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Year in Review: Denim Brands Scale Sustainability With Resale, R&D and Reworked Vintage

Denim labels took several paths to be more sustainable in 2022.

Many brands began by examining their own supply chain for greener solutions. DL1961 and Tilly introduced a partnership with Recover, a brand of high-quality recycled cotton fibers made from post-consumer textile waste, into their denim assortments.

For DL1961, its vertically integrated manufacturing was key in its adoption of Recover. In May 2021, its manufacturer Artistic Denim Mills Ltd. (ADM) entered a strategic partnership with Recover to use the firm’s certified and traceable recycled cotton in fabric collections. The multiyear partnership enables ADM to scale its use of recycled cotton from post-consumer denim, thanks in part to a new facility in Pakistan that produces 100,000 kg of yarn per day. 

The R&D team for Levi’s WellThread worked with Cone Denim to develop a custom organic cotton fabric dyed with natural indigo, resulting in the darkest natural indigo shade they’ve ever produced. The dyes use less water and fewer chemicals. The unique fabric was the product of Levi’s exploration of Stony Creek Colors’ plant-based, pre-reduced IndiGold indigo dye, which the denim giant made an investment in later in the year. 

Bershka turned to natural resources for inspiration as well. The Inditex-owned label worked with the material science startup Nextevo to incorporate pineapple fiber into its jeans. Nextevo’s fluff-like pineapple leaf fiber—PALF, for short—can be combined with other more conventional materials for spinning into yarn. Bershka opted to mix 22 percent PALF with 78 percent cotton to create a moto-inspired jacket and matching pair of jeans.

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Nextevo x Bershka
Bershka x Nextevo Courtesy

Los Angeles-based brand Reformation launched Circular Denim, a collection made with fabrics comprised of 20 percent recycled scrap cotton and 80 percent FibreTrace cotton, a technology that embeds traceable, scannable pigments directly into the fabric of its jeans.

The Circular Denim range is the result of Reformation’s collaboration with Turkish denim mill Bossa and Strom, a fully vertical manufacturer and laundry also based in Turkey. Both companies employ various methods to reduce waste and produce sustainably. Strom uses ozone technology that significantly reduces the laundry’s water, chemicals and energy consumption, while Bossa is developing a zero-waste life cycle to close the loop.

Reworking vintage and deadstock apparel continued to be a creative outlet with sustainable benefits.

Matt Baldwin, who founded the shuttered label BLDWN, re-entered the industry Unity Service. Launched in December with business partner Michael Abe, the brand offers a revolving edit of various secondhand, reworked styles, which Baldwin said will be produced in “an ongoing three-month cycle.” Orders will be closed each month and “the entire pick, wash, reconstruction and finish is done in about 12 weeks” so that stores will have a refreshment for each of the four seasons, he said.

Styles focus on four themes—Coast, Prep, Military and Workwear—resulting in items like deconstructed jeans, flannels and aloha print shirts.

Lucky Brand revisited its own deadstock twice in 2022. In May, the company released a limited-edition women’s collection of upcycled denim and vintage materials developed with the creative help of Lars Nord Studio, a New York City-based studio represents skilled tailors and provides design services for special projects.

Upcycled by Lucky Brand
Upcycled by Lucky Brand Courtesy

A mix of deadstock Lucky Brand garments and denim thrifted from New York’s Hudson Valley was used for most of the collection. Design-wise, the collection tapped into ongoing trends for loose fits, handcrafted details and skin-baring statement pieces. The jeans spanned wide-leg jeans achieved with vintage denim panel insets, low-rise jeans with tonal patchwork, and slouchy low-rise jeans “re-engineered” with a front pleat and destroyed details.

In September, Lucky dropped a 43-piece collection of women’s and men’s upcycled items, some of which were created from deadstock. The selection encompassed rock ’n’ roll-inspired denim items, leather jackets and band tees.

For its upcycling initiative, Guess teamed with Homeboy Recycling, the social enterprise branch of Los Angeles gang rehabilitation nonprofit Homeboy Industries, to create tote bags, patchwork denim, bustiers and throw pillows. Going forward, Guess said the collection will tap into whatever materials are available, resulting in “unique” one-of-a-kind items.

Other brands and retailers ventured into resale to extend the life of garments. 

For 7 For All Mankind, resale has been a way to reach younger demographics and restart relationships with customers. The premium denim brand is working with Recurate, a two-year-old service that allows brands and retailers to launch fully integrated resale channels on their own Shopify-powered stores, to launch 7 Revival, a platform that allows customers to buy “pre-loved” styles and sell their own 7 For All Mankind jeans in exchange for credit towards their next purchase. 

Heather Mee, chief marketing officer at Delta Galil Premium Brands, the parent company of 7 for All Mankind, said about 90 percent of the customers who have received credit in exchange for their old 7 For All Mankind jeans have redeemed them for new product and that the program has been a great way to bring back the so-called “lapsed customers” who have not made a purchase in a while.

In December, Torrid became ThredUp’s first plus-size brand to leverage its Resale-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform and takeback program. Torrid customers based in the U.S. can generate a prepaid shipping label from torrid.thredup.com, fill any shippable box with apparel, shoes and accessories from any brand, and ship it to ThredUp for free. Only 50 percent of items in the average kit qualify to be listed, says ThredUp, which claims to responsibly recycles the rest.

Teen retailer Pacsun also tapped ThredUp’s Raas to add another layer to its circularly strategy. With Pre-Loved Pac, customers to clean out their closets for store credit and shop pre-loved clothing directly through the brand’s website.

Kontoor Brands’ Lee and Wrangler took a heritage route for their resale launches. In April Wrangler Reborn launched offering a curated selection of vintage men’s and women’s jeans from as early as the 1950s to 2000 and preloved jeans from 2000 or after. The jeans are available exclusively on Wrangler’s website, with details about each garment’s condition listed in the product description.

Lee followed up with Lee Archive in October. The online-exclusive is described as “an homage to vintage lovers who scour shops and flea markets for Lee relics.” At least one more vintage drop is planned for early 2023. If it goes well, Stevens said the company “would be open to expanding.”