Late last month, attendees at the Kingpins Show in Amsterdam raptly watched a panel discussion on the future of premium denim.
Outflanked by a still-booming activewear market on one side and a consumer desire for greener products on the other, the high-end denim business is under duress and is looking for ways to redefine itself. The segment — and for that matter, the entire denim market — is also seeing share being gobbled up by fast-fashion alternatives that lure away consumers.
At the New York show Tuesday, many of the same themes emerged during coffee breaks, seminars and in exhibit booths. And, based on the exhibits and interviews with industry stakeholders, the denim market is turning to what it does best to not only survive, but to thrive: innovating on the product development front.
“Today, denim is also knits — that’s the reality,” said Michael Kininmonth, product manager, marketing and business development at Lenzing. “And it was brought about because of [consumer] demand. Of course, the pace of bringing new product to market has quickened. And innovation is keeping the industry alive. It is its lifeblood.”
To illustrate the point, Kininmonth displayed a pair of reversible women’s bottoms. They were knitted, and indigo on one side — for daytime and work — and featured a loud and large floral print on the other side, “for going out after work,” Kininmonth said. “Is it denim?” he added. “The purists would say no. But this is how the industry has evolved.”
He noted that technologies, especially in the laundering and finishing side of the business, are also helping sustain the premium denim segment along with advances in fibers and garment construction. Kininmonth also said the mass market and fast-fashion retailers are “taking their influences from premium denim.”
“But how long can premium mills do product development and not reap all the benefits?” Kininmonth said.
Lawrence Li, sales manager at Kurabo Denim International, said the denim market is highly fragmented, and it has been challenging over the past few years. “Business is tough,” Li said. “Consumers are still buying more activewear and less denim, overall. Brands such as Nike are making it very difficult.” Li said yoga and stretch pants continue to take share from the denim segment, and he also cites the importance of new products to drive sales.
Innovation was clearly the underpinning theme at Lenzing’s booth as well as at the Invista exhibit, which was spotlighting a variety of Lycra-based fiber technologies for stretch denim. Invista also showcased its Lyrca Hyrbid Technology, which combines the look of a woven fabric with the “fit and freedom” of a knit.
And speaking of wovens, Cotton Incorporated launched some new products at the show as part of its growing Fabricast Collection. Inspired by men’s wear, the launch includes pinstripes in sulfur blue and black and gray as well as black and gray with nep yarn effects. The company also featured space dyes and double cloth stripes. With indigo, new launches included broken twill and laser-marked fabrics — and laser-marked bull denim.
Cotton Incorporated was also promoting its moisture-management technology, which is gaining interest in the market, said Teresa Zugay, senior executive account manager, of global supply chain marketing.
At Cone Denim, “performance” was an oft-repeated term for the mill. The company, which is celebrating its 110th anniversary, was promoting a dozen or so fabrics that featured a variety of technologies from Lenzing as well as certified products from Unifi and Invista. The company was also touting a new antimicrobial denim certified by Burlington Labs.
Kara Nicholas, vice president of product development and marketing, said Cone was marking the anniversary with the launch of White Oak Natural Indigo Selvage Denim, which is made in the U.S. at the company’s White Oak mills in Greensboro, N.C. Aside from the importance of continually developing new product innovations, Nicholas said it was also important to be authentic — which is what the White Oak launch aims to do.
“[The] anniversary serves as a perfect time to bring together [White Oak]’s heritage and authentic selvage denims with new innovation,” Nicholas said, adding that it is made from biobased natural dyes grown from farmed indigo. “I think this is the first time that natural indigo has been used in [a scaleable] production in the U.S. in over 100 years,” she added.
And there’s a lesson here, perhaps, for the industry: Innovation can also mean looking back into the past to help inform the future.