From the established importance of stretch to the growing influence of attributes such as moisture and thermal management, mills and jeans makers are looking for performance characteristics to lift the still-struggling fortunes of the jeans market.

Vendors at the Kingpins Show, held July 21 and 22 for the final time at 550 Washington Street in New York’s SoHo district, were genuinely enthusiastic about the acceptance of stretch in the men’s market, as male consumers helped push men’s denim sales back into positive territory in most recent studies by The NPD Group.

“You can’t just say ‘stretch,’” said Kara Nicholas, vice president of product development and marketing at Cone Denim. “Men respond to the idea of comfort. In women’s, stretch is the majority of the market, but not only is it growing in men’s, but the amount of stretch built into men’s jeans has been moving up to and beyond 30 percent.”

While Cone pursues the growing market for stretch through its S Gene brand and other stretch denims, it’s marked its 110th anniversary with the introduction of Natural Indigo Selvage Denim. Using bio-based natural dyes farmed in the U.S. and produced exclusively for Cone by Stony Creek Colors, the vintage fabrics will be produced on American Draper X-3 shuttle looms at Cone’s plant in White Oak, N.C.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that natural indigo has been used in scalable production in the United States in over 100 years,” Nicholas said.

Kathy Barton, U.S. sales manager of Orta Anadolu, the Turkish mill with plants in Turkey and Bahrain, said the jeans market, fighting for consumer recognition, is “heavily focused on marketing right now, and stretch is just about everywhere, pretty much taken for granted. Unless you’re selling vintage, it’s dominant in women’s and increasingly in men’s too. Sure, there are companies that are more focused on raw, like J. Crew or Ralph Lauren, but the movement in the market is in stretch.”

Orta is doing its best to cover all aspects of the fast-moving developments in stretch, offering its Bodyframe cloth in women’s that provides two-way stretch — 30 percent in the weft and 30 percent in the fill. It’s also working with Alchemy, a liquid ammonia compound that helps soften and flatten the fabric, but is applied through an encapsulated process to protect workers.

“Just about everybody has stretch now, and just about the only fabrics I can think of that don’t have it are distressed,” Barton said.

Steve Leslie, head of sales and marketing in the U.S. for China’s Lucky Textiles Group, said the older 98 percent cotton, 2 percent Lycra stretch fabrics have become “something of a laggard” as multicomponent fabrics offering 30 percent stretch or more, such as cotton, polyester and Lycra blends, have taken hold. While men’s has shown significant growth, versus a women’s market in which stretch fabrics are a mainstay, Lucky has had to be mindful of pricing.

“Price points of $100 to $150 like you might see in women’s aren’t going to cut it on the men’s floor,” he said. “For the major brands in men’s, you have to price to be in the $30 to $40 retail price range.”

Lucky is also being mindful of the Better Cotton Initiative. Leslie estimates that “better cotton,” which established standards for the manner in which cotton is managed throughout the supply chain, from the farm to the store, now accounts for about 13 percent of worldwide cotton output but is looking to move to 20 to 30 percent by 2020.

“The hardest part is dealing with the extra expense, although I hope with more significant volume we will be able to handle that. What seems to be pushing in that direction now is that it’s the big corporations that are asking for more BCI cotton. We’re at about 10 percent and moving higher. Green is simply becoming more marketable.”

Along with greater sustainability in Lucky’s line, he’s also pushing for greater functionality, such as moisture and thermal management through Unifi Inc.’s Sorbtek yarns and with the recycled products that are part of its Repreve yarns.

Lucky is also exploring opportunities outside the denim realm, picking up on some of the performance ideas tied to the ath-leisure and outdoor markets. Leslie is enthusiastic about a 5.1-oz. fabric — 72 percent cotton, 25 percent polyester and 3 percent spandex – that provides “comfort à la Lululemon with cotton that absorbs moisture.”

Jack Mathews, director of sales and marketing in the U.S. for Artistic Denim Mills Ltd. of Pakistan, hasn’t been surprised by the popularity of stretch in men’s jeans, but the percentage of stretchability — moving into and above the 30 percent range — has been a surprise.

Artistic has availed itself of various options in the search for stretch, including Invista’s Dual FX technology that combines Lycra for stretch with the T400 fiber that provides enhanced recovery characteristics. While high stretch percentages — such as 40 percent and above – were a natural match for the skinny jeans that were prominent in women’s denim until a few years ago, those same numbers are coming into play in the men’s market, Mathews said, “even if men are seeking comfort and women might have been looking for a tight fit.”

The company has also worked with Lenzing to incorporate fiber concepts such as ProModal into its offerings, providing the soft hand of Modal and the moisture absorption of Tencel.

The mill does full-package work for retailers and brands in Europe and is looking to extend that service to the U.S. next year. “Many of the European fast-fashion retailers have an incredibly compressed supply chain where they can get something into the stores in three months, really giving U.S. retailers a run for their money,” he said.

Artistic is among the mills participating in the Lycra Beauty project which, while introduced five years ago for knit goods such as swimwear, intimates and hosiery, has since November, at Kingpins’ show in Amsterdam, been offered for the woven fabrics used in women’s jeans.

“Consumers associate Lycra with comfort,” said Jean Hegedus, global segment director for denim and women’s at Invista, makers of Lycra. “This puts some science behind it.”

The standards for denim are clearly geared toward the women’s market. To qualify for certification, denim must stretch at least 40 percent with shrinkage of less than 13 percent after three washes and recovery of at least 85 percent. Additionally, fabrics must meet standards for “power” and “hysteresis,” meaning that they fit tightly on the wearer’s body without causing discomfort.

While the certification is for the fabric, rather than the garment on which it is made from, Hegedus estimates that about 35 million pieces of apparel with Lycra Beauty credentials were sold in the past year. And about 200 styles of denim have been certified since the program began.

“The U.S. denim market seems to be facing two dynamics right now,” Hegedus said. “We’re seeing a challenging women’s wear market because of active, and we’re mitigating that through stretch in men’s and stretch levels that are surpassing 15 percent and higher.”

With sustainability becoming an ongoing part of the everyday discussion in denim, firms dedicated to the concept are moving into new ventures. Spain’s Jeanologia is working to adapt its laser technology, introduced to reduce water and chemicals in denim finishing, into more design-oriented purposes, expanding the uses for clients’ previous investments in laser and other technologies.

“We’ve been saying we’ve opened a new closet,” said Manon Clavel, area manager for the U.S.

The Spanish firm is utilizing lasers, ozone and its nano-bubble hardware to etch designs into garments, including patterns that can be “burnt” into Neoprene, bamboo and other materials, as well as to soften them. Geometric patterns and virtually any that can be developed by the designer can be placed on a garment. The company showed brands and retailers a seamless jersey with seams that the laser machinery has laser-printed onto the garment.

“This allows us to move beyond denim, where we’ve had a long commitment that continues into areas like urbanwear, knits, athletic apparel,” she said. “Processes developed to help make denim more sustainable are now being used for garment-dyeing, softening and processes that look printed.”

The July edition of Kingpins will likely be the last held in New York during the month. The show is not only moving to a new location, at Pier 36 – Basketball City on Manhattan’s Lower East side, but also altering its timing to make shows earlier.

The spring-summer 2017 show will be held Nov. 3 and 4, replacing the show previously held in January, and the fall-winter 2017 market will be held May 11 and 12.

Kingpins holds a lease for two shows at the facility with options for additional markets.

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