 25 percent amid a devastating drought.

With no end to the four-year drought in sight, the apparel industry is trying to figure out how to adjust to the aqua austerity issued by the governor after measuring the lowest snowpack that supplies about 30 percent of California’s water needs. Details on what the restrictions entail will be clearer once the state’s Water Resources Control Board fleshes out just how local municipalities will go about meeting the mandatory reduction. A proposal is expected in the middle of the month, with adoption of that plan to come as early as May.

One thing is for certain: The cost of doing business in the Golden State will likely go up. After surviving the Great Recession, record-high unemployment and a protracted labor dispute at the West Coast ports, manufacturers and property owners are bracing for potential rate hikes after the governor ordered local agencies to examine their current pricing for water users. What the new cost structures will look like, and if that would include incentives for those that conserve more than others, depends largely on the Water Resources Control Board’s proposal and each municipality. Moreover, the water restrictions could also hold implications for retail developments in the pipeline, since the order also prohibits new homes and developments from using drinking water for irrigation. Businesses are already preparing for an increase in the minimum wage — from $9 to $10 an hour — at the turn of the new year.

“If you are a large water user, there could be the possibility that you’re going to see a scarce commodity cause the price to rise,” said Fred MacFarlane, spokesman for the city of Vernon, where denim brands including Seven For All Mankind and laundries such as Denim-Tech are headquartered. “I have full expectations that you’re likely going to see pricing models from the water agencies that provide that resource, saying [that] if you fall within this conservation grid, your water rates are probably going to remain the same. If you jump out of that by substantially using more water than you should, than you are generally allotted, the price of that extra water could come at a higher cost.”

Changes are already afoot. Newport Beach, Calif.-based Irvine Company has used reclaimed water since the Seventies for landscaping across its properties located in the city of Irvine, including the Irvine Spectrum Center. Indeed, efforts to be in compliance with existing environmental regulations may leave some mall operators poised to at least partially offset whatever potential impacts the water-use restriction may impose on the industry.

“As part of Westfield’s sustainability efforts over the years, a number of relevant initiatives such as conversion of plant materials to succulents, drip irrigation, smart irrigation controls, low-flow fixtures, waterless urinals, waterless car washes [and] solar arrays have become part of the program at our centers,” said Catharine Dickey, executive vice president of corporate communications for Westfield Corp., which operates nearly 20 malls in California.

In the premium denim industry, alternative treatments that use little — if any — water are evolving from an eco-friendly trend to an industry standard. For instance, ozone acts like a bleach. Laser technology can sear distressed details into a pair of jeans in 10 minutes. Tumbling jeans with synthetic stones and no water yield an abraded effect with a soft hand.

As the state projects the mandatory water reductions to save the equivalent of about 1.5 million acre-feet of water over the next nine months, no step is too small. In Siwy Denim’s Gardena, Calif.-based sewing factory that employs 60, workers halve the number of minutes it takes to steam-press jeans.

“It’s a matter of thinking outside of the box,” said Alain Lafourcade, Siwy’s chief operating officer. “We have to save water.”

Going waterless isn’t cheap, however. Machines that use ozone cost more than $100,000 and the ones that use lasers cost twice as much. Still, designers are willing to give it a try.

“We are working with our factory to look at the water consumption and use other processes like ozone to cut down on our use,” said Benjamin Talley Smith, founder and designer of Talley, who is a client of Caitac Garment Processing Inc. in Gardena, Calif.

Levi’s is marketing directly to consumers with its Water<Less campaign. When it introduced the campaign in spring 2011, it started with 1.5 million units of clothes. As of last year, it has produced some 40 million garments through Water<Less, and it has saved 1 billion liters of water to date. The San Francisco-based company also urges customers to wash their jeans once every two weeks, instead of once a week, to save more than 19 liters of water.

Plus, waterless washes coincide with current fashion trends, according to Nicole King-Burroughs, creative director of Koral Los Angeles. She noticed that denim treated without water is tinted gray. “That just works because that’s the cast of choice,” she said. “It actually might be beneficial at the moment.”

Siwy Denim is also exploring the option to diversify from denim to sportswear next year. Besides introducing a new revenue stream for the company, the sportswear also carries another benefit. “No water, no laundry,” Lafourcade said.