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WWD Denim In Depth issue 11/06/2008

Stretch denim is the preferred fabric in the women’s jeans market, as comfort and a good fit represent the top criteria for purchasers. But a growing number of designers — from junior label Jordache to the Jennifer Aniston-favored Dégaine — hope to sway female customers to rigid denim, a sturdier cloth that integrates not a stitch of spandex.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The end could justify the means: rigid denim withstands the extreme treatments that impart a vintage, worn-and-torn look expected to be big next year.

“If you want an aggressive wash, use rigid goods,” advised John Williams, director of marketing at Level 99 in Gardena, Calif. “You can grind it up. You can beat it up. You can make it look really old. You don’t have to worry about losing the stretch.”

Many designers are hearing the call.

“We don’t want to miss the boat on this,” said Johnny Quach, creative director for Prvcy Premium, who anticipates using rigid denim for a quarter of the Los Angeles label’s collection next fall.

Jordache aims to turn the teenage customer on to rigid denim with its spring lineup of boot-cut jeans. Wholesaling for $30, the styles are either splattered with paint or roughed up with shreds.

“It’s one of those things that she doesn’t have a lot of in her closet right now,” said Anna Kimelman, design director of New York-based Jordache. “She might want to pick it up for diversity in outfitting.”

The recent converts join a small circle of companies that have extolled the virtues of using nonstretch fabric. Level 99 decided to use a nine-oz. Tencel-cotton blend more than a year ago because it thought the fabric draped well in wide-leg and slouchy fits. Both Raven and Kasil returned to rigid denim for their respective fall and spring collections after testing the fabric — to little success — in their lines some years ago.

Now, they can’t make deliveries to stores fast enough.

“We plan to get it out as soon as possible because the demand is incredible,” said Eyal Zarur, co-owner and designer of New York’s Raven Denim. He said that, of the more than 25 styles in the fall collection, five are made of rigid denim. Some of the stores that snapped up the rigid jeans are Kitson, National Jean Co. and Atrium.

“It’s not just a boyfriend jean. It’s the whole group [for] vintage,” Zarur said. “Everyone that sees it wants it….It just looks so fresh.”

What Sheila Marie likes about rigid denim is its ability to hold everything in. “It actually makes your thighs look smaller,” said Marie, who designs Los Angeles-based Sheiki Jeans.

To put it more bluntly, Gregory Abbou, the designer and founder of Dégaine in Vernon, Calif., said that, with rigid denim, women “are compromising comfort for a great-looking ass.”

There’s only so much that some women will suffer to look good, however.

“My customers won’t wear stiff [jeans] anymore. They want to feel comfortable,” said Jackie Brander, the owner of Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif.

With a keen eye for the newest trends in denim, Brander picked up Dégaine’s slouchy boyfriend jeans for her boutique. Yet, she drew the line at rigid fabric cut into skintight jeans. “It has to have wiggle room in it,” she said.

To appeal to customers seeking comfort, AG Adriano Goldschmied experimented with blending Supima yarn with cotton fibers grown in the Southwest for a new subbrand called AG-ed Selvage. The result was a supple cloth that was washed in medium and dark tints, scrubbed white on the thigh and hung loose in a boyfriend fit. Enhancing the uniqueness of the fabric are buttons pounded out of sterling silver.

“We wanted that vintage feel but we wanted softness, so we added the Supima cotton,” said Sam Ku, design director at AG Adriano Goldschmied, based in South Gate, Calif.

There’s a price to pay for that softness. Because Supima costs as much as 30 percent more than its conventional cotton, AG-ed Selvege jeans will wholesale for $158. Looking ahead to next summer, Ku plans to whip up airy shorts in a boyfriend fit as well as what resembles a pair of jeans that have been ripped open and sewn together into a breezy skirt.

Certainly, rigid denim isn’t suitable for all silhouettes. Seven For All Mankind, the Los Angeles-based premium denim label owned by VF Corp., said its fitted boot-cut and A-Pocket styles are usually the best choices for nonstretch fabric, while the skinny styles, like Roxanne and Gwenevere, work better when constructed in a more malleable fabric with stretch.

Designers also have to work extra hard to perfect the fit in rigid denim. Sheiki’s Sheila Marie said it only takes her two tries to complete the fitting of stretch jeans on a model. In comparison, she did six fittings with the rigid denim, which will be available in the spring as a five-pocket boyfriend jean as well as a cargo style tricked out with a double-size waistband and back pockets imposed on the yoke.

To be sure, many denim designers destructed their share of fabric enhanced with a stretchy fiber such as spandex. But the outcome was marred by wrinkles, puckering around the holes, a bubbly texture and fuzzy frays. In short, “it looks very cheap and not attractive,” said Raven’s Zarur.

Dégaine’s Abbou subjected some of his jeans cut from rigid fabric to as many as 14 steps in the distressing process over a period of 15 hours.

“You can get really far with rigid denim that you can’t get with stretch denim. You can get holes and grinding and this vintage effect that doesn’t look fake,” Abbou said. On the flip side, however, “this trend [for extreme washes] will bring the prices up,” he said.

After adding a boyfriend style in rigid to Dégaine’s holiday collection, which will begin shipping this month with a $95 wholesale price tag, he plans to integrate six styles made of nonstretch fabric in the spring grouping: boyfriend, skinny, slim boot cut, a boot cut that begins flaring right above the ankle rather than at the knee like a conventional boot, Bermudas and short shorts. Wholesale prices will run between $75 and $115.

Abbou expects to find a receptive audience that isn’t intimidated by sticker shock, even in this challenging economic climate.

“I don’t know if it’s the economy or what’s going on in the world, but people are going through a regression [to] what was good in the good old days,” he said. “They want to go back to something authentic, and rigid fabric is the way to go.”

Interestingly, none of the denim companies using rigid denim plan to advertise to consumers that they are doing so. Even GoldSign, the Huntington Park, Calif.-based premium denim label that denim veteran Adriano Goldschmied started after leaving AG Adriano Goldschmied, is keeping mum on the special lightweight fabric it had woven in Japan out of a single yarn for the vertical-running warp and a two-ply yarn for the horizontal-running weft. Unlike most denim, which uses single yarns for both the weft and warp, the result is a rigid fabric that feels as comfortable as a stretch.

“When you buy a boyfriend jean, you don’t care [about the fabric],” Goldschmied said. “You care about the wash. You care about the detail.”

All that really matters is how the woman looks. If a customer needs to adopt the “no pain, no gain” mantra, so be it.

After all, Kasil designer David Lim pointed out that women always have gone to great lengths for fashion. “Women walk around in high heels — it’s not comfortable, but it looks good,” he said.

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