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BERLIN — Extreme sports are taking denim to new heights and speeds.

This story first appeared in the April 18, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The term “extreme sports” was introduced and promoted by the X Games, a multisport event created by ESPN in 1995 in the U.S. Today, extreme sports are a global phenomenon that include snowboarding, skateboarding, motocross, BMX, freestyle skiing, adventure racing, mountain biking, outdoor climbing, base jumping, slacklining, parkour and about 40 other air, water and land sports considered extreme.

 

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As these activities generally appeal to the young, it follows that participants and their fans have long been denim wearers off the slopes and off the ramps, but denim is now literally getting in on the wardrobing action. Several active sportswear brands have introduced high-performance denim jeans into their collections to address a growing generation of young denim consumers that crave the excitement of these high-risk sports and are willing to pay the price. Most of the new action denim sells from around $100 to as high as $389 for the more protective and advanced models.

Greg Dacyshyn, chief creative officer of Burton Snowboards, based in Burlington, Vt., claims to have been at the starting point of the denim movement in action sports.

“We had the honor of designing the official uniforms for the 2010 U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team,” Dacyshyn said. “We wanted these uniforms to be less standardized and more unique than what was featured in the past, yet still represent American style in a legit and original way. And there is no more iconic piece of American clothing than a pair of jeans. The idea was born.

“Our team riders loved the idea of outerwear denim, and we jumped into creating something that would blend the denim look with the performance needed for the world’s biggest athletic stage,” he added. “We partnered with Gore-Tex to create waterproof fabric that looked exactly like denim.”

He said the result was well received.

“It was so technical and light and the riders loved wearing them to ride,” Dacyshyn added. “That’s where the commercialization of denim into our line began.”

Burton originally had no plans to sell the Olympic jeans, but so many riders wanted them that the company decided to bring them to market. Today, denim can be found throughout the line, from everyday streetwear pieces to more technical and “rideable” items like Burton’s Burner denim pants or Winthrop denim jacket.

“We don’t foresee this trend slowing down. As long as our riders continue to rock jeans we expect to have a solid denim offering for the long term,” Dacyshyn said. He declined to disclose sales figures, but said “sales of denim have grown for us. And making products for extreme sports athletes and having them wear these products is the best marketing strategy we could ask for.”

Volcom, an outdoor action sportswear company based in Costa Mesa, Calif., offers a range of outdoor denim jeans and jackets.

“Our team riders — snowboard, freestyle ski and skateboard — and brand ambassadors live in denim, ride in denim and play shows in denim. It’s a very important part of who Volcom is as a brand,” said Carrie Martines, senior director of women’s design at the company, which was acquired by PPR last year.

She noted that for years, many active sports apparel brands did not consider denim as an option, in part because all-cotton denim lacked flexibility. New technology, however, has changed that.

Brands are embracing treatments and technology such as Deflexion, made of polymerized silicone sheets that provide comfortable impact protection for flexible, breathable, durable and washable denim jeans. Epic technology denim fabric has no laminates or coating but is water resistant, windproof, breathable and washable. Cordura denim fabric is a blend of cotton and Invista nylon fiber 6.6 providing abrasion resistance and is durable but soft. Dyneema fiber, made of ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene and used in denim linings, is light but highly impact resistant, and Kevlar denim is made with para-aramid synthetic fibers like the nondenim fabrics used by the military and law enforcement as armor.

Volcom works with U.S. mills such as Cone Denim, and its team riders provide road-tested feedback to help the company design products that will outperform and outlast prior offerings. One key product is its s-gene denim jeans, providing stretch with a high recovery ratio.

Environmental awareness is also important. Volcom’s “V.Co-Logical” program reduces the brand’s carbon footprint through chemical-free washes and water-saving techniques, and Volcom also uses organic and repurposed denim.

As denim moves further into more extreme sports, there’s more emphasis on safety. For example, Alpinestars, of Torrance, Calif., has a technical division to develop high-performance denim for motorcycle riding.

“Our protective denim fabrics are interwoven with Kevlar, and the jeans are ergonomically designed to fit the human form,” said brand manager Tyson White. Due to the special demands of action sports, Alpinestars also set up an action sports clothing division to oversee the design and production of denim.

“We did this because denim is a staple in everyone’s wardrobe and because it is so versatile,” said White. It’s also an “insanely complex fabric to work with due to finishings, washings, treatments and looks, but we enjoy the challenge because it feeds our need to approach things in a technical sense,” adding that denim is one of the fastest-growing parts of Alpinestars’ business.

Draggin Jeans of Australia was founded in 1997 by Grant Mackintosh, a denim manufacturer and ardent motorbike rider. His daughter Fiona Mackintosh, general manager and a biker herself, said, “Our motorbike riders wanted to be able to get off their motorbikes and look like they were wearing regular clothing. They wanted to fit into any environment whether a café or a restaurant and, as we all know, denim is a very fashionable item to wear.”

Draggin’s jeans retail between $190 and $289.

“Our denim has no polyester or nylon in it,” Mackintosh said. “If someone comes off a motorbike at high speed you don’t want any of those fibers to melt into a person’s skin during an accident.”

For safety, a protective lining of Dyneema and Kevlar has been engineered into the garment on the inside.
“Putting those two fibers together makes the lining really strong,” she noted.

The brand sponsors teams and riders on the MotoGP circuit and World Superbike circuit, and also participates in the downhill world championship.

“Downhill skaters wear our product because they know they will not get any gravel rash or abrasion injuries,” she said.

Mackintosh claimed Draggin’s jeans will “perform in an accident.”

“We have a CE-approved garment that passed at level 2 (highway/freeway) and we want to get to level 1, which is race standard,” she said. “[One can] race with our jeans at 300 kilometers. The challenge is to make the product look good and be functional.” (CE stands for “Conformité Européenne,” indicating compliance with the European Union’s health, safety and environmental standards.)

There’s a busy calendar of events for Extreme Sports around the world. ESPN’s X Games received formal applications from more than 40 cities in 21 countries to host X Games events from 2013 to 2015. The winning bid will be chosen this month and will join current X Games venues in Aspen, Colo., Los Angeles and Tignes, France.

Denim brands are ready to cash in on this growing market. New brands making denim for these sports include Ugly Bros Jeans of Korea and Momotaro Jeans of Japan, focusing on BMX riders, motocross and FMX. Although neither company would disclose details, Nike is reportedly preparing a Nike skateboard line and luxury brand Balmain is working on biker jeans.

Portland, Ore.-based Thunderbolt Sportswear’s “soft-shell” jeans for men are made of a high-tech fabric by Schoeller Textiles and feature four-way stretch and durable water repellency. They can be worn for all vigorous outdoor activities, including parkour. Next up is a similar women’s collection.

“Skateboarders are also requesting our jeans, and from a marketing standpoint you have the younger demographic represented,” said general manager Chris Payne, who reported good online business coming from Europe and Asia.

“Success will come from this crossover market when the perceptions associated with fashion jeans translates into a willingness to pay higher prices for denim,” Payne said. “Here we have a unique product combined with high-performance characteristics to make this product well worth the money.”

The parkour jeans retail at $188.

When it comes to the comfort of technical denim, Volcom’s team riders are sold.

“They’re comfortable, man. They’ve got a nice hand, they don’t restrain your movement, they work with you,” said pro skater Mark Appleyard.

“I wear sweats at night, and with these jeans I now feel like I’m wearing sweats in the day. And they got a good snap to them too,” added pro skater Caswell Berry.

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