A booth at Kingpins Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — Consumers need to be reassured — in more ways than one.

Talk at the trade show Kingpins Amsterdam focused on how societal changes affect the denim industry, which is being forced into a structural transformation.

This is first apparent on the trends side. “Talk of a new recession greatly affects the way people spend money,” said denim consultant Amy Leverton during the Kingpins Denim Trends conference, a factor that explains the nostalgia trend driven by the reign of Nineties-styles and Seventies high-waisted jeans.

In the face of uncertainty, consumers stick to their basics. “Casual is key,” continued Leverton. “Elevated basics have become super important, in a rise of comfort that is linked to the ath-leisure trend. The paradigm of workwear has shifted: It has become possible to wear jeans as part of a more elevated look. It’s all about a super-soft hand feel and comfortable silhouettes.”

The return to basics can be felt on shop floors, according to denim manufacturer Elleti, which used its booth at Kingpins to show “Out of the Blue Impression,” an exhibition focused on the creativity of its mills. Using denim as a canvas, six artistic movements, from Cubism to Art Nouveau, were depicted on pairs of straight-leg jeans using techniques such as metal coating or laser finishing.

“Everybody is feeling the price pressure and the difficulty of sales,” said Daniele Lovato, the firm’s general manager for Tunisia. “Compared to 10 years ago, global denim sales are lower. As a result, brands are responding a little bit on the conservative side: It’s all about giving to the consumer something he can afford rather than something he wants. The product has become an everyday commodity, something a lot more basic. Which is strange when you think about how denim has always been linked to creativity and counter culture. We’re pushing to bring creativity back into denim.”

The Art Nouveau jeans by the Elleti Group.  ELLETI GROUP

In addition to focusing on more pared-back styles, reassurance also comes in the form of traceability, a key topic at Kingpins Amsterdam. An addition to the fair this year was FiberTrace, a technology that embeds organic pigments directly into the fabric that can be read and traced at every stage of the supply chain using a spectrometer.

“The whole point is that you can’t hide anything anymore,” said Paul Stenning, head of research and development. “The next generation wants to know exactly where the product is from and how sustainable it actually is. The brand owners are starting to wake up. So many of them have been caught out that now they are having to do something. They need to go right back to where the product actually starts.”

For the moment, the FiberTrace device is only available to purchase for brands, but the company is hoping to introduce it to the wider public in the near future. In the meantime, consumers can flash the QR codes printed on the tags of items made with FiberTrace to track each step of the supply chain.

“My background is in security paper, where we use a lot of fiber technology,” continued Stenning. “I was approached to see if we could actually use that traceability system within the cotton industry. These organic pigments, which reflect infrared light, are incorporated into a cellulose mix and mimic cotton fibers perfectly.

“If somebody tries to use unauthorized blends, we can see it straight away and flag it,” he continued, adding that the pigments come up to a cost of roughly 6 cents for a standard cotton T-shirt. “If you’re selling something that is supposed to be 100 percent cotton and it’s only coming through at 80, you know that somebody’s not doing something correctly. By having all the technology built into the product, you set your foundations for a more solid traceability system.”

The consensus was pretty clear amid Kingpins showgoers: Pressured by consumer demand, brands are looking to increase their sustainability components, but are sometimes lost as to which aspect to target first.

“Brands know that they need to do something, they just don’t know what,” said Miles Johnson, a freelance designer who counts a sustainable denim collection for Isko as well as a collaboration between Lee and Timberland among his recent projects.

“The denim industry is taking stock: People are starting to slow down and ask the hard moral questions about what does the future look like. But there are not enough brands talking to brands or mills talking to mills, defining clear processes together. There is a need for collective action.”

Since launching her business in January, Claire Ford, a British fashion design consultant who specializes in sustainability and denim, has seen eager interest from brands looking to up their sustainability credentials.

“I don’t have any clients who say ‘no, we don’t want this’ whenever I suggest a sustainable innovation,” said Ford, who works for Australian brand Outland Denim as well as British high-street retailer Reiss. “They are aware that they will not be fully sustainable straight away, but it’s a work in progress. For example at Reiss, we’re changing the core range to incorporate recycled polyester and cotton as well as organic fibers, with all washes done more responsibly.”

The need for clear guidance was apparent when asking different mills around the booth the best way to incorporate more sustainable practices into denim production: There was no straightforward answer.

“There are 75 booths here in this room, so you’re going to get 75 different stories,” said Jack Mathews, senior vice president of denim for Mexican manufacturer Kaltex. “The industry is in a state of transition. But who is the authority who basically says — this is legit, this is green washing? There has got to be a way to define what’s real and what’s being shifted a little bit.”

Reducing water waste and limiting chemical use frequently came up: German chemical company Rudolf presented its new laser primer at the fair, allowing fabrics to be more laser-ready and thus limiting the use of PP spray or sandblasting to achieve the abrased look favored by some denim brands. Garmon Chemicals debuted Smart Foam, a garment finishing technology that is said to save up to 80 percent water using foam as a new carrier for chemicals.

Some favored a more tailored approach, letting the customers themselves decide how far — and at what price — they are able to go.

“This season we are debuting Stacked, a concept that allows to layer different sustainable attributes into a fabric or a garment,” Mathews said. As part of Stacked, pre-consumer waste — cutting scraps from the factory floor that would usually go to landfills — is reprocessed and integrated into a collection that is made of either 10 or 25 percent recycled fiber, depending on the customer’s needs and budget. This can be combined with the use of eco cotton, Repreve fabric made of recycled water bottles, or ring-dyed indigo, a technique that makes sure the dye stays on the very edge of the yarn to be more laser-friendly, thus saving energy.

“What most of our customers want is to be able to put a tag on a garment that directly speaks to their consumer and says, ‘We’re not perfect, but we’re doing this,’” Mathews said. “’We’re still using energy and chemicals, but here are the efforts we’re making.’ That’s what people are looking for.”

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