Adriano Goldschmied has lost none of the passion that he’s brought to his work in denim for more than 40 years, but the man often called the “Godfather of Denim” was frank about the negative environmental and health impact of the jeanswear production process and the urgency of reversing the damage.

This story first appeared in the May 18, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Our generation invented the finish on the garment that is a killer, I’m sorry,” he admitted. “There were finishes that were not healthy to the people working on them. And they also created a strong impact to the ecosystem. I feel like our generation made the mistakes, and now we have to fix them. In a way, it’s the last thing we have to do. It’s not our job to create a new jean but to leave to the new generation a new business that is clean and more successful.”

The percentage of cotton grown organically is still very small, but new machines that can pick the cotton without the use of defoliants may help boost that figure. “Defoliants are used to prepare the cotton for the machines and it’s a chemical that is horrible. There is a guy in Mexico who invented a machine with very hot jet air that prepares the plant for picking, instead of using the chemicals,” said Goldschmied.

The recycling of denim to make new jeans is another procedure that can reduce environmental impact.

Additionally, cellulosic fibers such as Tencel, bamboo, viscose, Modal and cupro can be incorporated into denim to reduce dependence on cotton. These fibers have less of an impact on the environment, as they require less water and less flat land to grow and harvest than cotton.

The expanded use of laser and ozone machines is also reducing the need for water and chemicals in the finishing process. “This is extremely promising. In our own laundry, already 40 percent of production is made with ozone. It is going to change, in my opinion, the laundry business,” said Goldschmied, who was careful to add that the goal of these eco-friendly processes must still be the creation of fresh, interesting products that consumers want to buy.

“Talking about sustainability and eco processes doesn’t have to change our final goal: to create fashion,” he observed. “Our mission is to give a new perspective to the jean business. I’ve worked a long time in this business, but I have never seen as many changes as in the past five to seven years.”

New consumer pockets are emerging. “The new markets coming out are basically the manufacturing countries. They made a lot of money selling product to us and now they have a lot of money to spend. It’s the new class of rich in China, India, the Middle East — and the new story will be South America.”

Goldschmied was instrumental in the founding of a number of premium jeans labels, including Diesel, Replay and AG Adriano Goldschmied, none of which he is involved with professionally now. After four decades in the business, he is currently a partner and executive vice president of product development at Citizens of Humanity and its sibling label, GoldSign.

When Goldschmied started out in the industry in 1970 with his first line, denim was a symbol of the counterculture. “The inspiration for us was the rebellion of the young generation, of rock ’n’ roll and London,” he recalled. “The jean was at that time very different from today, and it was the flag of innovation in clear conflict with the conservative world of our parents.”

The rise of denim in that era signaled the democratization of fashion, said Goldschmied, illustrating his point with slides contrasting an elegantly bourgeois Sophia Loren with the more casual, groovy vibe of Jane Birkin. “At that time, fashion was not for everybody; it was for a small elite — for a woman like Sophia Loren,” he observed. “We brought fashion into the jean, which at that time was basically workwear. We created a style [of] life out of the jean. We made fashion available to everybody.”

Goldschmied established the Genius Group in 1978 with a number of partners, including Renzo Rosso, who eventually took control of Diesel and built it into what it is today. Other brands that came out of the group included Goldie and Rivet. Diesel actually started as a brand aimed at selling jeans made from leftover fabric, recalled Goldschmied. “If I have to tell you how we started the brand and the name, it’s kind of ridiculous. Diesel at that time was something smelling really bad and for a car going slowly. We said, ‘Let’s find a brand that never will be successful.’ You see how fashion is,” said Goldschmied.

Although Levi Strauss — the man and the company — is often credited with inventing the blue jean, Goldschmied insisted there were many precursors to the famous San Francisco-based firm. Showing a slide of a 16th-century Genoa sailor wearing rugged blue pants, he declared, “Look how cool he is — he is wearing a high-waisted roll-top boyfriend jean. The reality is that denim is much more than 100 years old. And after a century, the passion for denim is stronger than ever.”

Surveying the current denim scene, he said online retailers are becoming ever more prominent as they take business from brick-and-mortar stores. Goldschmied decried the emphasis on flagship stores for brands and said unique, multibrand specialty-store environments that become destinations in their own right will help counterbalance the move to online shopping.

“To resist e-commerce, you need to give an emotion that you cannot get on the Internet,” he said. “It’s the result of the personal experience of the owner of the store. These stores need to be global and bring their same concepts to Shanghai and Indonesia. If you take Ron Herman exactly and bring it to Shanghai, it will be a tremendous success — because it creates an emotion for the consumer.”

Those consumers in Shanghai and elsewhere are influenced by celebrities more than ever in today’s global media age, added Goldschmied.

“L.A. is special in that there are celebrities eating at the tables next to you. You can say, ‘Hey, I made a great jean — would you like to have it?’ ” said Goldschmied with a laugh. “We don’t even realize how important that is. In one second, a girl in Hong Kong sees a picture of a celebrity and says, ‘I want it.’ ”

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