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Denim is getting an even greater performance twist.

Jeans manufacturers are responding to the ongoing activewear craze by stepping up their fabric innovations, injecting not just stretch but also everything from cooling and heating properties to compression and even knitted denim. The goal, even as the trend in women’s styles is the rigid denim look, is to ensure the jeans that consumers are buying are more comfortable than ever – and better looking than a pair of leggings.

“I think the macro trend we’re working on is comfort — which can be explored in many different ways — from different kinds of stretch fabrics to knits to temperature regulation, protection against inclement weather and beyond,” said Jonathan Cheung, head of design at Levi’s. “We’ve done a lot of work on comfort, including working with sports scientists that specialize in Olympic-level performance.

“The interesting thing about comfort is that removing discomfort is the important thing — as just making something softer and stretchier has diminishing returns,” he added. “It’s like if you pull a cashmere sweater on, you think ‘ooh that’s soft’ for a minute or two but then forget about it. But if you pull on an itchy sweater, well, the discomfort lasts until you take it off.”

Cheung also thinks comfort is psychological. “If you don’t look good, you won’t feel comfortable. So for us, we have to marry performance with aesthetic. It may stretch like a legging, but our aim is to make it look like the denim from an authentic Levi’s 501.”

As brands push their comfort ethos, the developments begin at the fiber level. Lenzing Fibers has been growing its Tencel business in the denim area through collaboration and innovation. For example, Lenzing is working with Spanish textile finishing specialist Jeanologia to use the latest laser-laundry technologies in conjunction with Tencel fabrics and garments, noted Tricia Carey, the firm’s director of business development, denim.

The laundry of apparel and fabrics in the manufacturing process is turning to technology to reduce labor costs and drive product development and environmental thinking, Carey said.

Under the banner of “Light Sensitive,” Lenzing and Jeanologia have conducted a study to demonstrate the advantages of laser technology when using Tencel fabrics. Jeanologia works with many textile and apparel companies focusing on industrial solutions in garment finishing, developing under sound principles of ecology, efficiency and ethics.

Addressing the ath-leisure trend, Lenzing developed a Tencel indigo circular knit collection with Peru’s World Textile Sourcing that it’s calling “Inca Indigo.” The line, based on indigo-dyed Tencel yarns, combines the comfort of knits with the authentic look of denim.

The Inca Indigo collection integrates Peruvian heritage with authentic indigo dyeing and is 100 percent Peruvian designed, spun, dyed, knitted and sewn. The 17-piece collection includes styles for men and women in tops, bottoms and dresses. Indigo yarns are highlighted using design details currently featured in woven denim trends, such as laser distress and raw edges.

NYDJ will introduce an “authentic” cut version of its Promodal jeans, made with a blend of Lenzing’s Tencel and modal fibers that’s been highly successful as part of NYDJ’s Platinum series of jeans, said Lisa Collier, president and chief executive officer.

“Everything in the industry today is about maximizing comfort,” Collier said. “It’s the notion of high recovery, shaping the body and smoothing out the curves to enhance the figure.”

In that vein, Collier noted that last fall NYDJ launched Future Fit featuring elastic fibers with compression technology. Now what’s been added is a variation with Uplift technology, with optical-purposed seaming and pocket placement.

Sure Stretch, aimed to replace yoga pants, features a multifiber blend with stretch and recovery attributes that is now available in all size ranges.

A big launch for spring-summer has been Cool Embrace that uses Invista’s Coolmax technology for temperature regulation. NYDJ is looking to expand that concept with warming technology for fall.

Hollister introduced a new line of performance jeans for men and women in January that also incorporates Invista’s Coolmax All Season technology and Lycra spandex fiber for year-round comfort and lasting fit.

The retailer said it’s taking a position in the performance arena with its Advanced Stretch Jeans with Coolmax All Season technology. The fabric moves moisture away to keep the body cool and dry on hot days, and has insulating fibers for added warmth when it is cool. These benefits come from the fiber structure, so they are permanent and don’t wash out.

Dave Trerotola, president of Invista Apparel and Advanced Textiles, said, “We believe pairing one of the hottest teen denim brands with one of the coolest fabric technologies available on the market today will resonate with consumers. Our research shows that among ingredient brands in the cooling space, the Coolmax brand is the most likely to positively influence purchase intent.”

Wrangler FR and Mount Vernon FR have partnered to launch a breakthrough collection of Wrangler FR jeans with Cool Vantage technology.

Made with Mount Vernon FR’s Cooleemee FR fabric, the jeans feature enhanced comfort derived from its proprietary cooling technology that wicks perspiration, pulling moisture to the outside of the garment where it can evaporate quickly. This technology increases comfort without sacrificing the protection or durability that a pair of FR jeans can provide.

“Wrangler is dedicated to developing the toughest products for the toughest consumers,” said Ashley Farrar, the company’s workwear and FR merchandising manager. “Mount Vernon FR has assisted us in developing flame-resistant clothing that combines unprecedented performance, durability and comfort, a winning combination that keeps wearers cool, dry and protected when it matters most.”

The evaporative cooling process works in harmony with the body’s natural cooling mechanisms to regulate body temperature in hot conditions or during periods of physical exertion. With cooling benefits woven into the fabric that will not wash out over time, Wrangler FR jeans with Cool Vantage technology are developed to last for the wear life of the garment.

Mike Woods, vice president of FR fabrics for Trion, Ga.-based Mount Vernon FR, said, “At Mount Vernon FR, we are committed to continually evolving our FR fabric offerings to meet the needs of consumers, without any tradeoffs. Safety managers should never have to make compromises when it comes to the comfort and durability of the FR apparel that they provide to their employees, which is why this collection is so important.”

Premium denim brands, such as Citizens of Humanity, that trade on flattering fit continue to evolve with stretch fabric innovations, though the effects are more subtle and definitely fashion-oriented as opposed to screaming “performance.”

Citizens has used its branded Scuplt fabric, a power stretch that utilizes innovative technology in Lycra weaving, since fall 2015. It’s used with cotton, lyocell or cotton-rayon blends to give more than 30 percent stretch for women’s styles.

“It’s not exactly brand new, but it’s still relevant,” said Catherine Ryu, creative director for women’s and men’s. “It is still our number-one-selling concept for both men’s and women’s.”

The brand has introduced stretch for men beginning with early fall 2017 and spring 2018, billing it Perform. “Men are about three years behind women with fabric trends,” she noted. “We just got them into skinnies and now they are into stretch.”

Said Cheung, “For men, stretch is fast becoming the new normal. I think many people would be surprised to know that the majority of the men’s jeans we sell are now stretch. It doesn’t have to be in a skinny fit either. Just recently we launched the first 501 in history in stretch — a fabric that took us well over a year to develop. We’re following up with something we call ‘warp stretch’ — where the stretch is vertical instead of horizontal. If you think about the way you move — walking, climbing up stairs, kneeling, squatting — that’s a vertical movement. It’s a different feeling when you have them on. You almost feel a bounce when you’re moving. And it looks like a traditional 501. It’s stealth technology.”

As most people already know, the newest women’s trend runs counter to this, back to 100 percent cotton rigid denim, for that authentic vintage look and feel.

“Rigid fabrications with a focus on heavy distressing are making quite the comeback,” said Tim Kaeding, cofounder and creative director at L.A.-based premium label Mother Denim. “We were playing around with chewed-up hems last year, so now we are moving this idea up and giving the same treatment to the waistband. Our new cut The Dazzler from the Mother Superior capsule collection calls out this trend and really puts a fresh spin on the traditional high-waisted fit.”

But customers no longer want the stiff, uncomfortable feel.

Citizens uses laser technology and washing methods to break the 13.5-ounce, Fifties-style rigid denim fabric down and before that used a rayon-cotton blend that helped introduce rigid denim back into women’s closets.

“We’ve transitioned it a little so it’s not all of a sudden rigid,” said Ryu, adding that “the way we wash helps to break the fabric and holds you in in a different way.”

Citizen’s most important silhouettes for fall 2017 include the Gia high-rise ankle-length straight jean in rigid denim with a 26.5-inch inseam; the Bella cropped flare jean with the same inseam but a more tomboy appeal, and the Cara, a stretch high-rise slim ankle-length jean.

“Jeggings are the staple stretch denim in your closet, but we’re seeing more interest in high-rise ankles and cropped flares and straighter legs, with a 13-inch opening,” said Ryu.

In terms of washes, stonewashed looks from the Nineties, retro blues and saturated dark blues are trending.

At DL1961, stretch fabric “is kind of what we do every day,” said Sarah Ahmed, creative director. “It’s the overall direction we always go in.”

The brand started with a four-way stretch and two years ago moved on to a blend of Tencel called Dualflex that has a “very high shape retention, is ultra soft and still has a hold,” according to Ahmed.

“When Tencel first came on years ago, jeans were comfortable but didn’t have the shaping and sculpting properties. We now make yarns to include the right amount of Tencel with not one but two fibers wrapped into the cotton,” she said, hence the Dualflex name.

“What makes it premium is the fit and how it looks on the body, then we stay flattering and achieve the current trends in terms of washes and details. The whole end process is innovation and discovery in itself,” she said.

The versatility of a 98 percent cotton/2 percent Lycra denim means wider-leg silhouettes with hem details, a range of fabric treatments from high-gloss to a wider color range or a very saturated black. In terms of details, there are buckles, zippers and leather treatments to give the more traditional-fitting jeans a fashion spin.

“I love that high-waisted stretch leg cigarette jean. In the city you see that rigid denim look on celebrities. We want this look, we are all trendy, but how to create a look like 1992 and a feel like 2017?” Coming up with a thicker fabric that still stretches was the solution for the Bella high-rise straight-leg jean.

“We’re all women here, so we really do have a lot of conversations about what do we like to wear and how can we make it work,” said Ahmed.

In terms of legs, the brand is also doing cropped flare and slim straights with ankle crops, which help show off shoes. “We have at trade shows seen an increase back to a skinny silhouette with straight legs and a boyfriend relaxed straight,” she said, noting the company is including more fashion pieces such as skirts, jumpsuits and dresses.

Current Elliott founders Emily Current and Merritt Elliott have since moved on from that brand to found The Great, which is still rooted in denim but is a fuller fashion collection. For them, the driving force in choosing fabrics is “does it feel familiar and does it feel soft,” said Current. “As we have watched denim evolve we’ve seen so many innovations. Sometimes it’s additive and other times it’s not.

“We like the idea of recovery and that innovation but at the end of the day we are more interested in hand-feel and how familiar and authentic it looks.”

Said Elliott, “It’s very interesting watching how just 1 percent [of Lycra] can make a huge difference in how something wears. It can be a saturated market and sometimes these things define brands.”

Amo cofounders and designers Kelly Urban and Misty Zollars are focused on a 98 percent cotton/2 percent elastane denim they’ve used for the last year, called the vintage stretch denim, that’s “almost rigid, so it has that look and just a teeny stretch,” according to Urban.

They’ve also introduced a rigid denim into the line, noting that they wanted to start the collection with that in 2015, but felt the market wasn’t ready to say goodbye to stretch. “We now have the denim girl covered with these two fabrics. It makes sense for us to stick with what works – the same hold-you-in feeling that’s not super lightweight. You kind of know what to expect; you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised,” she said.

Amo also uses a pure indigo denim with no fixation agents that are typically used when indigo is treated and dyed, so it’s better from an eco-sustainable perspective.

“You can chip away at indigo faster in the wash process if it hasn’t been treated, so it’s less water use,” said Zollars. “It does get to look ultimately like a vintage jean, natural-looking wash. We love that shade.”

Style updates are The Lover, a high-rise button-fly straight leg with a 29-inch inseam versus a crop, and a high-rise version of the Twist jean that twists around the leg.

But even for a heritage brand like Levi’s that doesn’t need to find its brand footing, innovation is still key. For women, stretch and recovery are must-haves. “We’ve explored extremely high stretches and low ‘compression’ stretch fabrics, all with an authentic Levi’s look. We’re also working with blends of different ingredients, so mixing the cotton for a vintage soft-hand and performance. The 501 defines the Levi’s look and really defining and sticking to our aesthetic identity even when innovating in high-stretch fabrics has been vital for us. If you look at the market, there’s so many 501 want-to-be’s now, but there’s really only one, truly authentic Levi’s and I think people see that,” said Cheung.

The company is pushing the boundaries of high-tech fabric as well. “We learned some really interesting stuff from our collaboration with Google — almost like a side effect, beyond the haptic, data-carrying denim” that the brand introduced at the South by Southwest festival. “We have more unique takes on temperature control, on durability, especially in our Commuter and Skateboarding lines, and of course, I can’t forget sustainability. We’ve led and changed the industry on saving water and we’re exploring ways to save water upfront in the fabric manufacturing,” he said.

As far as design trends for women, Karyn Hillman, Levi’s chief product officer, offered, “The cheekiest jeans in your closet are in. Our Levi’s Wedgie, Wedgie Straight, Wedgie Short & 501 Skinny & 501 Short all showcase your best assets and give you that signature ‘Levi’s butt.’ We also have the Mile High and 721, which are the modern versions, both sexy high-rise fits that hug, hold and flatter. Authentic worn-in red casts, washed blacks and destruction are finish highlights this season, and we’re also loving raw, frayed and cropped hems.”

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