Byline: Roxanne Robinson-Escriout

NEW YORK — That old saying, “What goes around, comes around,” easily applies to this season’s denim market. Take vintage washes, for example. They’re gaining momentum this season, and why not? The concept is certainly in keeping with society’s quick-fix mentality. Who wants to wait for jeans to be broken in to perfection when they can be bought off the rack looking like you’ve had them forever?
Of course, the concept isn’t exactly new. Marithe & Francois Girbaud are credited with starting the pre-fab worn look as far back as 1965, when they first experimented with softening and fading methods that included multiple washings and even hand-smoothing with emery boards. Finally, in the early Seventies, the Girbauds simply took stones and a pair of jeans and tossed the lot into the washing machine. Unfortunately, they didn’t trademark the process, and by 1978, the concept went mainstream as everyone began offering versions of this revolutionary look. Up until then, brand-new jeans were available in one look and one look only: stiff as a board and deep, dark blue.
But the latest incarnation of the worn-in look goes a lot further than a softer feel and a lighter color. Now, designers are adding touches of wear and tear to their denim — a hem crease here, a hole or two there.
Jill Stuart, who recently launched a denim collection, was inspired to create “used” looking jeans when models at her show went nuts over an old pair of jeans she was wearing. “They all asked, ‘Where did you get those? I have to have a pair,”‘ says the designer. Stuart, who says she has a passion for vintage but also understands what it takes to reinterpret and modernize denim, is offering jeans with well-worn touches such as lines at the cuff, that suggest the hems were let down, along with other details, like Seventies-look patch pockets.
And Stuart isn’t the only one striving for that vintage vibe. Monique Buzy-Pucheu took her 15 years’ experience in the denim business — she was executive vice president of merchandising for Calvin Klein Jeans, and consulted for Polo Jeans, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and J. Crew — and ran with it, launching her own line called “Buz Jones.” The line boasts a vintage look, with an up-to-the-minute, sexy fit. Stressing the importance of the three F’s — fit, fabric and finish — Buzy-Pucheu can often be found working directly with the chemists at the laundry to perfect the hand-done finishes.
Even Baby Phat, a company that’s always touted dark denim, is introducing three lighter “vintage” washes in their four-season-old junior jeans line for summer, and will continue to offer lighter washes in the future. “Customers are looking for something new,” says Kimora Lee Simmons, designer. “For so long, it’s been raw denim, but with fashion trending toward the Eighties, it made sense to toy around with different washes and looks.” Among them are lighter shades of blue, tie-dyed designs and a version with a low, cut-off waistband with a frayed edge.
Pepe Jeans London has gone so far as to reintroduce a ripped and torn look a la Janet Jackson’s early Nineties video days. Fabio Santorelli, Pepe’s designer, says that the rubbing “hand treatments” the company is using to create holes and worn-in creases are great for giving the jeans an old look. But will customers really want to buy jeans with so many signs of wear? And if so, why not just pick up a pair at the Salvation Army? As Santorelli points out, the new worn-in looks will especially appeal to customers that are looking for a “new product, and don’t want to wear a used garment.”
Scott Morrison and Alex Gilbert of New York-based Paper, Denim and Cloth say they have liked the vintage look for the last two years, especially as an anecdote to all the dark rinses out there. PD&C cleverly grades their finishes by years, starting with one year which is the darkest and going up to four years, which looks as worn and faded as a four-year-old pair of jeans. Their low-rise version of this sold out at wholesale in the first test run and is doing well at retailers like American Rag and Scoop. Says Morrison: “What makes these jeans different from a vintage jean is the modern fit and high-end denim fabrics, like those coming out of Japan or Italy.”
Many retailers, however, predict that these well-worn looks are going to take a bit of getting used to. At Jean Machine, a denim store based in Canada that carries labels like Mavi, Silver and Parasuco, the customer is still dictating a dark rinse, says Alison Winton, a buyer for the store. “While we will carry different rinses from each line, the dark rinse is outselling the light wash 2 to 1,” she says. “Maybe the designers are pushing vintage, but it’s our customers who define what’s cool, and it [dark rinse] is not finished for our customers.”
Like Winton, Thomas George of E Street Denim in Chicago, says he doesn’t expect his customers to throw out all their dark jeans, either. “We introduced that rinse in ’95 but many didn’t adopt it until two years ago. The fact is that the dark rinse still gives a classy look and makes women look great,” he says. And while he feels there is room for a lighter rinse in the market, he believes that what pop stars like Britney Spears are wearing will have the biggest impact on the market. “I just don’t see my customers saying, ‘Oh my God, I must have ripped and torn, old-looking jeans!”‘ (Unless Spears adopts the look, of course).
At New York’s Jimmy Jazz, however, the light and medium sandblast looks are selling well, along with styles that sport subtle touches of wear. “Some customers may be finished with the dark rinse, but they still want a crisp, clean look. The urban customer doesn’t want a holey, ripped and torn look, but they do like the new fraying at the waist and cuffs because it still looks neat,” says Albert Harary, a buyer for Jimmy Jazz. He believes the positive response to the sandblast look is, in part, simply the customer’s need for something new, but not overtly faddish. He recalls, for example, that even though the iridescent looks of 2000 were new, they were also a flop. “I call that fad over fashion — and that was a big millennium fad, but it was over by back-to-school.”
For those who just can’t justify buying a new garment that’s been altered to look old, there’s another alternative. True denim devotees who are attached to a particularly well-worn pair can always turn to the Denim Doctors for help when a problem arises. The brainchild of Zip Stevenson and Sean Hornbeck, the Los Angeles shop is like an emergency room for jeans. The reasons vary for repair: a tear here or there that can be “reweaved” through a special process or maybe shown off with vintage patches, or simply a shift in trends (i.e. straight leg vs. flare) or weight loss or gain. One recent customer brought in his custom patchwork jeans from the Seventies and had them let out four inches to accommodate a bit of middle-age spread. “Our customers have a history with their jeans,” says Stevenson. “Perhaps they went to their first U2 concert in them. That makes it personal.”

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