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Denim’s reputation as the most enduring fabric is about to be put to a tough test: Distressed looks are trending, and the manipulations are as resourceful as a Jackson Pollock painting.

This story first appeared in the June 10, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Needle-punching, heirloom-quilting, Kantha-stitching, hand-painting, multilayer tie-dyeing and labor-intensive surface-scratching are just a few of the techniques that have given rise to a new category of denim, best described as artisanal.

“Denim has a thousand faces,” declared Jonathan Christopher, winner of the inaugural Global Denim Award at last November’s Kingpins show in Amsterdam. “It’s unlike any other fabric. You get so much more out of it than when you work with just wool or silk.”

Christopher teamed with Italian denim specialist I.T.V. for an all-denim collection last fall and has been hooked ever since.

“The whole experience with I.T.V. was an eye-opener,” he said. “I was standing in their washing room myself trying to understand which chemicals did what to the fabric. I.T.V. has this wine-dye method, and we combined it with a metallic coating. We also used this old technique of punch-felting, mixing wool with denim, and then I discovered this bundle of waste material, which looked like wool yarn and was about to be recycled. But we knitted a sweater with it and indigo-dyed it.”

For now, each item is custom-made, but Christopher is looking for production partners, probably in London, where he finds producers more willing to tackle production runs of 15 to 20 pieces, “unlike Italian factories, where the minimum starts at 100,” he notes.

Christopher’s upcoming collection, to bow July 11 during Amsterdam fashion week, will feature a novelty developed by Turkish denim maker Isko called “Scratch ’N Jean,” that can be likened to a 3-D denim canvas that can be customized through a simple scraping technique.

Patrick Peltier, an artist turned fashion designer, said his brand Bandulu was born in his art studio in Connecticut. “I don’t wear a smock, so I always messed up my pants. One day, I applied embroidery to cover up the stains and people liked it.”

The trigger might have been accidental, but Peltier’s compositions are the result of meticulous design. The embroideries are arranged in a way to mimic the movement of splattered paint imbuing his collection — mostly denim pants and sweaters — with a special aesthetic.

“On the streets, it’s really jeans and hoodies,” he said, adding that his collection, available through VFiles in New York, Bodega in Boston and his own Web site, bandu.lu, is to get a boost from a collaboration with the Hartford Denim Co.

“The production is closer to 50 to 100 pairs of jeans a year for now. It started off as an ‘art project’ and the quantities are small. But now, people are buying pieces of art essentially, guaranteed by the low quantities.” Prices range between $100 for a T-shirt and $1,000 for a denim jacket.

“Denim is the most classic American fabric for sportswear,” said Rio Uribe, founder of Gypsy Sport.

Since it sprang to life in 2012, the label has gained street cred via its remastered denim styles, attracting the eye of Rihanna and Rita Ora.

“Denim has really gone premium,” said Uribe, a Balenciaga alum. “A lot of the stuff I’m interested in I cannot afford, so I use a lot of my own — chop it up and sew back together. I like to mix multiple denims to create a new genre. It becomes a new fabric in its own right.”

His trompe l’oeil patchwork prints are based on photos of jeans he owned. One fabric can contain up to seven washes collaged together. The California native also reappropriates crystal gems, soda can tabs or shells as crafty appliqués, creating a range of offbeat surfaces. Ready-to-wear averages around $500 and is available through Opening Ceremony, The Corner and Gr8 in Tokyo and St. Petersburg, but his hand-worked pieces are made-to-order, priced around $1,500.

Gypsy Sport has been invited to present its first men’s wear collection within the emerging designer space established by the Council of Fashion Designers of America during New York’s inaugural men’s week in July.

Some see denim’s comeback to the runways as a double-edged sword. London-based designer Faustine Steinmetz said she is concerned that the growing popularity among designers will take the easiness away from the material.

“To me, denim has always been a staple,” she said. “I’m definitely not about shapes, but fabrics. Playing around with texture again and again actually makes the pieces much stronger.”

Steinmetz’s hand-worked materials — she spins, dyes and weaves her own product — combining myriad techniques are a highlight for denim enthusiasts during London Fashion Week. The French-born designer has been putting the fabric through the wringer since the age of 13.

“My first hand loom was an impulse buy,” she recalled. “I just bought the machine and figured it out on YouTube later. Industrial fabrics are very flat. You get bored quickly.” But developing them by hand, which often takes an entire week, provides an irresistible “taste of manipulation, and I like the confrontation between modern and ancient.”

Around 250 artisanal pieces leave her East London studio every year. “Right now our capacity matches the demand. As the demand grows, we are sure we can continue to match it by expanding the team,” she said. Her retail clients include Isetan, Corso Como and Opening Ceremony, and the denim retails between 500 pounds, or $766, to 1,000 pounds, or $1,532.

For spring, Steinmetz embroidered white denim with recycled denim yarn, and produced furlike pieces while unraveling the fabric and sewing together longer strips to produce a rich, fluffy texture. Her favorite is a hand-weave done from silk and copper. “You can literally sculpt pieces with it,” she added. “It looks like denim but it’s not.”

Steinmetz plans to extend her repertoire to nondenim.

“To keep it fresh, I would like to work more with different pieces of clothing. A polo, for instance, could be reworked infinitely — much like denim.”

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