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Sourcing denim has become a truly global affair and everyone is game: Europe, Asia, the U.S. and even South America. Here, a comparison between some of the biggest players in the premium market: Japan, Italy and Turkey.

NEW YORK — In the last 35 years, denim fabric — first seen in the 1870s, thanks to Levi Strauss — has been stone-washed, embellished, distressed and destroyed, only to be wiped clean the last few seasons.

As the market continues to evolve, designers find themselves challenged to find new ways to create everyone’s favorite pair of jeans, which is making fabric development more important.

Fabric has begun to play an even bigger role in differentiating product. Now, making denim special is more than just an unusual wash; it’s about the way the fabric is made, particularly the yarn and finishing used.

Outside the U.S., where what is left of the textile industry is focused on denim, the fabric is being made in Mexico, Brazil, India and China. Three countries in particular, however, that have begun to catch the eye of premium denim designers are Japan, Italy and Turkey. Each country brings something different to the table. While Japan offers an array of authentic, workwear-like styles, Italy and Turkey offer more fashion-y looks, especially when their fabrics are combined with fancy stitching and pocket details.

Everything Old Is New Again

The vintage Levi’s trend that hit in the late Seventies and early Eighties created a big demand for authentic-looking denim in Japan.

“People there really look toward the U.S. — its culture and free spirit,” said Henry Hsu, head buyer for R by 45rpm, a Tokyo denim brand founded in 1977 that sells Japanese-made clothing exclusively in its own stores, two of which are located here.

Denim from Japan is special for two reasons, added Hsu. First, when U.S. manufacturers began mass producing denim, they retired their original denim looms because they could make only up to 30-inch-wide goods. These special looms created selvage denim, “as close as you can get to authentic-looking denim” because of its finished edges. Many Japanese mills acquired these looms and today, ironically enough, most U.S. companies looking to produce selvage denim must do it in Japan.

This story first appeared in the May 25, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Second, there is a certain cachet to Japanese denim, specifically at R by 45rpm, because of the cotton that is used.

“Both cotton from Zimbabwe and Suvin cotton — a hybrid that combines Caribbean cotton with Indian cotton and is often referred to as the ‘silk of cottons’ — are used in our line,” said Hsu. “These cottons are superior to much of what is out there because of the way they are farmed.”

The Zimbabwe cotton, for instance, is 100 percent organic and handpicked. The staples are very long, added Hsu, making it easy to give the fiber a high twist effect, resulting in a better hand.

Danny Guez, chief executive officer of People’s Liberation, a denim line started in 2004, said Japanese denim is great for core basics.

“Their denims are extremely durable. They can really take a beating,” he said, “and, they give a real authentic look.”

Guez added that the sulfur ammonia that is used to finish the denim in Japan, which is not allowed in the U.S., gives up to 10 looks to one base fabric.

“This is key because we don’t need to have inventory on six or seven fabrics. We can stock just one fabric that’s capable of 10 different looks, thanks to their finishing process,” he said. “I haven’t found a domestic supplier that can mimic this at all.”

Jenna Andreola, designer of Anlo Denim, a new line that launched in April, said, “For pieces where I’m looking to achieve more of a vintage aesthetic, I use Japanese denim.”

Andreola works with Kaihara, a denim mill based in Osaka, Japan, that creates denim with “lots of different textures.” The finish on the fabric, called an SSK finish, features a resin that brings out highs and lows in the fabric.

“This fabric works well when our goal is to try and achieve a worn-in, vintage look,” she said.

Also important, she noted, is that Japanese denim tends to have a tighter weave than other denims, which means the finished product will hold its shape longer. This is key because stretch yarns are rarely, if ever, used in Japanese denim.

At Hudson Jeans, Japanese denim is used because it’s “akin to an art form,” said Gary You, product developer for the line. “They stick to the roots of traditional denim, which brings out the character of the fabric.”

For spring 2007, two Japanese denims are being used in the line. One features a rich indigo finish with black fill yarns.

“Uneven slubbiness makes the fabric pop more after a slight hand-sanding touch,” You said.

The other, which is lighter in weight, also has an indigo finish, but washes down differently.

“It has more vibrant contrasts when lightly sanded,” he added. “That’s what is great about Japanese denim — you don’t have to invest a lot in the wash to get a great finished product. It’s in the fabric.”

Fashion Finds

Italian and Turkish denims are more fashion- and trend-based.

“Just like Italian fabric, Italian denim is more refined, more sophisticated,” said Guez. “It’s not a fabric I would grind or put holes into.”

Some of the dark washes coming out of Italy, he pointed out, are “so rich…the depth of them is amazing and the finished product really gives a slimming effect, both because of the style and the fabric.”

For fall, Guez’s People’s Revolution is featuring two Italian denims, one with a dark wash and another with a rinse wash.

“There’s a hand and finish to these fabrics that are more special than, say, a Japanese denim, but they are each valid in their own way,” he said.

Denim from Italy gave Andreola the streamlined, clean look she was searching for in her fall line.

“For some of the pieces — jeans, a jumper, a vest and hot shorts — we didn’t want denim that looked too broken in,” she added. “Italian fabric also has a shinier finish to it, which looks great when you’re looking to do a very dark wash with very little hand-finishing.”

The hand, too, is different.

“Candiani, the Milan-based mill we used for fall, created an open-weave construction on the darker wash that has a great soft texture,” said Andreola, adding that the open weave helps create a lighter-feeling jean.

Turkish denim, said You, is a “unique combination of great quality and value. They are greatly influenced by their proximity to Europe and the trends there.”

For spring 2007, Hudson is experimenting with two denims from Turkey. One has a gray cast to it that You described as “a nice contrast to all the dark denim we are seeing in the market.” The other denim has a more rigid feel, of which he said: “It’s still a stretch, but feels like a stiffer jean. Sexy, but with a feeling of protection.”

At one-year-old London-based Radcliffe denim, both Turkish and Italian denim are used. Jessica Lawrence, head of design, stressed that she uses denim from other countries, as well.

“I feel the passion and ability of the mill influences the denim and gives it character much more than the region of production,” Lawrence said.

That said, Lawrence likes Turkish denims because “there is such a range of mills in Turkey, each with their own distinct feel.”

Creating everything from vintage-inspired denims to cutting-edge, resin-coated denims and unusual finishes, Turkish denim producers are “willing to innovate,” added Lawrence, who is working with five Turkish denims.

“The resin one looks great on our skinny-fit and zip-leg jean because it has a crisp, cool, rock ‘n’ roll look,” she said. Another, a pitch-black denim, is featured on the firm’s tuxedo jeans, its answer to black-tie jeans.

Italian denim, she agreed, is more sophisticated and refined.

“They’re innovative, but never to the point where it overtakes the aesthetic of the product,” Lawrence said. “We use Italian denim in our wear-everywhere lean fit.”

Like most denim designers, Lawrence is awaiting the next big thing in denim.

“You can find beautiful denims all over the world. India has some great products now and I have recently seen some lovely denims from Greece,” said Lawrence. “Mills in most regions import their raw materials, as well as using local supply, so there are fewer limitations on what they are able to create.”