According to Alberto Candiani, the fourth generation of a family with an 80-year history of making denim, the gap between sustainability and innovation has finally closed.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Yet for now, he said, the fashion pendulum seems to have swung away from premium denim, the mainstay of Tessitura di Robecchetto Candiani SpA, his family’s fabric mill in Italy.

“Denim to me is a beautiful fabric. Probably the most democratic fabric on earth,” said Candiani, the company’s global manager, with a focus on product development and fabric engineering.

With sustainability still a hot topic, Candiani kicked off his presentation by saying, “In one year, many things have changed and improved. Finally, sustainability is matching innovation.”

He said sustainable product, which used to be considered less attractive and more expensive, now looks just as good or even better than traditionally produced denim. To prove his point, he brought several samples that were passed around the audience.

The innovations at Candiani include a dyeing process called Indigo Juice, laundering processes that utilize lasers and ozone to minimize water waste, recycling water to clean the machines, recycled cotton weft yarns that the company introduced in December, which give denim a 35 percent recycled cotton content, and recycled polyester weft used to make stretch denim.

He went on to discuss a company’s moral obligation to “do the right thing” by conserving the environment and providing better working conditions for cotton farmers.

“Because the EU regulations are very strict, ‘Made in Italy’ becomes more a certification of ‘made in the right way’ than ‘elegant,’” he said.

But while fabrics are becoming more innovative, what of the designs? In Candiani’s eyes, things have stagnated.

“Today in the denim industry we don’t have a big concept like comfort stretch in the Nineties. I don’t see something new in the market, which is why denim has become kind of boring in the last five or six years. It’s the reason we are still making colors and prints.”

He continued, “I believe in the last few years, the premium denim industry has become more conservative, which is why the fast-fashion brands have became stronger. The product looks really good and the price is extremely competitive.”

He recalled that five years ago, designers for these companies would come to him with a pair of premium denim jeans and ask for the same thing. Now the tables have turned.

“Sometimes I am selling the same fabric to one of these guys and to a high-end Milanese fashion brand. So everything has changed,” he said. “My girlfriend is mixing H&M and Gucci.”

He called for designers to work more closely with denim makers, and is launching a new Web site to provide more insight and transparency to customers.

“They need to tell us where to go as much as we tell them where we think denim is going,” he said. “We are ready for a new challenge but we need to know from the designers what they need; our doors are open to them to develop new things.”

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