Byline: Janet Ozzard / with contributions from Samantha Conti, Milan

NEW YORK — The basics business bottomed out last year. Silhouettes have stagnated. But the ever-important fall season is on the horizon, so some of denim’s more forward companies are looking to new finishes and fabrics to invigorate back-to-school deliveries.
Stretch is still at large, working its way into almost every fabrication from twill to sateen. Corduroys are getting more important, either as a lush uncut plush or in mini wales. Slick, wet laminated looks; vinyl, and shiny fake leathers are fading out, replaced by fabrics that are still coated or laminated but with a dull or matte finish.
Denim is still important, of course, but at opposite ends of the blue spectrum: either deep, dark indigo or washed-out and used looking. Brands such as Diesel and Levi’s SilverTab are trying to perfect the worn, washed and faded look of jeans that juniors seek out in used clothing stores.
“Fall is going to be represented by the development of new denim as well as new finishes,” said Mindy Grossman, president of Polo Jeans, which made its debut last fall.
Colored or overdyed denim is making a bit of a comeback, but in dulled hues, such as purple, brown or olive green or bright, electric colors like hot pink and blue. SilverTab is also introducing a white denim that uses a blue-tone rinse to create a very bright white.
And such retro touches as elaborate stitching on the back pockets — reminiscent of the designer jeans of the Eighties — are also starting to appear, as fashion recycles yet another decade.
Special fabrics generally demand higher prices, and sometimes a more sophisticated consumer is willing to pay as much as 50 percent more than the general $50 for a pair of five-pocket jean. Companies know they probably won’t sell as many units as they might in a basics cycle, but they believe the denim customer will fork over a few more dollars for newness — up to a point.
“Price does limit it,” said Grossman. “There are some great new denim fabrics and washes, but once something gets to be $78 or $88 at retail, the number of sophisticated customers who appreciate is limited. Still, it’s important for our line to show the excitement and the newness and the subtleties.”
“Price is still a consideration, but our customer is getting more sophisticated,” said a spokesperson from CK Calvin Klein jeans. “They appreciate novelty denims and are willing to pay more for them.”
Wholesale prices in CK jeans this year run from $22.50 to $60.
“Judging from what we have done, there’s not much change in silhouettes,” said Wilbert Das, head designer for Diesel, the $380 million Italian denim firm. “Waists are moving up a bit, especially in jeans, but that’s concentrated in a small group.”
“I think there will be some new silhouettes, starting around spring,” said Joie Rucker, senior designer for Levi’s SilverTab for juniors. “I’m looking at designer denim and thinking about the kids today who haven’t been exposed to the high-waist looks of the early Eighties.”
Das said that boot-cut and low-waisted denims are still the main style, although tops are getting longer and Diesel is adding lots of coats to its collection.
“A lot of developments have been made in blends, like polyester and cotton and polyester and viscose,” Das said. “In the case of the polyester, it’s a sort of dull color, while the viscose shines out from between the lines of the blue twill and gives a laminated effect. Our way of thinking was to create interest through new fabrics.
“Black is always the number-one color, although I’m finding it quite dull. There are lots of beiges and browns, burgundy and a gray-purple. There are some brighter colors in the women’s collection.”
Nylon fabrics and shiny looks aren’t the hot ticket they once were, Das added, but sophisticated treatments are still important.
“We use a lot of techno fabrics because the mills in Italy are always coming up with something new,” he said. “It’s amazing what they can do. One of the fabrics we have featured for fall is a washable suede.”
“What’s very important is the touchability of the collection,” said Marly Nijssen, head designer for Diesel Female. “We are doing basic styles in very soft fabrics that we call elephant skin or angel skin, which is a light polyurethane over cotton. We also have soft sweatshirts and hairy sweaters.”
On the women’s side, colors include icy gray, a range of purples from a bright, almost fuchsia to dark gray purple. There are also browns with touches of orange, and late fall deliveries include blue mixed with military green, bordeaux and cream, Nijssen said.
Sebastiano Zanolli, category manager for Diesel’s five-pocket denim jeans business, said there are three new finishes for the fall/winter season: very dark, very broken-in and medium. The five-pocket business accounts for 51 percent of Diesel’s total turnover.
“The dark jeans are rinsed in water for about 20 minutes and are supposed to look like jeans from the 1950s,” Zanolli said. “The broken-in jeans are made with old denim fibers, faded creases where the leg meets the torso and have an overall lived-in, vintage look. The medium-color jeans are stonewashed and come in gray-blue or a brilliant blue.”
Diesel is also offering gabardine jeans in brilliant colors — brighter than in the past.
“We found that the consumer no longer wants heavily stonewashed, colored jeans. They want the colors to be bright and pure, no dusty, dull effects,” Zanolli said. “We also have a wide range of pinwale corduroy jeans in bright colors that are big sellers.”
Price doesn’t matter, said Zanolli.
“Our 704 washed denims are finished by hand by a couple of guys here who use pumice and sandpaper to wear out the jeans in the right places,” he said. But that’s targeted to “a real five-pocket-jeans lover,” he added.
“Fake leather and laminated vinyl are not where it’s at,” said Polo’s Grossman. “We’re going more toward authentic new ways of doing laminates, like a sandblasted coated denim with a matte finish. We’re addressing techno with fabrics like nylon sateen, but they are not as high shine. We’re doing a denim faille and a lot of corduroy in five-pocket and chino silhouettes.”
Grossman said the velvet jeans trend is moving into plush, uncut corduroy looks.
“It has the feel of velvet, but a little more character,” she said.
A spokesperson from CK Calvin Klein jeans said that the company’s top trends include wax finishings, dry-hand denim — as opposed to slick, “wet” finishes — polyester weft denim, dark-dip finishing and black selvage jeans. The selvage jeans, which debuted at the Interjeans show in Cologne, Germany, early this year, are made from a limited edition Japanese denim.
“For fashion non-denims, there is continuing importance of corduroy and irregular cords, both printed and solid moleskin, and stretch fabrications,” said the spokesperson.
Even if boot-cut pants are starting to look passe in some parts, Levi’s Rucker feels the look hasn’t played itself out yet.
“The boot cut and flare have been in the market for a while, but middle America hasn’t gotten it yet, so there’s still some longevity,” she said.
At SilverTab, Rucker said, “Fit and fabric are now a lot of the innovation. This fall, we did embossed denim in finishes at both ends. There’s been a big push toward dark, but lighter denim is OK for spring if it’s done authentically.
“We also did a broken-twill flare with a destruction wash, trying to get the authentic look of jeans that you find in thrift stores,” she said. “To get a really broken-down look, you have to take into account how it gets that way. We’ve been playing with color, but trying to do it differently. For example, Tide [detergent] has optical brighteners, so when you wash jeans in Tide, eventually that changes the cast of the jeans.”
Laminates, said Rucker, aren’t big in the line.
“I have a cracked laminated knit jean planned for holiday, but for the core jean customer, it’s a fringe look,” she said.
There is one area that most denim companies see gaining: stretch.
“I see it becoming stronger and stronger,” said Rucker. “It’s the only way to make the tight looks of the Eighties comfortable. The customer will wear tight jeans, but they have to be comfortable.”
Stretch isn’t limited to denim, though.
“Stretch, stretch, stretch,” said Ken Duane, vice president of wholesale for Guess worldwide. “I’m very confident that that’s the trend.” Guess is putting stretch into such fabrics as sateen, twill and corduroy.
While the company’s tight-fitting five-pocket jeans, which retail around $48, were still the top-booked look for fall, Duane said the company is introducing some new silhouettes such as a “boyfriend” jean that fits straight through the leg and sits low on the hips.
The line’s colored denim includes bright, clear colors such as citrus tones, turquoise, navy and white, with a series of related tops.
“Stretch will be really important in alternative fabrics, such as corduroy, Bedford cord and overdye,” said Rucker.
While stiff, dark, unwashed denim has been hovering on the trendy edge for several seasons, the core customer still wants a soft hand, several companies said. So for fall, manufacturers are trying a deep indigo dye, but treated to soften up a bit.
“Denim is evolving from a dark dip to a new wash that’s a sandblast on 16-dip,” said Polo’s Grossman. “It’s a way of bringing the customer to dark denim in a way they can understand. It doesn’t read quite as dark as the 16-dip rinse, but it’s more broken-in. I think the customer really relates to the hand, to the tactile nature of the product. Because of the wash and the sandblasting, you get great hand with no rigidity.”
“Rinsed and rigid denim has been OK, but we’re getting a better response to our dark destruction wash,” said Rucker. That’s a very dark indigo, which is washed enough to produce some nicks and holes.
But for the truly trendy, Rucker said, SilverTab is adding a fabric that’s simultaneously stiff, dark and retro. It’s Levi’s Tex Twill, a dark cotton and polyester twill blend that “is actually an archival fabric.” Rucker said, “It was developed decades ago for cowpokes, so we updated the fit and put it in the line.”

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