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Re-inventing the Five Pocket: The Difficulties of Raw Denim Innovation

Anyone who follows raw denim knows that there a few buzzwords floating through the conversations regarding the current state of our beloved fabric. One of the oft-mentioned terms is “innovation.” I must put it in quotation marks, for the meaning of the word is so debated that it has really ceased to mean anything at all beyond an individual’s definition of it. That being said, I’m here to offer my take on not only the term itself but also the attitudes of raw denim fans and aficionados.

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Photos courtesy of The Woodlands/Tanner Goods

Many of us who are into raw denim also enjoy the realm of heritage menswear. While I won’t debate the meaning of “heritage”—nefarious in its own right—I will say that the draw of it is we like to look backward for sartorial inspiration, back to a time when we believe things were made more for functionality than fashion, with attention to detail, and with a commitment to sustainability. With its workwear roots, denim is at the forefront of the heritage movement as a fabric meant to withstand the test of time.

But let’s be honest: few of us are wearing raw denim because it holds up to heavy punishment in our manual-labor jobs. It is about fashion for many of us. And the nature of fashion is that it comes and goes.

Yet there are innovators who try new things and push the boundaries of what is accepted by the masses–they offer a new take on something classic or invent new categories to pioneer. In raw denim, our commitment to the past-as-model has cultivated a vitriolic attitude toward anything that strays too far from the traditional five-pocket jean. Yet at the same time, we bemoan all of these brands who “aren’t doing anything new, using the same old fabric, offering the same fit as everyone else.”

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We can’t have it both ways. Sure, there will be jeans at which we shake our heads and go, “What the hell was the designer thinking?” I’ve done it on a number of occasions and, to be forthright, I favor more classic looks in both fit and denim, but I like to see new things. I appreciate the fact that designers walk a razor’s edge between “weird” and “innovative.”

Some of these new things may be misfires, but, as with anything, success relies upon trial and error. Go look up Edison’s attempt at the light-bulb. In my mind, there are a few ways a raw denim brand can innovate.

One is fit, but, knowing their consumers, most brands keep it on the safe side, offering some version of a straight or slim-straight fit. There’s also the “anti-fit” push, which represents the pendulum swinging back against skinny jeans, but most raw brands keep it somewhere in the center.

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Another way is through details like stitching and hardware, but, again, most brands play it safe because raw denim consumers on the whole frown upon over-the-top pocket arcs and such (and I happen to agree with this one). However, newer brands like Endrime often get ripped for trying something different on the design front because it looks “weird” or “ugly,” whatever that means.

I’m willing to bet that most people haven’t seen the jeans in person and feel inclined to offer an opinion based upon photos, but one man’s ugly is another’s perfection. One-man brands like Ande Whall are able to offer something unique with extras, but most of them end up on the inside, where only the wearer knows about them.

The crucial component to any jean is fabric, and this is where many denim brands can offer something unique.

An attitude that irks me to no end is the recent trend of writing off Cone Mills denim as boring and unoriginal. It’s impossible to log onto a denim forum these days without seeing some variation on, “Yeah, Cone Mills White Oak denim: it’s all the same.” There are a number of raw denim brands who have committed themselves to complete made-in-the-U.S. production, including their denim, and Cone Mills is currently the only United States weaver making selvedge denim.

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Tellason 14.75 Oz. Cone Mills White Oak

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Cone Mills EcoBlue denim used by Bridge&Boro

But the mistaken assumption that all Cone denim is the same is indicative of the ignorance of people spouting off about something about which they have done little research. Brands like Tellason have worked with Cone to produce their own fabric, unique to their label.

Start-up brands, however, cannot always meet the minimum order requirement for such individualized fabrics. But Cone still offers an array of selvedge denims that go beyond the “normal” indigo.

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Another oft-encountered viewpoint is that some brands like Naked & Famous are “gimmicky.” In other words, they are being different for the sake of promotion rather than offering a product of genuine innovation. I don’t need a pair of glow-in-the-dark jeans, but to hear owners Brandon Svarc and Bahzad Trinos talk about why they make them makes me a believer. They’re passionate about trying new things and tapping into a creativity that is sorely lacking in our little corner of the fashion industry.

The raw denim consumer has a world of options when it comes to N&F denim, and it’s refreshing. Most of their denim is much tamer than the Scratch-and-Sniff pair, but you’ve got to applaud them for doing something different. World’s most innovative? That depends upon your definition.

The market is saturated with five-pocket raw indigo jeans, and many of them are thinly veiled plagiarisms of what Levi’s did a long time ago. I, for one, welcome brands who are willing to take a shot and offer something slightly off-center. Maybe it will flop, but there is no reward without some level of risk, and it’s nearly impossible to move forward if we only look back.

Stay tuned, as this is the first installment of our series exploring brands like Naked & Famous, Tellason, and Endrime and what it takes for them to innovate in 2014’s raw denim market.