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NEW YORK — Although the trend toward a heavily treated denim look is beginning to die down, according to many in the denim field, there are a variety of new techniques — on the mill and wash side — that are set to make jeans look truly authentic.

“We did get silly there for a while,” said Keyomars Fard, founder of The First Finish, a wash facility in Lynwood, Calif., referring to some of the over-the-top looks that have infiltrated denim as of late. “The look is now more focused and, I believe, more refined.”

Fard gives credit to the mills for churning out fabrics that are at the forefront of innovation.

“It’s becoming less about finish and more about the fabrics,” he said. “The mills are back to doing denim the way they used to — there are 14 or 15 dye shades available on one fabric.”

The different casts of indigo, he added, all give different results when washed and treated.

“In the end, that makes for a more authentic look,” said Fard, who sees a trend in bleach alternatives, such as the use of ozone gas, for achieving faded effects.

“It can be used to sandblast with, to bleach with, to print with and to also clean up any loose indigo left on the garment due to regular processing,” he said, adding that he used the technique a while back.

There’s also a movement toward laser etching, which replicates wear marks by laser. This, said Fard, opens up an enormous possibility in that it allows volume-heavy manufacturers the chance to produce more looks in less time.

“The equipment for doing this has improved substantially and now gives a higher grade of definition and a better end product,” he added.

At Columbus, Ga.-based mill Denim North America, Lisa Harris, creative and merchandising manager, said partnering with chemical company Boehme Filatex has given them an edge in a overly saturated market.

“We’re able to go in and work with them on new chemicals that give the denim antibacterial properties as well as offer UV protection and bug repellency,” Harris said.

This story first appeared in the May 26, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In addition, Harris said one of the most important buzzwords is “soft.” “Especially in women’s denim, soft is key.”

One example now on the line, a left-hand twill with a peached effect, came courtesy of a new development with Boehme Filatex. Also in the works is a resin flat finish on stretch denim.

“In a flat-finish process, you have to cure the denim, which before never worked on stretch fabrics because the process destroyed the elasticity,” she said. “Now we’ve got a resin-looking jean on stretch that has gotten a great response from the market.”

Color also is making a statement, said Harris. “We’re getting a great response to some of our pigment mixed with polyurethane techniques,” she said.

First, color is applied either all over or on localized areas, such as a back pocket, and then the polyurethane is used as a fill-in that creates a sheen.

“Also, once the pigment is applied and you wash the garment down, there are different colors, depending on where the piece was sanded,” Harris added.

Bart Sights, president of Sights Denim, a wash facility in Henderson, Ky., bases the variety of work he does on each brand’s aesthetic. The look for Paper Denim & Cloth, for instance, continues to move in a more subtle direction, while RRL and Levi’s are more heritage-based and require more work in the way of patterning.

“We continue to use a lot of resin effects,” Sights said.

As for ozone, he continues to develop the technique.

“There are old processes and techniques — such as ozone, screen-printing and calendering — that we’re trying to evolve in a way that produces a new look,” Sights said.

Making customers part of the creative process allows Monroe, Ga.-based Avondale to create fabrics that Doug Murphy, vice president of denim merchandising, believes will work better with today’s finishing processes.

“We distribute tools to our customers so that they can be part of the process,” he said.

In addition to cards displaying different shades, there are also cards for textures — something Murphy said is becoming increasingly important as finishes get more subtle.

“A fabric with some sort of visual characteristic gives the washer something to develop,” he said. “They can do more with what they have if they start with something textural.”

One base cloth, for instance, can have three different shades and four different textures, which all change when the fabric goes through a washing process. “It really gives us the flexibility to create newness,” Murphy said.

Newness in denim is something that the end consumer continues to look for, and these launderers and mills are determined to deliver the goods.

“The jeans industry is definitely taking itself more seriously now,” Fard said. “They’re investing more money and time into the fabrics as well as the finishes, and that means growth all around.”

For Murphy, it all comes down to seeing the “endless possibility” in a piece of indigo cloth.

“Every season, we’re creating newness from a blue fabric,” he said. “It’s certainly a challenge, but it’s an amazing one.”

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