Skateboarder and photographer Srto Saari wearing Volcom jeans.

Rugged denim has taken the long road from the mines to the skateboard tracks.

This story first appeared in the October 19, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After taking on the performance apparel market with fresh stretch and flexibility technologies the last few years, denim fiber, fabric and jeans makers are tackling durability and similar value-added qualities to answer consumer needs.

When activewear brand Volcom launched its Stone Made denim collection this year, it took the “tech meets performance and fashion” route, said North American marketing manager Daniel Terry.

Designer J.J. Gonzalez said like other Volcom products, the jeans line “is inspired by skateboarders.”

Gonzales said Volcom Stone Made has four main attributes: Durability — “it’s tough to tear,” which was where Invista’s Tough Max and Cone Denim’s Cone Strong came in; water-resistant and antimicrobial fabrics from Cone, and overall performance stretch and recovery.

The Volcom team worked with Cone Mills and its SGene technology and Lycra Tough Max and Cool Max in creating the performance denims and bottoms.

Tough Max technology uses Lycra T400 fiber — which is said to be two times as strong as comparable cotton jeans and abrasion-resistant — in the weft. Cool Max is a moisture-wicking fiber from Invista.

“The SGene has so much movement and as a skater, it’s very performance-driven,” Gonzalez said. “That was the catalyst. Then it was: How do we build on the durability, the water-resistance and adding the antimicrobial?”

Kara Nicholas, vice president of product development and marketing at Cone Denim, said, “Cone Strong is a category of product that meets the needs of an active market that’s going to be strong, that’s going to be built to last, that’s going to be durable.”

Cone Strong is a collection of high-performance fabrics that use a variety of yarn constructions and fibers to create textiles with superior strength and durability.

“Our goal is to still capture what makes denim denim, to maintain the integrity of denim fabric — the indigo yarn, that it still fades in — but that it also has the additional attributes built in,” she said. “Flexibility is also important, so stretch is an important part of the equation.”

Key in this area is the SGene-patented technology. Volcom was an early adopter of this in its activewear and is incorporating it in denim in the Stone Made collection that the brand launched for spring.

Cone has worked with Volcom to develop antimicrobial fabrics that inhibit growth of odor-causing bacteria, which is important for high-activity denim, and to create durable fabrics with high resistance to tear and abrasion.

Nicholas said Cone has a long relationship with Volcom in product development and research.

“They take the fabrics on the road and wear test them,” she said.

In the climate control area, Cone has incorporated Unifi’s Sorbtek fiber, Drirelease from Optimer Brands, Cotton Incorporated’s TransDry moisture management technology and Invista’s Coolmax.

“Lightweight no longer means having to sacrifice durability,” said Cindy McNaull, global brand and marketing director for Invista’s Cordura brand. “It’s not the case anymore that the heavier the weight, the more durable it is.”

In May, Cordura launched the Authentic Alchemie Collection featuring blends of natural and man-made fibers to deliver stylish, versatile, high-performance and functional materials, McNaull said.

“Authentic Alchemie catapulted us into what I call Durability Plus Denim,” McNaull said. “It’s carving out durable denim for a new generation. The market is demanding more comfort, whether it comes in the form of softness or stretch or moisture management or temperature regulation. So durability is at the core, but adding all these other features into the mix.”

She said mills are able to offer their customers more value-added fabrics, while the brands and retailers give consumers differentiation and performance benefits. Cordura claims its denim is four times more abrasion-resistant than traditional cotton denim fabric.

Cordura is collaborating with Lenzing’s Tencel fiber for a collection of soft-comfort performance fabrics.

First in the collaborative lineup are softened strength denims featured in the latest Cordura Denim Infinity Collection, with more innovations across the Cordura fabric family planned. The Cordura Denim Infinity Collection presents performance denims crafted to integrate what McNaull called “the best of both worlds” — softness with strength, fashion with function and durability with definition.

The collaboration also builds on a trend for performance denim, enhancing the sector’s appeal.

“One of the big things that’s resonating is the ability to have the duality between softness and durability,” McNaull said of Cordura’s collaboration with Tencel, which brings enhanced soft comfort properties, moisture management and sustainability benefits to the Cordura fabric portfolio.

Tricia Carey, director of global business development at Lenzing Fibers Inc., said, “As denim takes on modern evolution, we’re able to use our denim fabrics in ways that address our lifestyle. Cordura brand brings the long-lasting durability and strength, and we help enhance it with comfort and softness.”

Next up in the collaboration will be shirting and chambray fabrics for tops.

McNaull said in developing denim, Cordura’s qualities of resistance to abrasion, tears and scuffs has helped give it special qualities. She noted that durable and more value-added denim is a natural progression from the ath-leisure movement.

“We saw an unmet need that people want their clothes to be more comfortable, but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of flexibility,” she said. “The younger generation had grown up with performance clothing — they were used to it and demanded it.”

A leading innovators in the field of synthetic fiber performance apparel that contributed to the ath-leisure movement has been Lycra, Cordura’s sister brand at Invista.

“We work hand-in-hand with our Lycra partners and benefit greatly from the technology they help bring to the market — engineered two- and four-way stretch and recovery, for example,” she said.

Next in the innovation pipeline is an all-weather product — Cordura wool denim, or what will be called Combat wool denim, aimed at the outdoor market. Still in the testing stage, Cordura is working on a fiber launching in January that uses nylon 6.6 fibers blended with cotton intended to be stronger than any other denim. It’s in wear-testing now with military personnel.

At Lenzing, Carey said there’s a collaboration with Santoni called “DEN/IM, I am DENIM” of seamless Tencel knits using indigo yarns.

“There’s an expanded modern definition of denim to include indigo knits,” she said. “We feel it’s important that we’re providing supply chain solutions.”

The new Santoni machine SM8-EVO4J GG20 has been used for developing a capsule collection that offers body-hugging, comfortable, sporty, chic and trendy denim items from head to toe.

This product concept further enhances the idea of innovative knit denim as a counterpoint to the traditional woven denim fabric. Carey said the collaboration, which includes yarn spinner Unitin and garment processing firm Tonello, is meant to be a “crossover product” for ath-leisure, innerwear or casualwear, bringing knitwear’s more flexible attributes to the denim market.

On the drawing board is a concept called “Future Black” that will combine a performance, color and sustainability story, Carey added.

Lisa Collier, ceo of NYDJ, said, “Consumers want authenticity — denim that looks like real denim. Plus they want the comfort and the style that they’re getting across sportswear. What we see happening is a combination of innovation from a fiber perspective combined with cotton and authentic-looking denim. Consumers are saying, ‘I want what looks like rigid denim, but I want it in the comfort that I’ve become used to.'”

For NYDJ, that has resulted in its Cool Embrace jeans made from a denim blend of cotton and Invista’s moisture-wicking Coolmax technology and Lycra spandex to help keep women cool, dry and comfortable. Cool Embrace is available in two washes in a variety of cuts.

NYDJ’s Future Fit is made of a fabric developed with a denim mill that borrows from technologies found in the medical field to provide uniform compression and create a second-skin fit, visibly reducing lumps and bumps for a more youthful, contoured appearance. Future Fit jeans are aimed at the growing performance-denim category, with strong fabric recovery and minimal growth, as well as a soft hand and durability.

Turkey’s Calik Denim has collaborated with Lycra Dual FX for Elastech high-elastic fabrics with minimal shrinkage that eliminate puckering and keep their shape. Circular Elastech, meanwhile, gives multiangular movement and a fuller range of motion. Using Lycra dualFX in the warp and weft, combined with Lycra T400 fiber for strong recovery, it also helps to avoid size variance and maintain a high level of shape.

Fellow Turkish mill Otra is also creating stretch fabrics for spring. Orta’s Amplify incorporates its trademarked Cognitive Stretch bi-stretch fibers that provide high-intensity flexibility, noted sales representative Allison Wohl.