Is creativity prescient? While developing their fall collections, designers could have had no idea of the impending global nightmare, the two-tier crisis, health and economic, that will impact our lives forever. Toiling away in their studios, they did what they always do at that time: ponder and work through how to come up with powerful fashion that women will find compelling and want to wear.
For whatever creative or cosmic reason, many designers chose to include denim in their collections. It was all over the runways. Collectively, the myriad individual decisions to put it there seem very right for the moment. Like every other discretionary-goods business, fashion is now wondering what people will be willing to spend their money on as retail around the world starts opening, whether in full or with curbside discretion. Most likely, when it comes to clothes, the customer will want versatility, longevity, value and, of course, style.
In the classics-longevity realm, nothing beats denim. Certainly Yves Saint Laurent thought so. “I wish I had invented blue jeans, the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant,” he mused. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity — all I hope for in my clothes.”
For fall, denim reflected all of Saint Laurent’s checkpoints, showing up variously as sexy, demure, bohemian, urban, racy, witty and more. By the time the collections ended on March 3 in Paris, it seemed like a significant trend — smart, versatile, practical, engaging. Now, it seems like a significant cultural statement.
“We love denim,” said Ottolinger’s Christa Bösch and Cosima Gadient. “It has the unique quality to connect society. It’s a fabric which is worn through all professions, countries and societies.”
Yet every big-picture reading is comprised of countless individual human stories, a reality brought into sharp relief in the COVID-19 crisis. “Very few things in fashion get better with time, [and] are both comfortable and sexy, and work on [people of] any age or size,” said Michael Kors. “I think now more than ever people are going to expect a lot from what they buy, so denim will become more relevant than it has ever been in the past.”
The “now” to which Kors refers is a lifetime away from those hours toiled in the design studio. Then, while much of fashion was already challenged, particularly independent brands, the economy was flourishing and consumer confidence soared. Designers were thinking, as always, about speaking to their clients with newness and allure. Now the concept of “relevance” is front-and-center in a very clinical way, in an economic landscape in which shopping for most categories of clothes has pretty much screeched to a halt.
Online sales have shown that if people are buying anything, it’s a very literal take on buy-now-wear-now — sweats, workout clothes, Zoom-ready tops, everyday items for life under quarantine. It makes sense that, as reopening expands, function will remain a priority.
As his starting point for fall, Moohong Kim looked to acknowledge the importance of the ordinary, focusing on classic wardrobe components that are “easily ignored or undervalued.…In this context,” he said, “denim was a perfect means of expressing the collection’s theme, as it is a typical everyday item in our wardrobe, across social class, ages and genders.”
Yet Kim also worked a deliberate “polarization,” contrasting those basics with inventive, artfully deconstructed iterations. “As people have a perception of how denim pieces should look,” he explained. “I highlighted a dialectical relationship between classic and progressive usage of denim items.”
Jonathan Cohen played with a different dichotomy, informed by his “eclectic background.” He grew up in San Diego, where skate/surf culture “is all about denim,” but his family is from Mexico City, where people always dressed up. As a youth, he felt underdressed when visiting. “However, as I got older, I loved the mix of that sophistication with ‘grunge,’” Cohen said. “Denim has really allowed me to bring that contrasting mood into the collection. I love mixing something that might feel ‘evening’ with something as casual as denim. It grounds the pieces, and shows how you can really invest in a piece and wear it in different ways. Dress them up, and dress them down.”
Brandon Maxwell, too, considers denim part of his personal heritage. “I’m from Texas, so denim is kind of in my DNA. It’s the uniform of that state,” he offered. “Where I grew up, not only did you wear denim during the day, but men would go to nighttime events with pressed denim, a sport coat and boots. It was a core item to have in your wardrobe.”
His clients wear denim with polished panache, “very similar to how we present it on the runway,” Maxwell noted, “with a heel, blazer and crisp top. She can also dress it down with a T-shirt and sneakers; that’s the beauty of denim. There is so much versatility in how you can wear it, so she’s never pigeonholed.”
The dressed-up, dressed-down element resonates powerfully among designers. “Denim is part of the foundation of our global fashion culture,” said Y/Project creative director Glenn Martens. “It’s a no-brainer. The moment you pair it with something exclusive (for example, a nice leather stiletto), the denim becomes elevated. But that exact same pair of pants can be totally street and raw whenever you pair it with a different typology of garments. Denim is totally fluent.”
David Koma loves the fabric’s highly personal sensuality. “Denim has this rare ability to fit even better with time, so it ends up perfectly accentuating the wearer’s silhouette,” he said. “And when you know something fits you well, it gives you confidence. I believe confidence is the sexiest thing you can wear.”
“Germanier is quite glamorous,” said Kevin Germanier, whose personal daily uniform consists of jeans, a black turtleneck and sneakers, a look his friends tell him is very Steve Jobs. His customer veers a bit flashier. “Let’s say we’re very in-your-face, it’s very colorful, it’s dramatic,” he said. “When you go on my Instagram you see Lady Gaga, Kristen Stewart. But at the end of the day, the active woman, she is wearing denim. She’s on the go, she’s moving, she’s not in a 2,000-euro gown all day long. So I wanted for Germanier to have those basics.”
Not surprisingly, the notion of longevity comes up again and again when discussing denim. Chris Leba, who founded R13 in 2009, starts every collection with denim and an attitude of “timeless irreverence.” From that baseline, this time out, he sought to integrate a heightened sense of refinement.
“I wanted our fall 2020 collection to have a more serious and sophisticated tone,” Leba said. He added that when consumers return to shopping, denim may be a go-to item. “Every human being sees the world differently, but for many, a pair of jeans represents a sense of authenticity and honesty — something that the world needs right now.”
During quarantine, even people fortunate enough to work from home have been reevaluating their consumer inclinations (how can you not?), the considerations in play both value- and values-driven. Then, from the perspective of “fashion need,” national economies are opening up in stages and with assorted restrictions, which will result in months more of drastically reduced activity in office workplaces and social outposts such as restaurants. Allowing for such considerations, once people start buying clothes, denim has an excellent chance of going to the top of the shopping list.
Cinq à Sept founder Jane Siskin considers denim a bridge between WFH sweats and itching-for-the-outside wear. “In these days of leggings and sweatpants, jeans can make you feel dressed up,” she said. “We have heard from our customers that putting on our denim makes them feel put together. The ritual of zipping a zipper, a mindless gesture that fell out of most of our routines without notice [during quarantine], is a moment of normalcy that we are all craving.”
In the day-to-day act of getting dressed, a part-rote, part-meticulously planned activity, most of us don’t analyze the in-the-moment psychological reason for choosing this or that item. Yet denim imbues a sense of ease that may be more front-of-mind now than ever before. “There is a ‘get better over time’ quality to denim, as well as a sense of timelessness, that is definitely comforting,” said Sylvie Millstein, founder of Hellessy. “Even with the added drama of panels or embellishment, our clients know they can pair and wear [our jeans] with so many things year after year without it getting tired or worn.”
Certainly denim has a significant down side. The severe environmental effects of its traditional production processes are not lost on designers, many of whom are taking steps to ameliorate that impact. For example, Bösch and Gadient noted that with their denim partner ISKO, Ottolinger is constantly “researching technologies to use less water, organic and recycled cotton, and other developments.” And Germanier works only with vintage denim, which he said, “is so easy to source, it’s just unbelievable.”
But then, durability is part of the enduring appeal of denim. “It’s fundamental,” said Martens. “I think it will survive anything. It’s made to thrive.”
That sartorial tenacity makes denim among the most personal of wardrobe items, kept for years and worn often, with a psychological comfort factor that runs deep. “The wearer ends up making many memories that are associated with those pieces,” said Koma. “In a way, your favorite denim jacket or jeans end up becoming time capsules of your stories. They store important moments of your life.”