Is Europe to denim what Portland, Ore., is to food — the epicenter of the slow movement?
This story first appeared in the April 20, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Taking a cue from slow food’s obsession with locally grown ingredients, there’s a new wave of European denim labels for which fabric quality and an eco-conscious approach take center stage. They’re leading to the emergence of so-called micro mills that produce hand-spun, hand-loomed and hand-dyed selvage fabrics, catching the attention of high-end independent stores in Europe and inspiring major weavers and manufacturers from Italy to India to start embracing a slow attitude.
In February, Story Mfg., a London-based denim label, attracted buyers at the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair. The brand, which bills itself as “slow made” and “highlights the celebration of the production processes,” made its point by setting live performances of its natural indigo dyeing processes.
In Paris, Colette started stocking Phi, a label created by four denim lovers that only does limited series of seven to 17 pieces using high-end denim fabrics from Kojima in Japan and vintage kimonos.
Meanwhile, X Bank, a new concept store in Amsterdam in the W hotel, included in its edgy assortment Ink Inclusive, a denim brand that uses leftover fabrics.
French e-tailer L’Exception stocks Maison Renhsen, a Paris-based label that focuses on “ancestral work garments.” Other “slow” denim labels include Hiut Denim, a British denim brand that revived an old jeans town in Cardigan, Wales, and 1083, a brand made in France that takes its name from the farthest span in the nation — 1,083 kilometers (673 miles) — so its products are never made more than that distance from the consumer.
“The fact that we can create something like this and be successful is a testimony that the market has changed,” said Saeed Al-Rubeyi, also known as Bobbin, who cofounded Story Mfg. with his partner, Katy Katazome.
Story’s denim is naturally dyed with plants like indigofera. It also features a light brown color that is achieved by using a fruit from Thailand, and a gray shade that’s made of rust and myrobalan. Some pieces are hand-woven.
“Just the weaving takes one person one day,” explained Al-Rubeyi.
A pair of jeans goes from 250 to 270 pounds, or $354 to $383 at current exchange, while hand-woven jackets are around 300 pounds, or $425, and hand-embroidered pieces are 500 pounds, or $709. The brand is available in shops including LN-CC and Other/Shop in London, Maven in Chicago and Mr. Larkin in Copenhagen.
One thing that’s not slow about these brands is the marketing and fundraising strategy, as social media allows them to showcase their products quickly to a wide audience.
“The Internet and Instagram have democratized fashion,” Al-Rubeyi said. “It has made a level playing field, also things like Kickstarter. A lot of brands have started on Kickstarter. It gives the brands the chance to outlay their business plan and tell their story. We didn’t use Kickstarter, but we started speaking to people on forums like Reddit and care-tags.org. These places are little pocket communities and have incredibly high engagement. We sold 50 pairs of jeans before we even made one pair.”
The steep prices may be suitable for luxury concept stores in Europe, but the U.S. market is another matter.
“The kind of fashion store we have in Europe, like LN-CC and Colette, buy smaller-scale propositions” Al-Rubeyi said. “It’s a different ball game in America. I’m not sure there’s the same number of independent multibrand stores there. Also, the cost of our clothes isn’t cheap. We’re competing with much more luxury brands in America.”
While such brands are destined to remain niche due to limited natural resources, onerous production procedures and high costs, they continue to proliferate.
“We cannot take credit for the [slow denim] trend,” said James Veenhoff, founder of House of Denim, which describes itself as a platform for craftsmanship and innovation in the denim industry, and Amsterdam’s Jean School cofounder, noting that the school started in 2012 and its first students graduated in 2014.
As one of the forces behind Amsterdam’s Denim Days, Veenhoff has helped get the word out.
The denim movement out of Europe differs from “Made in America” denim, Veenhoff noted.
“In America, they all seem to refer back to the same era, the miners, the gold rush, while in Europe, we don’t really have a denim era,” he said. “It’s a different reference in terms of styling and provenance. It’s more about the craft and the product itself than about being retro. We’re at the early stages.”
Many of these small brands are facing a major issue when working with mills, Veenhoff said. “How do you get fabrics if you produce low volumes? You have to order 5,000 to 10,000 yards. It’s obviously far too much for a small company. So they get stocks, buy on weird Web sites, go on eBay and trade with other companies, get samples, use all kinds of tricks.”
Ink Inclusive turned the challenge into its calling card, using leftover fabrics from other companies’ orders.
“You don’t have to be a tree-hugging brand to be willing to make a change,” said Alexandra Melgaard-Lewty, who founded the brand with husband Neil Melgaard-Lewty, a consulting designer for outerwear and denim at the men’s wear divisions of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein. “We design with whatever fabric is available. At the moment, we have fabric from Candiani, Kurabo and from Swift in Turkey. We use fabrics from all over the world because it depends on what’s left over.”
Alexis Ratajczak, a product line manager at the Annecy, France-based sporting goods firm Salomon and one of the founders of Phi, described a similar relationship with the Spark True factory in Kojima. The four members of the Phi collective (which also includes Vincent Rousson, Yukiko Suzuki and Philippe Disdier, a design manager at Salomon), do it on the side, in addition to their day jobs.
“We do it out of passion for denim, for Japan, and the love for well-executed things,” Ratajczak said. And these take time. Each piece is signed by a worker from the Japanese factory. Phi jeans are priced at around 240 to 280 euros, or about $270 to $310.
The trend is inspiring major weavers and manufacturers to start embracing a slow attitude.
“At Denim PV, we see a demand for limited-edition series, crafted in a traditional, local and exclusive way,” said Philippe Friedmann, consultant for Denim Première Vision, the trade show held in Barcelona.
He said one of its exhibitors, Cone Denim, brought out a small selvage denim series made at Cone’s historic White Oak plant especially for Levi’s.
“Slow denim is slipping into bigger brands,” said Veenhoff, noting that Dutch premium brand Denham collaborated with Italy’s fourth-generation mill Candiani on pieces featuring the Rivetto d’Oro (“golden rivet”), Candiani’s seal of distinction — identifying the jeans as the combination of Italy’s premium fabric and Denham’s finishes.