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The real deal: the rise of authenticity and sustainability in denim

Lee fw19 campaign 01

Drapers discovers how some of denim’s leading names are riding the jeans trend wave and capitalising on their heritage and sustainable credentials to tempt shoppers back.

Big businesses have been built on the back of jeans. Recent results show American brand Levi Strauss – known for its 501 blue jeans – increased operating profit by 5% year on year to $264m (£211m) in the six months to 26 May 2019, while net revenues grew 5% year on year to $1.3bn (£1bn) in the second quarter of the year. In March, it floated on the New York Stock Exchange, selling $623m (£504m) in shares.

However, the market faces challenges. If anyone has suffered at the hands of the sports and streetwear trends, it is denim. 

“The denim market is tough at the moment,” admits Charlie Warren, sales director at Edwin, which has two London stores and 120 UK stockists. “The market generally runs in cycles and right now, denim is not top of the list.”

Nevertheless, denim brands are fighting back against the dominance of athleisure and finding sustainability, authenticity and heritage can create a compelling story for growth.

People are becoming more conscious about their purchasing decisions and, in our market, are buying into brands with authenticity and heritage

Simon Fisher, Kontoor Brands

Simon Fisher, managing director (EMEA region) of Kontoor Brands, which owns denim brands including Lee Jeans and Wrangler, believes the tide is turning, particularly as consumers tune into cultural factors that play in denim’s favour.

Nudie autumn 19

Nudie autumn 19

“Denim is on the cusp of a return,” he says, pointing to sustainability and authenticity as key factors that denim brands can capitalise on. “People are becoming more conscious about their purchasing decisions and, in our market, are buying into brands with authenticity and heritage.”

For Matt Claydon, international brand director for menswear at True Religion, which has 120 points of sale and two standalone stores, a key challenge in today’s climate is tempting a new generation of denim wearers, especially those used to a more casual, sportswear-inspired way of dressing.

“There needs to be constant consideration because if your product isn’t exactly what the consumer wants, it will flop,” he tells Drapers. “But the younger consumer is looking for ‘brands’ again. Fit, wash, price and branding must therefore be spot on. The opportunity [for success is there] if you can find out what they will [spend on], then you can get a brand loyal customer.”

Edwin

Edwin

Edwin is focusing on what will persuade customers to spend, which has meant zeroing in on its unique selling points.

“It’s very difficult to compete with the bigger brands at entry-level price, so we’re focusing on our roots and pushing the fact that Edwin originates from Japan,” explains Warren. “Edwin recently took the decision to work exclusively with Japanese fabrics on our five-pocket denim [jeans], meaning that the price point has risen slightly, but so has the quality.” Prices have risen by 25%.

Historical value

For these well-established businesses, their heritage presents the opportunity to promote brand authenticity and signify quality in shoppers’ minds.

“Both Lee Jeans and Wrangler are renowned for their credible heritage and a level of product authenticity, which consumers demand in periods of both uncertainty and stability,” says Kontoor Brands’ Fisher. “Product authenticity is at the heart of our brands and both Lee and Wrangler have incredibly rich archives populated by iconic products.”

Way before workwear became a go-to look for the skate community or was lighting up the UK trend radar, it was a daily uniform for thousands of American workers

Simon Fisher, Kontoor Brands

This year Lee celebrates its 130th anniversary with “throwback” collections.

“Way before workwear became a go-to look for the skate community or was lighting up the UK trend radar, it was a daily uniform for thousands of American workers,” says Fisher. “Lee Jeans was the brand that clothed that workforce; styles like the Lee Loco chore jacket, the 191 jacket, the Whiz It Coverall dungarees and the Carpenter pant. Each of these styles returns for autumn 19.”

That said, denim brands are also finding success when parlaying their product know-how into broader collections outside of denim.

Lee autumn 19

Lee autumn 19

At Lee, for example, corduroy has become a “key component” of collections, while Fisher says “non-denims” are also “critical” at Wrangler, where seasonal non-denim five-pockets account for a third of seasonal bottoms sales.

True Religion’s international brand director, Matt Claydon, describes non-denim items as “vital”, making up more than 50% of the brand’s menswear wholesale orders.

While skinny jeans have dominated denim for many seasons, and admittedly show little sign of slowing down, denim’s big players are betting on a range of different styles to offer newness.

For Swedish denim brand Nudie this has meant a move away from stretch denim.

“It’s the shift to rigid fits that are key at the moment,” says Martin Gustavsson, design manager at the brand, which has 87 UK stockists and two shops. “It has happened already on the women’s side and we are waiting for it to happen in men’s. [Generally] the looser silhouette is increasing. We will launch two new looser rigid options for men and one for women in 2020.”

It’s the shift to rigid fits that are key at the moment

Martin Gustavsson, Nudie

The western trend is also having an impact, while the continued focus on the 1990s is expected to carry forward. At Edwin, for example, sales director Warren predicts a 1990s hip-hop look will have a “big impact on the market in the near future, bringing back loose cuts and wider fits on a wearable, casual level”.

Italian denim giant Replay, which has 160 stockists in the UK and Ireland, and four stores, is launching a special collection to tap into this 1990s music trend.

Replay's Tupac collection

Replay’s Tupac collection

“We’re especially proud to introduce a tribute line to rapper Tupac Shakur [who was murdered in 1996],” reveals Matteo Sinigaglia, chief executive officer of Fashion Box, the group that owns the brand. “It is a special capsule that is extremely contemporary, as a tribute to one of the real pioneers of a music genre and streetwear culture.” It is launching this season, retailing at between £40 and £220.

Green theme

Replay is also continuing its concentration on the wellness and performance trend within denim, which it first launched in via its Hyperflex stretch jeans, helping give it a point of difference. The latest evolution of this covers another key issue: sustainability.

Hyperflex Clouds is a new launch that Sinigaglia explains merges Replay’s “performance 3D technology with revolutionary eco-sustainability”: “The wash is carried out using an innovative machine that reduces little jets of steam enriched with an ecological enzyme and in the process guarantees to save 75% water, and doesn’t use harmful chemicals, but only enzymes that have obtained ZDHC certification [Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals].”

As more consumers switch on to sustainability issues and fashion’s impact on the environment, the denim market has come under fire, not least for its wasteful use of water and harmful processes.

Many of denim’s biggest names are responding to this by putting ethical factors at the core of new innovations.

Levi's Mexico factory jeans denim manufacturing supply chain

Levi’s Mexico factory

Denim giant Levi’s, which was one of the founding members of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), has been working towards eliminating water from its wash processes.

“At our innovation centre in Turkey, we experimented with different ways to reduce and simplify the industry standard finishing processes that were in used by all our factories,” explains Paul Dillinger, vice-president – global product innovation at the brand. “Although we did not completely eliminate the use of water, we were able to reduce the amount used on some of our finishes by 95%. Since the launch of our Water Less product in 2011, we’ve saved more than 3 billion litres of fresh water.”

It’s the shift to rigid fits that are key at the moment

Martin Gustavsson, Nudie

The brand’s latest innovation saw the introduction of a new form of “cottonized hemp” in its 2019 Wellthread collection, which is a “modified hemp fibre morphology that is nearly indistinguishable from cotton”, says Dillinger. “The result is a pair of cotton/hemp blend jeans that look and feel like your favourite pair of Levi’s, but with substantially reduced environmental footprint associated with rain-fed hemp cultivar. We’re also working on longer-term material innovation opportunities, such as EvrNu – a regenerative fibre technology that converts discarded garments into a new, regenerated cotton fibre alternative.”

Elsewhere, Wrangler introduced Indigood this year, which is a new technique that uses a foam-dyeing process that uses 100% less water and 60% less energy.

Sweden’s Nudie Jeans was one of the first denim brands to put sustainability at its core, and one interesting aspect centres on a unique focus on prolonging the life of its garments. This includes offering customers free repairs, selling second-hand jeans and the implementation of several recycling projects. This October, the brand will also launch a capsule of three denim items made from 20% recycled cotton that has been collected via Nudies’ own recycling program.

This prioritising of sustainable initiatives and innovations balanced with a focus on product development, new trends and expanding collections, while intelligently capitalising on heritage and storytelling will help denim brands, big and small, stay successful.

The real deal: the rise of authenticity and sustainability in denim

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