I was looking at a photograph of myself when I was 18 and at the beginning of my gap year (which trust me, was a really long time ago!). What struck me was the pair of denim jeans I was wearing: Levi 501’s that had been opened at the bottom to sew in an embroidered piece of denim fabric to make them into serious bell bottoms. They were fabulous and I only wish now that I had kept them!
The photo got me thinking about where we are in the denim trend right now, particularly as denim is one of those iconic fashion items that seems to be forever in a trend cycle. Sometimes it’s in and sometimes it’s just out…
It was about two years ago that we saw the cycle go back up again when Demna Gvasalia, founder of the fashion brand Vetements, put vintage Levi’s on the catwalk. They called them ‘re-worked’, meaning that Vetements took the vintage product and adjusted it with a cool, couture sensibility. The collection now seems to be permanently in the Vetements stable, becoming their signature jean.
“Denim is one of those iconic fashion items that seems to be forever in a trend cycle. Sometimes it’s in and sometimes it’s just out…”
Not for the faint-hearted, the jeans have taken on the status of investment pieces and retail for about £1,000. You could almost liken them to the secondary art market where the artist sells a piece on. In this case, Levi’s would have retailed the jean for about £85 but once re-purposed they can be sold for over 10 times that a few years later.
In addition to Vetements, Demna became creative director at Balenciaga two years ago where he is disrupting the fashion industry by amassing a huge fan base of cool kids who love his contemporary, streetwise aesthetic. It’s what he calls “making the ordinary extraordinary” and the “method of appropriation: using the things around us and turning them into a new product”.
Demna says that there are so many pieces of clothing out there, he felt he had no right to invent anything new other than taking things that already exist and modelling them into something different.
It’s innovators like Demna who are driving the upswing in the denim trend once more. The jeans market is expected to hit over $90bn this year and will keep going north for the foreseeable future, according to Euromonitor. The first half of 2017 saw the women’s jeans market grow by a staggering 79% compared to last year, figures from retail technology company Edited show.
“You can make new clothes from things that already exist. That’s how I came to use this method of appropriation: using the things around us and turning them into a new product” – Demna Gvasalia, founder of Vetements and creative director of Balenciaga, speaking to Vogue
It’s no wonder then that music artist Pharrell Williams, who is well known for both his style and his environmental activism, last year invested to become the co-owner of eco-friendly Dutch jeans company G-Star RAW.
Three years ago, G-Star launched its RAW for the Oceans clothing line, a collaboration with Pharrell’s Bionic Yarn textile company which produces a fibre made from discarded plastic retrieved from the ocean.
The tie-up between G-Star and Bionic Yarn is a fascinating one. G-Star, which now has sales in excess of $1bn, has for many years worked to find materials that contribute to a more sustainable future without compromising on quality or design. Shubhankar Ray, G-Star’s inspirational global brand director between 2006 and 2016, was at the forefront of this unique approach to manufacturing, which has included blending recycled cotton and unusual fibres like nettle into the heart of its denimwear.
Bionic Yarn, meanwhile, believes that a company can successfully marry purpose with profit. In 2016 Bionic joined forces with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental not-for-profit that unites more than 300 waterkeepers organisations. Together, these organisations patrol and protect 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents. Such activities mean that in addition to developing its revolutionary fibre technology, Bionic plays an active role in supporting marine and coastal conservation, the benefits of which are felt worldwide.
Levi’s has also taken huge strides in its approach to sustainability, such as through its Made of Progress campaign. This includes innovations such as its Water<Less process, whereby Levi’s aims to reduce the amount of water used in the denim finishing process by up to 96%, and its Waste<Less collection – products that are made of 20% post-consumer waste such as recycled plastic bottles.
“In addition to developing its revolutionary fibre technology, Bionic plays an active role in supporting marine and coastal conservation”
It seems to me that Millennials are sick to death of party politics and are far more interested in dealing with the wider issues in the world, such as environmental degradation. Could it be that denim is thriving because initiatives by these market-leading brands have contributed to the rising demand from young consumers? Certainly as the demand for fully transparent supply chains and fully traceable and certifiable recycled materials continues to grow, so does purpose and profit.
I was a hippie on my gap year, wore a big silver peace sign around my neck but I had no idea at all about sustainability or saving the planet. All I knew is that I loved my jeans. The difference today is the coming together of fashion and socially responsible business in a vibrant, powerful way.