White Oak Economy is a monthly column by denim journalist veteran, Amy Leverton where she examines the interplay between the worlds of high end artisanal denim and the mall brands behind them.
Last week, I spent 4 days in Amsterdam where I looked at the Spring Summer 17 fabrics at the Kingpins trade show and attended a Denim On Stage event, where the two key subjects on everybody’s lips were sustainability and stretch: behind the scenes, it’s all the industry are talking about right now. More on sustainability soon, for now, lets talk about stretch, baby.
The stretch denim trend is a real thing and there’s nothing you purist rigid fans can do about it! But does it have to effect you? I say it does, because with all these big macro-trends, they end up having a knock-on effect on the rest of the industry.
Stretch is predominantly something that has changed up the women’s sector since its inception in the 70s and of course the trend has been helped along by the amazing fabric technology coming from future-focussed mills over the last decade. But the focus has expanded in the last couple of years to appeal to the men’s sector.
As stretch technology becomes more sophisticated, mills explore the concept of combining the comforts of stretch with the rugged sensibility of rigid men’s denim. This means the replication of strong twill lines, a tough, dry hand and all the characteristics that we come to expect from raw denim.
What also comes with raw denim, as we all know, is the discomfort of that tough-as-nails hand-feel: it takes a certain amount of dedication to wear in, it can sometimes chafe and depending on the weight, the first couple of weeks can be pretty hard going.
Of course, you’re all thinking ‘That’s the whole point’, right? Of course, for many denimheads, we feel like the pain is part of the process and the idea of living with something tough and slightly uncomfortable, then nurturing it into a supple, comfortable best friend is the meaning of life; a jean that bears the scars of the wear-in process and is uniquely yours is what it’s all about.
I think I’m quite a good candidate to write this article as, being a woman, I have a fair few pairs of rigid jeans and fully understand this romance for raw, but I also wear stretch skinnies on the regular. I don’t feel like it’s cheating or in any way ruins my reputation as a denim lover. Long-haul flights are a killer in rigid denim!
I chatted to Jason Denham about this subject last week and he had some surprising news for me:
“Five years ago at Denham, we were really pushing the ‘Virgin’ side of our business (virgin being our name for raw product at Denham). We were getting all the bearded, tattoo’d, rugged looking guys coming in and buying rigid jeans. What’s interesting, is that this same demographic’s tastes have changed; now the tattoo’d, bearded guys are coming in and asking for stretch.”
So some of you are already opening your horizons to the soft and supple world of comfort stretch, which is really interesting news. For instance, over at Levi’s, 50% of mens sales are in stretch right now and Nudie’s stretch offering is pretty extensive too. Brands are playing more and more with stretch Selvedge fabrics, proving that the appeal is shifting to the more purist die-hards. Jason himself was even wearing stretch last week when we spoke:
“I’m wearing a great rugged black selvedge jean today, using Candiani denim. It looks perfectly rugged and authentic yet it’s stretch, and it’s really comfortable. Candiani, which is obviously a purist, authentic mill, was early on this concept and Europe has been embracing stretch for a while. But last week I was out in Okayama in Japan and visiting a number of small, artisanal mills and even the purist weavers are jumping on this movement.”
Denim legend Adriano Goldschmied spoke last week at the Denim On Stage event about his new involvement in the knit denim market: “I think we are at the cusp of another big change in denim. The jean is not only a woven fabric, we are moving into a new process, using knits and stretch. This is a big revolution where instead of using looms, we will start using knit machines” Pretty strong stuff, and I’m not 100% sure you’ll all be wearing knit indigo body suits in 5-10 years, but he definitely had a point about stretch. It seems to be the next macro revolution in denim since AG and Francois discovered laundry processes and stonewash in the 70s.
So, as this is a revolution driven by weave technology, I spoke to a couple of mills who specialise in stretch and are really approaching the premium, mens rigid denim market. Recently, Calik from Turkey launched what they call M-CORE, a men’s stretch with a super rugged, rigid appearance. They’ve also just created Extendplus, which is a denim with a stretch in the vertical rather than the horizontal; men don’t need the jean to stretch horizontally like us ladies, they need it in the vertical, to aid thigh and knee movement.
Calik did a lot of research into men and stretch. They conducted an experiment where they put one hot model in a pair of stretch denim jeans and one model in a raw jean. They put the two strapping dudes in front of a lucky panel of women, and asked the ladies who was the most sexy. Of course the guy with the raw jean won hands down. He looked masculine, rugged and this equals sexy to women. However, the model told Calik afterwards : ‘I’d never wear these jeans, they’re just too uncomfortable.’ Of course this guy is not a denimhead like you guys but models are real people too, you know!
I also chatted to Marco Lucietti from ISKO, arguably the world’s leading mill as far as stretch is concerned. In recent years, they have approached this subject of mens stretch, launching several new lines and qualities that combine the performance and feel of elastic but with an authentic sensibility. Their ISKO XMENS (TM) fabric enhances the 3×1 weave from the inside to create a tough look with a super-power elasticity. They also have ISKO RIGID and LOOM FX (TM) lines, which provide raw, masculine looks but feel super comfortable. As you can see, they are investing a lot in these products and they are getting great traction. Marco says:
“In my opinion, the mens rugged denim market is definitely going into the stretch and comfort direction: we are discovering that it’s possible to feel at ease while looking cool. This will for sure involve the purist denim brands since it will be more and more important to meet this demand for comfort within those sectors. I think that the rugged denim market will discover that this “functional issue” can create a lot of inspiration- they will see for example how Replay men is positioning with their Hyperflex range: stretch is really the latest frontier in denim”
The final point I’d like to make is this: if you are a raw denim fan and only wear rigid, how do you really feel about a jean that makes you feel slightly more comfortable, BUT still looks exactly the same as raw, wears in like raw and has all the characteristics of rigid denim? Why wouldn’t you wear it? Technology does move forward and the majority of the population are already embracing this technology, does it make you less of a purist to wear stretch? Or will you be a bunch of purist masochists forever?!
Lead image credit to Graham Hiemstra via Cool Hunting.