Denim over the past years has been a bit like Instagram in the eyes of luxury brands. At first, there was a resistance to doing it, then gradually, one by one, each embraced it. Denim is a specialist product division, and the average ready-to-wear designer is not in a position to tackle it.
The global market for luxury denim is worth an estimated $60 billion, and the category requires “denim geeks,” special factories and production techniques.
So what are the key factors in successfully doing luxury denim right?
Branding. Luxury jeans are regarded by regular high-spending clients as a wardrobe basic. To the aspirational consumer, the average price of $450 means they are also considered an investment. Therefore, designers are having to balance discerning style with identifiable branding to cater to the differing demographics and geographic tastes.
Dior Homme, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton and Prada have mastered this balance, cementing their places as the leading brands in this product category.
Product development. The development of denim is different from any other category. Working with the fabric requires true artisanal skills, and the ability to realize that what started out as a fabric unique to mining workers in the 1800s is now a fashion product for today. It’s about achieving the right fit, weight, dye — and comfort — and calls for category-specific experience.
Production. The critical element is not to simply use the same fabric suppliers and factories brands use for rtw or commercial collections, which could lack technical expertise. Denim-makers need to turn to specialists seasoned in the category.
Investment in human resources. Structured as its own entity as opposed to a bolt-on, the studio team is the key. Having the right talent and structure across design, development and production is the only way to really make the category successful. Larger brands are financially able to have permanent talent, and for smaller houses, freelance and specialist consultants provide the solution.
Kris Van Assche, Dior Homme’s creative director, believes denim is an essential fabric in a contemporary man’s wardrobe. “It has transformed itself from workwear to luxury goods, thanks to renewed research on quality and the rediscovering of the fabric itself through Japan. At Dior Homme, we actually use ‘Made in Japan’ denim.
“Outsourcing it and supervising its quality are essential. We obtain the finest quality through artisanal methods, with special care on the dyeing and weaving. For example, the mechanized weaving looms used for Dior Homme produce only around 10 meters of denim per day. Hence what I call a ‘technical beauty.’
“I’ve changed the grammar and vocabulary of denim at Dior Homme,” Van Assche continued. “Of course, jeans remain an essential and a signature. But I’ve also used denim in my ongoing work on the codes of elegance. In my most recent collections, denim became part of very sartorial pieces. A denim waistcoat will change the allure of a three-piece suit, the epitome of bourgeois. In a very techno-sartorial way — the main theme of the Dior Homme winter 2015 collection — I used denim not only in details to underline, for example, a duffle coat, but also on strong pieces like a suit. Tradition meets modernity. Hence a strong and contemporary allure.”
While Dior Homme presents a wide number of styles, three are continuously offered, including the signature dark indigo shade, and all bear refined branding across trimmings, or as Dior refers to them, “accessories.” The most recognized is the CD ring on the waistband loop.
Tom Ford Jeans have a distinct American feeling, with merchandising and marketing taking a more commercial route than European competitors. There are three fits proposed in five color washes. In addition, cords are offered in four colors and can be found merchandised within the collections.
Ford regards the jean as a wardrobe staple and a key fixture in his own life. Yet Ford’s deeply rooted American approach is not just aesthetic: Production takes place in U.S. denim factories although the denim originates from the best looms around the world. The highest levels of production are achieved via handset stitching by specialists, meaning that no two pairs are identical. The approach is synonymous with the Tom Ford brand — superluxury, quality, discreet in the known branding — with a smattering of that Tom Ford sex appeal.
“Articles de Voyage Gaston-Louis Vuitton” reads the wording on the brand’s jeans in both the Fifth Avenue, New York and Bond Street, London stores. The personal logo of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, the grandson of Louis who took over the house in 1936 and ran it until his death in 1970, has been revived by the house. The singular Art Deco-inspired V originally used on leather travel pieces such as the Steamer bag can now be found as a discreet logo on the back pocket.
Vuitton offers a slim or skinny-fit jean, sometimes fused with elastic, with colors corresponding to those of the seasonal collections as well as continuity options in black, navy, gray and white. For differing seasonal climates, styles are also presented in heavy or lightweight fabrics such as cord or a linen and cotton mix.
Prada’s take on denim is no-nonsense and is comprised of three fits: slim, casual or boot cut in vintage, raw, selvage or new denim. They are presented in eight washes and again seasonal fabrics are offered corresponding to seasonal climates.
Brands that are getting denim right regard jeans as a key category as male consumers globally are responding to the ever-blurring lines between on- and off-duty wardrobes. There’s a style and fit for everyone and for every occasion on offer in the luxury market today.
“Denim has had a huge resurgence and now permeates every aspect of the on- and off-duty wardrobe,” said Jeremy Langmead, brand director of Mr Porter. “The smart jeans and blazer combo has become to the creative industries what the suit is to the financial one.”
Lewis Alexander is the founder of Lewis Alexander International Executive Search, a global consulting firm with offices in New York and London, specializing in executive search, creative consultancy and human resources. lewisalexander.info