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The Great Heritage Denim Debate

The definition of heritage denim is simple: 100 percent cotton, warp indigo dyed 3×1 or 2×1 with a left hand twill or right hand twill.

“We’re talking about the most basic item in men’s wardrobes—jeans. Nowadays its heritage, but it was workwear,” said Christian Josh Heise, co-owner of Statement Store, the Munich-based men’s raw denim emporium.

However, the flood of bi-stretch at Bluezone in Munich suggests that heritage is loosing out to innovative performance fabrics.

“The denim we used to know is no longer here, it’s a real niche,” said Stefano Aldighieri, president of Another Design Studio and Arvind creative director. “Heritage denim now is a homage to what people wore a long time ago.”

At “The Heritage Denim Business of Tomorrow” panel during Bluezone Wednesday, moderated by Thomas Stege Bojer of Denimhunters, industry insiders discussed how the future of raw and selvedge denim relies on education and evolution—not just styling.

Niche product
Heritage is a niche within a niche. With its Americana history, raw denim has opportunities in the men’s market, but Ebru Ozaydin, Artistic Milliners head of global marketing and U.S. sales, says women need comfort and fit.

“When you talk about selvedge and raw denim you have to think about the gender differences,” she said.

During a recent market trip in New York City, Ozaydin asked a store manager how women’s ’90s-inspired 100 percent cotton jeans were performing. They weren’t. The manager said the jeans look nice on the rack, but were too difficult to wear.

“Heritage denim is a bit of a chauvinist term,” Heise agreed. When women come into his store, Heise recommends Nudie Jeans as an alternative. The brand offers high quality organic cotton alternatives with a focus on fit. “Women know what they want and are willing to spend on items if it fits them. This is a niche within the high quality women’s clothing,” he said.

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However, Aldighieri argues that heritage denim in women’s is a possibility in the right hands. “We tend to think stretch is friendlier to women, but that’s because, unfortunately, we lost lots of skill sets in patternmaking,” he said. “Stretch has a lot of give. With stretch, you don’t have to be too good to make a good pair of jeans.”

Sustainable evolution
Heritage denim mill Candiani loves what denim stands for, but after 80 years of producing denim it has set new standards in performance, sustainability and dyeing technology. “We try to give you a 1963 Ford Mustang with the equipment of a Formula One car,” said Candiani Denim marketing manager Simon Giuliani.

When Candiani started to produce denim in 1938, there was only one way of doing it. The Italian mill has since invested in innovations like water-saving dye technologies Kitotex and Indigo Juice and introduced sustainable fibers including Lenzing’s Refibra to become the “greenest textile company in the blue world.”

For Candiani, innovation and sustainability go hand in hand. “We want to offer a beautiful product that is much more sustainable than it used to be some time ago. We’re cleaning up how to do it,” Giuliani said.

After 200 years of making denim one way, Aldighieri said the industry now knows the damage that’s been done. To continue with these practices, he said, is a “criminal enterprise.”

“As much as I have a deep passion for traditional denim, in all consciousness, I cannot support it being done the old way. If we love [denim], we have to figure out how to make it right for our times,” he said.

Cotton alternatives, recycled materials and new indigo dyeing techniques are leveling the playing field. “Our mission as an industry should be to keep [heritage denim] alive, but be responsible and do it the right way,” Aldighieri said.

Lesson plan
While some brands are improving their efforts to be more transparent about the materials they source, the marketing efforts of most consumer-facing denim brands remain focused on creating fantasy images.

However, Giuliani says the marketing efforts in a B2B industry, like denim, requires education.

“Jeans can cost $29.99 or $200. My goal is to teach [the consumer] why he should choose one over the other and to understand what’s special about it. Then he can decide if it is for him or not,” he said.

As denim became more complex, buyers became less interested in information and preoccupied with price. “Buyers got less technical while we got more technical,” Giuliani added. “There’s a huge gap, so if you don’t understand, you go for price.”

Heise believes that gap is evident on the sales floor. Buyers travel less and have stopped searching for new products. Meanwhile, sales associates are not educated about the products they sell. “Instead buyers are interested in how a brand’s social media campaign is going to sell the product,” he said. “There’s no vision.”

In six years, Giuliani has helped build Candiani into a brand name without becoming a brand. The mill has become a supplier for denim and a marketing tool for retailers to their customers.

“We try to take those technicalities and simplify. We explain them in a consumer-friendly language,” he said. “That is a big revolution in denim right now.”