LOS ANGELES — Denim ﬁrms are adapting.
As denim designers grapple with the rising cost of cotton and respond to the growing popularity of contemporary sportswear trends such as lightweight, draping fabrics and harem pants, the premium denim industry is evolving from the standard ﬁve-pocket jeans business. Tencel, chambray and twill are some of the alternative textiles designers are using in lieu of traditional cotton denim, and the silhouettes and lengths vary so much that the 19th century denim pioneer Levi Strauss wouldn’t be able to recognize the offshoots of his own invention.
“Almost anything goes,” said Tim Kaeding, the former creative director of denim stalwart Seven For All Mankind, who is launching his own line called Mother next spring. “We’re taking that movement from high-end fashion and moving to jeans.”
Such a transition is allowing designers to let their creativity ﬂow and try new things for spring. Lucky Brand is enhancing Boho Americana with a strapless denim jumper cinched at the ankles with elasticized hems. Seven For All Mankind is widening its ﬂared trousers even more to resemble bellbottoms. Siwy is turning to twill for cutoff and cargo shorts. Sinclair amassed 125 different components in the construction of motorcycle jeans strapped with D-rings on the calf. H.A.-67 is making a big play for stripes via cropped leggings. Tencel, a soft, draping ﬁber made of wood pulp, is a go-to one for Diesel, which blended it with cotton and linen for cropped acid-wash harem pants, and for G-Star Raw, which cut Tencel fabric into easy, breezy shorts.
“Finally, the whole fashion thing turned to our direction,” said Rebekka Bach, head of women’s design at G-Star in Amsterdam. “We’ve been doing it for years.”
Five years ago, G-Star began using silk. Now, its portfolio of fabrics includes Tencel, recycled denim and a nettle-based cloth that it spent almost two years developing. The nettle can serve as a viable substitute for cotton, which has seen its price rise as much as 40 percent over the past year. The Tencel collection retails for $130 to $150, while the eco-friendly collection called Raw Sustainable, which includes nettle, sells for between $55 and $370.
“We want to be the perfect denim company that is reachable for everybody,” Bach said.
In the case of Hudson, it was the personal style of creative director Ben Taverniti that trickled down to everybody else.
“I’m always wearing harem pants,” said Taverniti, a fashion-forward Frenchman who previously worked for Kristina Popovich in Paris and Yanuk in Southern California.
For Hudson, based in City of Commerce, Calif., Taverniti designed harem-style cargo pants in lightweight twill in a pigment dye of black and army green. It’s not just Taverniti’s own wardrobe that inﬂuences his work at Hudson. He’s also inspired by how others dress.
“When you look around, you look at movies, magazines [and] books, everything is connected,” he said.
On the denim sales ﬂoor, not everything should be blue with ﬁve pockets.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Jennifer Althouse, buyer for World Denim Bar at Los Angeles’ American Rag Cie, which carries some 80 denim brands. “You have to be creative as a buyer.”
Some of the merchandising risks that Althouse took paid off. For instance, a $209 drop-crotch style with tapered legs from J Brand sold out at World Denim Bar in a week.
“It’s great to have that alternative,” Althouse said.
Another popular option is cargo pants made of twill.
“I’ve certainly seen a lot of success in the cargos this year,” said Marty Bebout, co-owner of the three-door contemporary boutique Blue Bee in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Women have a lot of denim already. They have skinnies, they have boot cuts, they have wide legs. I think they’re looking for something different.”
With extreme ﬂuctuations in the weather, consumers like the comfort of fabrics such as twill and Tencel.
“The weather has been getting hot,” said Michelley Siwy, designer of New York’s Siwy. “The fabric has to get lighter.”
One of the more popular ways to treat denim fabric is to beat it up in the wash. Ya-el Torbati, creative director for Los Angeles-based Raven Denim, has found that Tencel is durable enough to endure stonewash treatments that would leave holes in cotton cloth.
“You can beat it up and it handles better than cotton,” she said.
Moreover, Tencel blended with cotton affords a nice drape without displaying, in Torbati’s words, a “cheesy sheen” that’s seen on polyester. Torbati is so bullish on nontraditional denim fabrics that they will make up 40 percent of the spring lineup, up from 15 percent of the fall collection.
Not every jeans designer is going overboard with alternative fabrics. True Religion told ﬁnancial analysts at Brean Murray Carret & Co. that the current shift away from cotton denim will be relatively short-lived. Like many other denim companies, True Religion’s target is to have a mix of 70 percent of its revenue coming from cotton denim and the remainder derived from other fabrics.
Furthermore, Tencel is not for everybody. Lucky Brand can’t seem to reconcile the shiny fabric with the Boho Americana vibe in its spring collection.
“I don’t want to use synthetic,” said Michael Grifﬁn, executive vice president and product director at Vernon, Calif.-based Lucky.
Instead, he’d rather splurge on a 6-ounce denim from the Japanese textile mill Kaihara and transform it into sailor pants with pork chop pockets, cargo pants and shorts.
“We are not getting as high a margin on this as on other fabrics,” he said. “But we think it’s worth it.”
Since consumers are so price-conscious, even with premium denim, jeans makers are choosing to absorb the cost. But they’re also scrutinizing their choices.
“Especially from Japan, you have fabrics starting at $8 and go to $11 [a yard],” said Jerome Dahan, chief executive ofﬁcer of Citizens of Humanity in Huntington Park, Calif. “We are thinking twice. Are we going to use that or not?”
No matter how expensive cotton may get, denim designers will never abandon the fabric.
“It’s like the pizza industry giving up pepperoni pizza,” said Jana Flumiani, sales director for Los Angeles-based Sinclair. “You just don’t do it. [Cotton’s] the backbone of the industry.”