LOOKING FOR A BURST OF GENIUS
Byline: Julee Greenberg
NEW YORK — Look up, look back, look around.
In their efforts to keep churning out new styles and driving interest in the category, jeans designers look to a diverse range of sources of inspiration for denim innovation.
Many of the patterns of the apparel industry as a whole apply to the denim market — low-end brands come up with less expensive, more accessible interpretations of styles developed by high-end designers and American designers of all price points keep a close eye on what Europeans are wearing and designing.
Jeans are a near-universal fashion statement in the U.S., and some executives contend they can learn more from what American teens are buying and wearing than they can from the fashion elite. Further, given that fabric and wash are a key aspect of any jeans styles, designers keep a close eye on what the mills and laundries they work with are developing.
The hunt for new ideas also takes some designers to the past — they look through old books and magazines for high points of denim’s decades in the fashion spotlight.
At New York-based Mudd, president Dick Gilbert said he does not look at what high-end companies are doing with denim to define his trends.
“I really don’t pay much attention to what the high-end brands are doing since it is the junior customer who is more cutting edge and ahead of the high-end customer,” he explained.
To Gilbert, the most important part of the trend hunt is traveling on a regular basis. He keeps his designers on the road in Europe 12 weeks a year to search for fabrics, and to pay close attention to what people on the streets are wearing and what the shops are carrying.
Gary Bader, president of Bongo, another New York-based junior jeans label acknowledged that he does look to high-end brands for ideas but also relies heavily on travel to Europe, where the majority of the denim fabrics are purchased.
“The thrust of our increased business is because of the new fabrics from Europe and some of our big trends are coming from the better denim companies like Seven,” he said. “We just see what they do and trend it down to the junior customer.”
Bader said he believes new trends like flocked blue denim jeans printed with stripes or lace, stretch cross-hatched styles, corduroy and french terry pieces all remain popular with buyers. He expects those trends to continue to drive the business.
“This is the most exciting denim has been,” he said. “Just when I think nothing else can be done with denim, I am proven wrong.”
Jennifer Stein, the designer for Glo jeans, Gloria Vanderbilt’s junior division, said she too looks at the high-end denim brands for trends and also travels the world in hopes of being the first on a new trend.
“I look at high-end denim brands to see what they are doing, but I think it’s important to be aware of the whole market,” she said in an interview from her Hong Kong office where she was sourcing fabrics and overseeing production. “I have just come from London and Amsterdam where I was looking for new denim trends. I’m also on my way to Tokyo next week. So far, Amsterdam has been the most forward.”
For Glo, the big trend of the moment is the low-rise cut and next is distressed or vintage-looking jeans.
“The more vintage and abraded the better,” Stein said.
But since the junior labels look to the high-end labels for trend inspiration, where do the high-end denim companies look?
Kelly Delkeskamp and John Cherpas, co-owners and designers of the Los Angeles-based Fever jeans, said they are influenced by the Seventies. They look at old books and magazines to see what people wore during that decade as well as seeing what people are wearing today. They look at movies and architecture to find ideas on new shapes.
“When looking at what people are wearing for inspiration, it doesn’t have to be denim that they have on, it can be an interesting stitching that I like and I can translate that into a pair of jeans,” Cherpas said.
Pinstripes on denim as well as denim dyed in a variety of colors and mixing denim with corduroy are popular trends of the moment at Fever. Next, Delkeskamp and Cherpas are working on a linen-like denim that looks clean and sleek on the body. The designers are focusing on embroidered denim for spring 2003, with jeans looking more custom-made.
“Custom-made jeans are going to be very important,” Cherpas said.
Coming up with new ideas is vital to the survival of the business, they said. They acknowledged the worry that some day, the ideas will run out.
“We do worry about it a lot,” Delkeskamp said. “But it really helps when you have a partner to discuss ideas.”
“Last year, I was hearing that denim was in its prime,” Cherpas added. “But I think that this year is even better for denim. It seems to be a staple in fashion. We are lucky that denim is one fabric that you can just keep changing.”
Scott Morrison, vice president and designer at Paper, Denim & Cloth, said when looking for trends, he looks to the fabric mills to come out with innovative materials. For now, the company’s classic five-pocket jeans are selling and Morrison said he is looking into new treatment techniques like baking fabrics in an oven. “There are so many new cool techniques when it comes to the technology today,” he said.
Morrison said he also plans to launch a smaller, more limited-edition jeans line to be sold in more upscale stores. “The limited-edition idea started with the sneaker companies and now it is sparking interest with denim,” he said.
Morrison said he expects to be copied. In fact, his line is owned by junior resource Mudd — which partly started the line as a source of inspiration for its lower-end products.
“Copying is a normal part of the business when new trends just hit the market,” he said. “It is easier for the higher-end companies to come out with new because we have more at our disposal. A junior company is more concerned about volume and they produce a large number of styles, so it is harder for them to take a chance with something new. For us, we are able to experiment.”
Diesel’s trends come from a variety of sources, said a spokesman. Trends come from the street, vintage fashion and even the music industry.
“People are willing to pay upward of $100 or higher for a pair, where as five years ago, that was not the case for those outside of the fashion world. Denim has become much more of a fashion item rather than a basic. Denim is now more fashion driven,” he said.
The two newest styles for Diesel are Zink, a basic but sexy style and Hush, a style of jeans with a wide waistband, double button front and horizontal patch pockets on the front.
Custom-made, limited-edition styles are important for Sixty USA, said Andrew Pollard, director of sales and marketing for the New York-based denim firm.
“Custom is important and very innovative for us,” he said. “They are hand-made and there will be very few available.”
Pollard claimed he sees other brands copying what Sixty USA does, and contended that shows him his firm is on the right track. He takes the strategy of knocking off himself by expanding into new divisions, like Killah, a junior denim line, which works as an off-shoot of the more expensive Miss Sixty.
“Imitation is the best form of flattery,” he said. “But we do try to keep the product as secret as possible for as long as possible.”
At Guess, Maurice Marciano, co-chairman and
co-chief executive officer, said he travels extensively and looks to the streets, fabric shows and thrift shops for trend inspiration. He has seen the denim business change dramatically over the years.
“The denim business works in basic and fashion cycles, which each lasts several years. Right now, we’re in a big fashion cycle. Denim is such a versatile fabric ranging from basic to very elaborate depending on the yarn being used, the styling and finishings as well as the construction,” he said. “As a result of this versatility, denim has continuously updated itself.”
But after being in business this long, Guess has had its ups and downs, the best years, according to Marciano were in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
“The business was much more simple and basic,” he said. “Now it’s more fun.”