MILAN — Going big by going small.
Exhibitors at the first edition of the Denim Première Vision trade show held in Milan noted a start-up mind-set is pivotal in keeping up with the fast-changing denim and apparel industries and catering to clients’ demand for innovation and sustainability.
“We are giving space to any sustainable innovation, in addition to a strong fashion proposition,” explained Guglielmo Olearo, international exhibitions director of Première Vision, the organizer of the denim trade show. “Our commitment [to sustainability] is proof of how much the topic is relevant for the industry.”
The trade show, which ran May 28 to 29 at the Superstudio Più venue, closed on an upbeat note as the 93 exhibitors including weavers, yarn makers, chemical companies and technology enablers, were overall impressed by the affluence.
Decamped to Milan as part of a roving format it kicked off last December in London, the fair attracted 2,524 visitors, up 8 percent compared to the London edition and significantly above the number registered in Paris in May last year.
“We didn’t want to travel for travel’s sake, we wanted first and foremost to offer tangible business opportunities,” Olearo said of the itinerant showcase, adding the fair role is that of a “marketing tool.”
To this end, coinciding with the Milan show, the online marketplace Première Vision launched in September last year was extended to exhibitors of the denim fair. The business-to-business e-commerce site was opened up to denim weavers with plans to introduce accessories and hardware makers later this year. “The marketplace was born from the fair’s foresight in understanding it could represent a complementary tool to the trade show and a further occasion for buyers and manufacturers to meet,” explained Olearo.
Applying a start-up mind-set to design and product development, industry veteran Paolo Gnutti — who served as head of R&D at Italy-based ITV Denim — launched his own project under the PG Denim moniker. Gnutti controls 70 percent of the company, a joint venture with the Berto and Eurotessile textile firms, each owning 15 percent.
“PG Denim eschews the price war, which is what big retailers are banking on,” Gnutti explained, noting delocalization has cut costs, but mined the quality of products and their eco-compatibility. “We’ve been sustainable since Day One, which is not only about reducing water consumption or using organic cotton. I don’t need to greenwash my business, that’s what companies selling denim pants for 6 euros need to do,” he pinpointed.
At the fair the company presented the fall 2020 collection — its third — which included a range of flamboyant styles in which denim was reworked with vinyl coating or blended with silver threads. A velvety shirt, part of the Samite range, was crafted from a blend of indigo, silk and viscose, retrieving an ancient weaving technique from the Middle Ages.
“Established brands are scared to experiment as marketers often push them to keep banking on what’s been sold in previous seasons, thus flattening the offer,” Gnutti said, touting the peculiarity of his products as among the winning assets, despite their higher price. “Nobody is asking for prices,” he remarked.
In 2018, the company totaled revenues of 4 million euros, generated mostly in Italy, Germany and the U.S., and it is poised to double its sales in 2019, according to Gnutti.
An atelier approach is also core to the strategy textile firm Albini Group has implemented for its Albiate 1830 denim brand. “It’s the fastest growing label within our portfolio, as we’ve entered the luxury streetwear segment,” explained Tim Neckebroeck, the group’s marketing director, touting the ability to diversify and rejuvenate the offer by expanding it to textiles suitables for pants, shirts and outerwear. The group, which also includes the Albini 1876, Albini Donna and Thomas Mason labels, closed 2018 with sales of 152 million euros, up 2 percent compared to the previous year.
At Milan’s Denim Première Vision, Albiate 1830 unveiled a silky denim fabric called Sea Island Cotton sourced from Jamaica and Barbados and available in different weights for shirts and pants, for around 40 percent more the price than regular denim, as well as a 100 percent organic cotton denim collection. The latter is also certified according to Global Organic Textile Standards, proving the origin of the yarns.
“Following this route we believe to be also benefiting the European industry, because traceability allows end consumers to evaluate the garments’ carbon footprint,” he said, adding the company’s aim is to align with Europe’s Sustainable Development Goals. To this end, the group is gearing up to unveil a project on circular processes in July in partnership with a still-undisclosed American company and it has set up Albini Energia, a stand-alone company within the group, focused on implementing the company’s energy-saving processes and efficiency.
“The [denim] industry understood the value of sustainability, the next steps will encompass recycling and circular economy,” noted Neckebroeck. Businesswise, he said Italy counts on a few strong textile companies left, “which need to collaborate to reiterate the high-value of Made in Italy denim.”
According to Francesca Polato, communication manager at Veneto-based weaver Berto, the value of Italian denim may no longer be enough to cope with the increasing competition from cheaper foreign productions. “In the past you could say a lower price equaled a cheaper fabric, but it’s no longer like that,” she noted.
Conversely, in order to cater to premium demand, Berto is focused on “unconventional fabrics,” both in terms of design and innovation. Called “Rebellious Spirit,” the fall 2020 collection included a range of different styles, such as a striped canvas over dyed with blue and black pigments; a fabric combining indigo yarns with wool, silk, polyester for a multicolored speckled effect, and a range called “Transportatation,” which boasts waterproof, breathable and stretch performances.
The collection also featured an expanded range of sustainable products, such as a canvas, whose 65 percent is made by regenerated fabrics coming from the company’s own production wastes and developed in partnership with Biella-based Marchi e Fildi. Finished with ozone compounds, the production reduces up to 80 percent of water consumption. “We’re proud that we are only recycling our own wastes, because if we talk about life-cycle assessment, we’re also reducing the carbon footprint of the recycling process,” said Polato.
The company produces 5 million meters of denim each year and despite the fact that volumes have experienced a contraction in the 2017 to 2018 period, Polato said she is “optimistic, because the clients’ demand for sustainability and transparency represents [business] opportunities we can spoil. We have a storied know-how to offer,” she concluded mentioning Italy and Germany as among the top markets.
Japanese Asahi Kasei, a chemical and material science company, traveled to Milan to unveil additions to its eco-friendly premium stretch Roica yarns, part of the company’s “eco-smart” collection. Offering a holistic approach to sustainability, Asahi Kasei Spandex Europe’s chief marketing officer Shinohe Hiroaki said “our philosophy is to contribute to people’s well-being.”
“Stretch denim is gaining momentum, but we’ve never really been into regular stretch fabrics, rather we are focused on functional innovative stretch denim,” explained Hiroaki.
Among the innovations, the Global Recycle Standard-certified Roica EF yarn is made by more than 50 percent of preconsumer recycled denim fibers. Italian denim weaver Candiani partnered with the company on a special version of the yarn for its ReLast range of sustainable fabrics, which will be employed by denim label Closed.
Hiroaki underscored that although “the trend of responsibility is growing, the most challenging aspect sits at the consumer level, as they might not yet understand [the value].” To this end, international certifications have been a key priority for Asahi Kasei. Its Roica V550 stretch fabric featuring degradable elastan that breaks down without releasing harmful substances is the world’s first elasticized denim to have obtained the Cradle to Cradle Gold Level certification for material health.
“Denim manufacturers are talking a lot about sustainability and responsibility, but more process-wise. What we can and want to do is adding a value to the product itself,” noted Hiroaki, adding the denim division generates 5 to 10 percent of the company’s turnover.
Often tainted as the fabric wasting more energy and environmental resources, the role played by chemical companies in promoting a greener denim industry is widely recognized as crucial. “If sustainability, innovation and transparency were assets in the past to support a company’s growth, today they are necessities,” said Olearo.
Putting the spotlight on sustainability, the trade show organized a range of talks and workshops exploring the topic and offering exhibitors and visitors a chance to know more about the direction the industry is taking. “Denim is a peculiar industry and achieving fabrics’ innovation is no easy task,” said Pascaline Wilhelm, the fair fashion director.
“The whole industry is working towards innovation and has found answers it didn’t have 10 years ago,” she added. “Consumers want more eco-friendly products and more transparency. They want real good products, so the industry had no choice, it needed to adapt,” Wilhelm remarked.
Keeping innovation in mind, German chemical company Rudolf has established a start-up division called Hub 1922, which is primarily focused on high-tech apparel-related chemicals. Alberto de Conti, head of Rudolf fashion division, explained that “by analyzing our identity we discovered we lacked agility in staying in touch with brands and retailers, which are more and more aware of the chemicals going into their products.”
Hub 1922 thus opened up to a design-driven approach offering finishing treatments for the apparel industry, especially denim, positioned both on the high-end and mass market segments. Leveraging a R&D center in Munich, where 85 scientists are employed, the company aims to “export German engineering with an Italian style,” said De Conti.
At Denim Première Vision, Rudolf Hub 1922 presented a polyurethane-based finishing, which enhances the shape retention features of stretch denim garments, which, according to De Conti, is particularly appealing to fast fashion players. In addition, the Hypno bleaching agent, substitutes the traditional halogen; heavy metal; potassium permanganate and sodium hypochlorite compounds, as well as the use of pumice stones, all techniques under the spotlight because of their alleged safety issues.
“If we were ‘only’ producing responsible and high-quality, efficient chemicals I would not be satisfied, I want for the company to be a hotbed of ideas,” De Conte explained, adding Rudolf Hub 1922 offers its expertise in a collaborative effort with brands/retailers and manufacturers, “so that everybody is a winner.”
After eight months since its debut, Hub 1922 represents a “marginal” sales driver, but the manager is targeting the 5 percent to 10 percent goal across the next three years, by also expanding to other textiles, especially man-made fibers.
Despite acknowledging that chemicals represent primary targets in the apparel industry’s sustainable efforts, De Conte said he prefers to speak in terms of “responsible chemistry…meaning it is controlled, assessed, contaminant-free and safe.”
The location for the upcoming edition of the Denim Première Vision trade show to be held in December has yet to be disclosed.