NEW DELHIDenim has been playing a dual role in India — serving both as a major fashion trend and helping to break down barriers since jeans are worn by consumers across all of the country’s economic strata and in both urban and rural areas.

Yet as J. Berrye Worsham, president and chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated, noted at a two-day summit on “Denims: A Democracy in Fashion” in Ahmedabad, in Western India, only 32 percent of people in India like to wear denim. Sharing a recent study by Cotton Inc., he said 71 percent of people in Europe and Latin America enjoy wearing denim, followed by 70 percent in the U.S., 58 percent in China and 57 percent in Japan.

In 2015, India’s denim production rose to 1.2 billion meters. “Historically, denim has been one of the fastest-growing apparel fabric segments, having grown by 500 million meters, from 700 million meters in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2015,” said PR Roy, chairman of Diagonal Consulting in India, the company that organized the conference along with the Confederation of Indian Textile Industry.

He noted the country’s denim capacity is far higher than current production — 300 million meters more can be produced each year. “It’s a question of tapping the resources that already exist,” he said.

Denim makes up 35 percent of total textile exports from India and is expected to rise to 45 percent of total exports by 2020. The production capacity is also expected to increase, to 1.5 billion meters by 2020.

Aamir Akhtar, ceo of Denim (Lifestyle Fabrics) at Arvind Mills, one of the largest denim producers in the world, said the denims industry is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 13 to 15 percent.

Justin Coates, manager of market analysis at Cotton Inc., told WWD that the percentage of Indian consumers who enjoy wearing denim is highest among men (50 percent), those between ages 15 and 24 (46 percent), those living in Delhi (43 percent), and people living in Bangalore (41 percent).

“In the last seven years denim has really picked up,” said Nirav Shah, cofounder and partner of Diagonal Consulting, pointing out that the film industry from Bollywood has led the trend for city residents to totally accept it, with rural areas not far behind. “A lot of fabric goes to surrounding markets, and there is still a lot more export potential for denim, with Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia taking a big leap into jeans production,” he said.

A major issue related to production is the water consumption, with 1,200 to 1,500 liters of water needed for one pair of jeans. “A lot of effort and innovation is being made by different companies in India, but there is still a long way to go for absolute commercialization of these,” he said.

Trending now, especially in smaller cities across India, is cotton denim mixed with polyester.

Shah observed that as far as product development is concerned, a lot of polyester fiber has made inroads into denim in various forms, leading to lower priced products. “This has been a phenomenon in the last five years,” he said, while organic denim has slowly taken a backseat.

Although unbranded denim products have a 60 percent share of the market, especially in the lower priced category, the premium segment has been growing fast.

“Denim has become everybody’s textile and everybody’s garment in India,” said designer Hemant Sagar of the designer duo Lecoanet Hemant, who has worked in the fashion industry in Paris as well as in India for the last three decades. “It’s a novelty for 2016-17 using denim as a fashion material with embroidery,” he said. The duo’s recently launched denim-inspired line called Genes, for example, is an innovative spin on the fabric.

Meanwhile, the global denim jeans market is projected to grow 8 percent, from $55 billion in 2015 to $59 billion by 2021, with Latin America and Asia expected to lead the increase. The projected growth is expected to be 12 percent in Asia, 15 percent in Latin America, 10 percent in North America and 4 percent in Europe over the next six years, according to the study from Cotton Inc.

Worsham also said close to 1.9 billion units of denim jeans were sold in the world in 2015 and by 2021 yearly sales of jeans will cross two billion units.

Denim trends in the U.S. are particularly interesting, with denim affinity among the Millennial generation decreasing from 81 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2015. Denim jean ownership in this generation has also halved in that time period, from 11 pairs to six pairs.

Overall, the U.S. denim jeans market increased by 0.4 percent from 2014 to 2015. “This indicates that the U.S. denim market may have bottomed out and may start to strengthen in the coming months and years,” Coates observed, adding that denim customers in the U.S. had several overriding concerns, with one of the main priorities being to get a better fit.

“The fit is more important in denim jean purchases than in purchases of other products like activewear, casualwear, dresses, etc. When purchasing a pair of denim jeans, finding a good fitting pair is the biggest issue among men [38 percent] and women [62 percent],” he said.

The Internet has been helping this along, with Web sites such Fit Code and ZipFit for men dedicated to finding consumers a perfect-fitting pair of jeans, as well as jean fit guides by brands such as Gap, American Eagle, Uniqlo and Urban Outfitters.

U.S. denim jean consumers are also concerned about performance advances. Almost half the customers in the Cotton Inc. survey said they would like to seek out jeans with thermal regulating properties (48 percent), about four in 10 plan to seek out odor-resistant jeans (42 percent), and about a quarter plan to seek out moisture management jeans (27 percent).

“These performance technologies are almost nonexistent at retail, giving denim brands the opportunity to capitalize on consumer desire for performance denim, according to the survey,” Coates said.

There is also demand for authentic, cotton-rich jeans, with more than three in four U.S. consumers saying cotton-rich jeans are the most breathable (84 percent), comfortable (83 percent), durable (77 percent), fashionable (76 percent), and versatile (76 percent) when compared to jeans with man-made fibers like polyester and rayon, according to the Cotton Inc. study.