James Jeans CEO and founder James Chung recently introduced Alkhemist, a new brand of “hemp-incorporated” premium denim for women (and soon men) geared toward eco-savvy millennial consumers.
“Incorporating hemp fabrics into our product line has been a multi-year research and development process,” Chung said. “The challenge with hemp has been getting a final product that meets our exacting standards for fit, comfort, style and durability. But our engineering and design process has paid off. We found the right blend of hemp and other fibers to create velvety soft, breathable jeans, cargo pants and Bermuda shorts that are perfect for any occasion and better for the planet.”
When the U.S. Congress legalized industrial hemp last December through the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, Chung said a veil was lifted on the sustainable fiber and cotton alternative. Through the bill, industrial hemp that has a tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC), the psychoactive component of marijuana, concentration of no more than 0.3 percent was removed from the schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The bill also made hemp producers eligible for the federal crop insurance program and certain USDA research grants.
“I don’t think most people really took time to understand how impactful [the bill] is for hemp,” Chung said. “It is free to be traded in any form or fashion at the federal level.”
The legalization of recreational marijuana in 11 states has also helped throw the plant into the spotlight for positive and negative reasons. However, hemp wasn’t always the forbidden fruit of fibers. In fact, Chung pointed out that hemp has a rich history in the U.S. The sails and ropes on Christopher Columbus’ ships were made from hemp. The Declaration of Independence is written on hemp paper. And the first flag by Betsy Ross was made from industrial hemp, he said.
From an agriculture standpoint, Chung said hemp is a durable crop that can withstand drastic environmental changes. Hemp, he added, is 10 times stronger than cotton and has a multitude of environmental benefits, such as using 82 percent less water and boasting half the carbon footprint of cotton, reducing the need for crop rotation and pesticide usage and being three times more efficient in producing fiber than cotton on the same amount of land. Additionally, hemp adds anti-odor and anti-bacterial properties to denim and resists fading and abrasions even after repeat washing.
Alkhemist also has the job of changing the consumer’s perception of what a hemp fabric feels like. “When you think of hemp and how it can be used in fabric, a potato sack comes to mind,” Chung said.
While at some point technology may make it possible to create a 100 percent hemp jean, Chung said Alkhemist is focused on creating variants of blends. And that’s where his 15 years of premium denim expertise really kicks in. The company has relied on its long-term partnerships with mills forged through its James Jeans production to develop hemp blends for Alkhemist. The fabrics used in the initial collection contain as low as 6 percent hemp and as high as 50 percent hemp. The latter, he added, would be an ideal men’s fabric for a jean with a raw look. Meanwhile, unique resin washing and brushing techniques create a soft cotton-like feeling on the inside and outside of the jean.
A millennial-aged team maintains Alkhemist’s on-trend and fresh aesthetic. The initial women’s collection, which retails for $160-$320, includes coated leggings, flare-leg jeans, drawstring cargo pants, oversized Trucker jackets and boyfriend shirts. And the brand plans to add hemp-based men’s denim, socks, hats and plastic accessories in the near future.
“Our DNA is going to be hemp,” Chung said. “We’re starting off with hemp jeans, but it has opened our eyes and we want to keep on going.”