People rarely contradict Giorgio Armani, especially when he makes a comment so true as “jeans represent democracy in fashion”. He said it in the mid-2000s in relation to his jeans range and, with 2bn denim items sold worldwide in 2013, it is even more relevant now.
However, a lot has happened since Armani made his pronouncement. Denim, in many guises, has gone way beyond jeans, into the realms of high luxury. So even if jeans – spanning the spectrum from questionably sourced chain-store versions to embellished, hand-finished designer ones – are fashion’s great leveller, the fabric behind them is not, and has spun into a major luxury industry of its own. Catwalk denim is more prominent than ever, and the list of designers who do not feature it this spring is shorter than those who do.
The sudden 1970s revival, under the guiding hand of Nicolas Ghesquière and his much-vaunted autumn/winter 2014 collection (his first for Louis Vuitton), is the catalyst; any designer looking fondly back to Woodstock and to the original San Francisco flower-power scene for inspiration could hardly avoid denim. The usual boho-inclined suspects have raided their back catalogues and produced fabulously lush, updated outfits with a sure hand, the best of which are at Etro, with fringing, embroidered denim and Navajo prints (£3,405) sure to be seen while glamping at festivals and on chic beaches, and Chloé, where designer Clare Waight Keller has created her most beautiful collection yet, with free-floating crocheted lace, pleats and denim (shirt, £345, and skirt, £370) that recall the spirit of the brand’s 1970s creations.
The surprise package is Gucci, which takes 1970s- inspired denim into a more tailored arena, with smart, military-style jackets (£1,570) and tab-fronted or lace-inset dresses (£2,880) – moving denim into the world of business, even if the double-denim military jacket with turned-up jeans is a step too far in that context. When Gucci showed, early in last autumn’s Milan Fashion Week, denim was already a talking point. The experimental London collections of specialists Marques’Almeida (from £165) and Faustine Steinmetz (from £400) used craft techniques such as hand-painting, shredding, weaving and fringing – not necessarily mainstream but likely to be influential. Meanwhile, Burberry Prorsum’s wasp-waisted jean jackets (£1,395), some trimmed with feathers and all worn over wispy tulle dresses, opened the possibility of denim as eveningwear.
By the end of Milan, denim’s new versatility was apparent. There are strikingly modern, minimalist designs using firm, structure-giving denim for working lifestyles. I put my own marker on a well-cut boxy jacket, collarless and plain except for a rose-gold zip, by Raoul (£229), which I plan to wear over a day or cocktail dress as much as with sporty trousers or an A-line skirt – but probably not with jeans. In Paris the story’s different strands became clear, with added elements: the currently on-trend jumpsuit is a natural partner for denim, seen at Chloé and Balmain, while dungarees also made an appearance. In the hands of designers such as Julie de Libran, artistic director at Sonia Rykiel (dungarees £630), the dungaree look seems simultaneously sharp and relaxed – exactly what women want now. In addition, designers add individualist touches that mark out the brand to the cognoscenti, such as slightly tribal embroidered motifs at Stella McCartney (£1,195) or a touch of crystal – again putting denim into the evening realm – at Sonia Rykiel (shirt, £905).
The question is why this is happening now – and, besides, that 1970s revival is far from the whole story. Marques’Almeida – 2014 emerging womenswear designer at the British Fashion Awards – has used denim for four years, with its oversized T-shirts, fraying and deep turn-ups (highly influential), and is now adding asymmetric shapes, chiffon, silk and crystal. “When we started, we wanted to work with denim because we felt that connecting it with our high-end context said something new and exciting,” says Marta Marques, co-designer and co-company director. “We looked at it differently from the 1970s angle. We were more interested in 1990s street style, where it was a constant presence that made us want to experiment with it in a high-fashion way.”
As a relative fledgling, until recently Marques’Almeida’s influence had been primarily within the industry. A more high-profile comment on the social context of denim came, as so often, from Miuccia Prada in her spring/summer 2013 Miu Miu collection, which was heavily 1950s in inspiration (bracelet-length‑sleeve duster coats, fur stoles and nippy pencil skirts), much of it executed in plain, dark denim lined with silk satin, as part of Prada’s perennial rumination on contrasts, in this case that between lavish and humble fabrics. Marques’Almeida deals in contrasts too, but it was perhaps Prada that set people – not least fabric designers – thinking.
For denim is now far from the indigo-dyed, stiff cotton weave of old-fashioned jeans. This vast global industry, generating garment sales of $51bn per year, estimated to rise another $5bn by 2018, has its own subculture, huge research and development facilities, especially in Japan and the US, and its own twice-yearly premium fabric fair, Denim by Première Vision. The event is held in Barcelona and, according to its fashion director Pascaline Wilhelm, now attracts buyers from the likes of Burberry, Dior Homme and Chloé. Even Louis Vuitton has launched jeans: crisp, kick-flared and eminently work-friendly, shown on the catwalk with a smart blazer (£635).
Lest anyone imagine that the rise of luxury denim is a cynical ploy by designer brands to squeeze maximum added value from a relatively cheap fabric, Wilhelm points out that all the R&D involved, and the other luxury fibres now being mixed into the weaves, make the best far from inexpensive. “Twenty years ago even designer dresses in denim would seem heavy and not very supple because they were derived from a workwear fabric, intended to be sturdy and made by traditional methods. The great innovations have been stretch and lightness, influenced by sportswear and its emphasis on comfort, made possible by modern machinery. We can now produce very thin, strong, light yarns that stand up to the long dyeing and washing process that is essential for character and softness. Cotton is still the basis, but now it is mixed with enough stretch to hold shape, or with Tencel, wool, silk or cashmere – mixes that still look like denim but feel completely different.”
No wonder 1970s styles in denim have exerted such a big pull on today’s designers – the shapes may recall the originals, but in modern fabrics they look and feel soft and are far more liberating to wear. “No other single-fabric weave has such variety,” says Chantal Malingrey, director of Denim by Première Vision. “At the premium end it’s all about technology allied to complex finishing that can only be done by hand, and creativity – brands’ creative directors ask the fabric designers for a particular finish and then the specialist manufacturer has to work out how to make it. Between them they push the limits of innovation every season.”
A case in point is Veronica Etro, creative director womenswear at Etro, who plays on the contrasts angle: “We started with raw, rough, washed-out materials and enriched them with precious refinement and finishing. The denim has been laser-cut, dyed in dusty, feminine shades, stone washed and embroidered, so it looks both casual and rich. Our customer is artistic and creative – she wants comfort and wearability, clothes she can live in but that are precious in technique.” Sonia Rykiel’s de Libran agrees that “denim is part of women’s everyday wardrobe today – it gives a certain ease and attitude in any context. Coming from workwear, it might not seem luxurious, but make a sexy jumpsuit in modern denim or add crystal and it feels fabulous.” For Raoul’s creative director Odile Benjamin, “there are endless new developments every season – weaves from cross-hatch to twill, finishes from rinse to silicone washing, coatings from metallic to resin, plus Lycra, which allows for tailoring as well as comfort. It is our most versatile material: dark and rigid for sharp tailoring when raw; malleable and variable when treated.”
Not only do treatments add to the fabric’s cost, but so do anti-pollution measures now being implemented by premium denim makers and some others. “This has changed a lot in the past five years and is now something premium brands cannot ignore,” says Première Vision’s Malingrey. “It takes time and investment to change working habits on water and chemical use, especially for something where you can’t see the difference, but premium manufacturers are making the effort. It’s not quite the same at the mass end yet.” This is another good reason for buying high-end denim, but it will be the soft, easy shapes and handle that create appeal – pieces such as a light denim shirt (£275) by Bally, which works well with white trousers or a python pencil skirt, or a light swing tunic with ruffled sleeves by Dorothee Schumacher (£275). These are great weekend kit but can also be styled for an informal work context. Even accessories get the denim treatment, with bleached-denim patchwork boots (£800) and a “denim”-finish Epi leather bag (£1,935) at Louis Vuitton.
Also important here are the stiffer structured fabrics used by Kenzo, Marques’Almeida and Studio Nicholson. “I wear denim six days a week and I love using Japanese heavy selvedge denim to make pure modern shapes [skirt £245],” says the latter’s creative director and founder Nick Wakeman. “It holds its shape so well it’s a no-brainer to use it in skirts and dresses when the lines between formal and casual are blurred,” she explains. Marques adds, “We source Japanese denim with incredible quality and real denim roots – 100 per cent cotton with pure indigo dyes and resistant structures, but we also break the fibres with aggressive washes so it feels softer, and weave metal yarn through for a shiny finish.”
In context, premium denim sales stalled after the 2008 recession, when customers merely replaced worn-out jeans, but started to recover in 2011 and are accelerating. “Denim never disappears, but is currently a huge trend,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director for Matchesfashion.com. “It can be sophisticated, or shredded to make a high-low contrast. We have denim shirts, dresses and jackets from new brands such as Bliss and Mischief, which embroiders vintage denim, or Tortoise, which uses ethical techniques to make distressed finishes, and established names such as Marni, Gucci and Stella McCartney, with exclusives from Marques’Almeida.”
Browns buying director Laura Larbalestier agrees. “Customers are now investing in relaxed daily wear rather than evening dresses,” she says. “Apart from the 1970s revival, there is an upsurge in young denim brands, where the market was getting a little staid. It’s cool yet comfortable and people love the authenticity of top-quality Japanese selvedge denim. Pieces such as Christopher Kane’s shorts trimmed in fluo lace [from £800], Stella McCartney’s high-waisted styles [from £300] and Simone Rocha’s collaboration with J Brand [from £270] are our stars. They are investment pieces that those in the know do not mistake for cheap jeans.” Luxury brands have embraced the world’s most democratic fabric at exactly the right moment.