A new calendar year represents a new beginning for individuals and industries alike. While 2021 unlocked new growth opportunities for the denim sector, driven by demand for new fits and sizes, versatile work-friendly attire and sustainable product stories, the year also saw sweeping changes in sourcing strategies, production ,and raw material and freight costs.
This state of flux will likely carry into 2022, and with consumers increasingly aware of the challenges facing the apparel industry, denim experts anticipate a year of education and truthtelling ahead.
“2022 is a time to address consumerism, educate, [and] collaborate, and retailers need to stop pretending they are genuinely delivering solutions when many decision makers barely understand how to wash a pair of jeans,” said Salli Deighton, responsible denim development consultant.
Here, experts from across the denim industry specializing in circularity and sustainability, trends and design and events share their lessons learned in 2021 and what the blue world has to look forward to in 2022.
How did the denim industry fare in 2021, compared to 2020?
Fabio Adami Dalla Val, Denim Première Vision show manager: Looking at the production side of the value chain, 2020 wasn’t so bad for many countries despite the period of lockdown. The start of 2021 was hopeful but all the problems that we are facing now shows that the difficulties aren’t finished yet and all the players need to find common solutions. Effects of the pandemic will impact our lives for a long time from every perspective, but I feel positivity in the people of the denim industry.
Ana Paula Alves de Oliveira, Be Disobedient founder: Everything has prepared us for where we are today. In times of crisis, the fashion industry always suffers, but it has the power to recover fast. There is a strategic change in the way we are selling and a huge change in the way we buy. This time, I felt that we were able to adapt during the crisis, betting on transparency, traceability, technology, and collaboration. I saw the industry unite and work together side by side.
Michelle Branch, Markt&Twigs, Inc. founder: Although there’s no clear-cut version of our [new normal], the industry was in a better place in 2021. That said, we are still facing residual effects from 2020, impacting things like costs and calendars. We’ll see how those things are worked through in the coming months.
Salli Deighton, responsible denim development consultant: I’m based in London, so we had a very slow start to 2020 as our stores were closed until April. After the dramatic halt on production last year, retailers rushed to buy denim close to home from the Turkish and North African suppliers. Mills are under pressure, not only with cotton price hikes but escalating freight costs have increased the need for local denim. It has been a rocky year, but I wonder if we have really learned anything. Our industry has worked hard to create solutions and I believe this year and next will start to see a long overdue reset for manufacturing and buying practices.
Lucia Rosin, Meidea founder and head designer: In general, I would say better than 2020, despite the increases in raw materials. I saw a slow recovery in the second half of 2021.
Panos Sofianos, Bluezone innovation curator and circular denim consultant: Much better than expected, although the pandemic hit the apparel market hard enough. The denim community had some good reflections, setting new standards in production and the supply chain.
Brian Trunzo, VP, events (men’s) Informa Markets Fashion: We saw an uptick in denim this year. After spending a year in sweats, people felt the urge to get dressed up again. Denim represented the perfect middle ground: still clearly casual, but more dress-up-able than what most people were wearing throughout the early days of the pandemic.
Aydan Tuzun, Naveena Denim Mills executive director of sales and marketing: Covid-19 affected the denim industry in many ways: by directly affecting production and demand, by creating supply chain and market disturbance, and by its financial impact on firms and financial markets. The rapid switch to remote working and lockdowns also had a negative impact, but in 2021 the category was already set to make a speedy recovery, driven by demand for comfort and sustainability. The recent rise of loungewear and sportswear has put pressure on denim-focused brands and retailers to keep innovating. And that is what the industry did in 2021, with success.
Andrea Venier, Officina+39 managing director: In 2021, the denim industry discovered a new enthusiasm which gave it a fresh [perspective]—a desire to start again and to work together to achieve common goals. The trade fairs Munich Fabric Start and Denim Première Vision Milan are positive examples of a sector that wants to be a protagonist again. If 2020 was a slow year with not much that could be done, 2021 saw a greater focus on new technologies and projects.
Vivian Wang, Kingpins Show managing director and global sales manager: 2020 started strong, so the temporary shutdowns forced by the pandemic was a shock to many businesses, including ours. We were forced to adjust to a new way of doing business, and then adjust again (and again) as we navigated through uncertain times. In 2021, we found new opportunities to connect the denim community and settled into a new way of working—in-person when we could but more often, remotely.
What was a highlight for the denim industry in 2021?
FA: The opportunity to meet each other again. The fact that suppliers can meet their customers again in different places of the world and restart work is a highlight.
AA: Digital is the word. Buying jeans online wasn’t an easy challenge to solve, but in 2021 we’ve seen greater propensity toward trying new brands, new players and having new conversations. There are no boundaries in the online space where brands and consumers are open for change.
MB: An industry highlight was how it kept moving forward, not just from a community perspective, but also with innovations. The innovations that were developed based on need in the last year and a half are astonishing.
SD: Meeting denim friends again. I don’t think I have ever been so excited to board a plane and head to a trade fair. Bluezone in Munich was so well-organized, and we connected again with our denim community. Denim, to many of us, is bigger than a day job and we love to learn, innovate and find future solutions and this comes through discussion and sharing. After 18 months of Zooms and home-working, it was wonderful to be in person, touching fabrics, seeing trends, and discussing all the new ideas which have emerged while we have all been grounded.
LR: Finally seeing each other again and talking to each other in person at the first physical fairs after almost two years at Bluezone in Munich and Denim Première Vision in Milan—this makes the difference. And the general push by brands to be more [sustainable] and mindful of circular solutions. There’s a now a real need.
PS: The rise of ‘back to basic’ activities including trade shows, sourcing and distribution aided by blockchain.
BT: Not entirely denim focused, but the Heron Preston collaboration with Calvin Klein was a personal favorite of mine. The sustainably minded polymath (DJ/designer/marketer) created an interesting capsule for this storied heritage brand featuring all sorts of interesting green products, including denim manufactured out of recycled bottles. While there are fully sustainable denim ranges doing similar things for close to a decade now, it felt fresh coming from Calvin Klein through the lens of a young visionary designer.
AT: I think there were two highlights for the industry in 2021: casualization and sustainability.
We have seen a global casualization that’s taking hold right now, and we think that it is here to stay. After being home for months, nobody wants to update their wardrobe with dressier styles. In 2021, sustainability has again helped revolutionize the denim industry. Though at times misused and overused, the intention behind the term signals a more environmentally conscious future for the sector at large.
AV: The Covid era corresponded with an introspective phase that gave us the opportunity to reflect on the global situation and to restart by investing in new projects. During this period, the gap between those who actively believe in a different future and those who remain statically anchored to outdated models has steadily increased. Our industry was hit hard by the pandemic, but despite the difficulties, we should continue to produce innovation, collaborations and new initiatives. A lot of opportunities are rising for those who invest in technologies, sustainability and circularity.
VW: At Kingpins, we spent the year developing new avenues for the denim industry to work and collaborate. That included new Kingpins24 shows in new markets such as Latin America, Australia and Canada. We also struck a deal with Material Exchange to bring the Kingpins Show experience to the digital space, which was something we had always planned to do but it took on new urgency during the pandemic.
What effect will supply chain delays and rising raw material costs have on the denim category as it enters a new cycle?
AA: There is more demand than supply now. This is part of the crisis and its consequences with cost, price, and sourcing. We are going through a consumption detoxification process. New generations want to know more. It’s a circle: if we know more, we choose better and buy with quality and awareness.
FA: It will change the jeanswear ecosystem. In the upcoming months, it is possible that we’ll see prices increase for the end consumer, or we will have suppliers working without margin or below the cost. In the first case, for many, it will be a market positioning issue, and in the second case, we will face another ethics problem.
The lack of and delay of the raw materials is another story and it’s even worse than the price rising because it will require companies to redesign the way the value chain is working. I think that it will take a few months to see the impact of it and it will affect the small brands with less bargaining power more. At the end of the day the loser is the product because it will be difficult to develop it.
MB: I think we’ll be feeling the impact of this for some time to come.
SD: I hope it will make brands and retailers savvier and more sensible with planning. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel each season. Volume, core denim is a slow transition, and we can take time to develop the products sensibly and sustainably to minimize the impact on the supply chain and the planet. Nearshoring will now grow in partnership with the long-haul suppliers, and we can move some of the finishing locally to enable more flexibility and response to sales. It will also allow us to reprocess unsold goods which will make a huge impact on the waste we create. Cotton price instability will see the use of more bio-based, recycled and alternative fibers. We have many options to work with thanks to the research and investment many mills have made.
LR: I think that those who have retained their customers with a good relationship can explain the increases. It is understandable why this is happening in all sectors. The delays we experienced during the pandemic are pushing [buyers to create] closer production.
PS: Nearshoring is promising—an antidote to a turbulent situation caused by skyrocking transportation prices. We’re already seeing projects like C&A’s urban factory in Germany and Candiani’s microfactory in Milan and many more are in the pipeline.
AT: The pandemic disrupted the whole supply chain, leading to a rise in prices of raw materials, especially cotton and cotton yarn. Surging prices coupled with logistical problems such as congested ports and tight shipping capacity have created the perfect storm. To say times have been challenging of late for the denim industry would be an understatement. At Naveena, we are widening our menu of fibers, with an emphasis on hemp, Tencel and Lycra EcoMade as well as post-consumer waste and post-industrial waste. However, cotton will always be important. It is impossible to replace it totally with alternatives for the time being.
AV: This is certainly the most negative aspect of 2021. In the last 6-7 months we have had to face a situation never seen before in our 30-year experience. We have experienced moments of difficulty and pressure for various reasons, but this crisis in raw materials and the radical and impressive increase in transport, packaging and energy costs is something totally new for us.
Just as when people anticipate a food shortage by stocking up on food for the next six months, our customers are now reacting to the raw material crisis by ordering in anticipation of the future. Orders that we used to receive for 40 tonnes per month are now being requested for 120 tonnes. This only makes the situation worse because by asking for more raw materials, we are increasing the scarcity of raw materials, which is pushing up prices. If the situation is not tackled responsibly and with foresight, the risk of making it worse is very real: that is why in recent weeks we have tried to encourage both our internal team and our partners and customers to not panic and to just order according to real needs.
VW: The impact of the pandemic continues to ripple throughout the global denim market, making this a challenging time for all of us. In this ever-shifting landscape, flexibility is crucial. To be sure, there will be new opportunities as some countries and regions step up their sourcing capacities. This could be a time for companies to look beyond the traditional sourcing centers and investigate new ones. Similarly, brands and retailers are already looking to add new materials to their offerings.
One thing that should remain unchanged is the importance of sustainability and the ambitious goals and targets set before the pandemic began. To help the industry continue to pursue those goals, Kingpins partnered with the Conscious Fashion Campaign, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for Partnerships. We support the Conscious Fashion Campaign’s call to reach 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, by urging the industry to incorporate SDGs into their business models. At all our events, we highlight SDGs, circular production solutions, sustainability innovations and facilitate knowledge within the denim industry.
What would you like to see more in 2022?
FA: Indeed, more people face to face interactions. That’s what I really miss.
AA: I want to see people who are curious, inquisitive, aware and willing to innovate, creating new paths for our industry. I want to keep this trend for learning and sharing. This is the best way to collaborate with each other.
MB: It’s been encouraging to see several in our industry step up their efforts around responsible practices in the last 18 months or so—actually doing the work and not just offering lip service. Denim has led the way, but the whole fashion industry benefits from more purpose-driven companies, big and small, that have this philosophy legitimately built into their DNA. I’d like to see more of the industry on this path in 2022 and beyond.
SD: More emphasis on UN Sustainable Development Goals, transparency and nearshoring.
LR: Research and innovation being the driving force in a new level of design and production. I would like to see a renewed style and creativity in collections with more awareness.
PS: Honesty, transparency, low-impact products and a real ethical industry that has empathy for suffering companies. I’d also like to see restructuring in consumer habits and in companies’ green investments.
BT: Bigger fits and fuller cuts. No need for JNCO-level roominess, but a more relaxed fit feels more contemporary in the third decade of this century. But please, no bootcuts!
AT: Responsibility. I hope the denim industry truly acts in responsible and respectful ways towards the planet and humanity.
AV: I believe we still need to work hard to redesign a better sustainable model, where circularity represents the new sustainability—not only when it comes to the materials, but also to water. In the textile industry water is used to vehicle colors and chemical auxiliaries but luckily today many technologies aim at significantly reducing water consumption. For that, we need to involve young designers and technicians to develop products based on this circular approach. I think the right perspective between creativity and circularity should turn into a simple question of what if we could redesign everything using sustainable, resilient, circular materials? Imagination must have no limits; creativity with circular and sustainable materials should give us the confidence to redesign the world we live in.
VW: Obviously, we can’t wait to see everyone in person in 2022, as [Kingpins] return to holding physical trade shows. But we also recognize that the way we do business has changed post-pandemic. Going forward, there needs to be more integration between digital and physical interaction and collaboration.
What would you like to see less in 2022?
FA: Less egoism.
MB: We’ve all seen it, so it’s no surprise when I say that the number of companies in our industry that are still making unsubstantiated and untrue sustainability claims is tragic. The term ‘greenwashing’ itself is almost as overused as ‘sustainable.’ I’d really like to see less of this in 2022.
LR: I don’t want to see overly destroyed jeans anymore. It’s fine if you buy second-hand, but there are many other ways to make a new product attractive without destroying it. Enough washes with devastating chemistry. And enough with objectifying the image of women in advertising.
PS: No more greenwashing, less textile waste and no going back to ‘business as usual.’
BT: Skinny fits, particularly for men.
AT: Less greenwashing, more accountability.
AV: I certainly hope for less panic [in the supply chain]. I hope that we can return to an ordinary situation with greater awareness and an active attitude to change, not only on a personal level but also at work. We need to build a new denim industry, inspired by balance and respect for our planet. But to do this, we need to get out of this feeling of emergency chaos and the toxicity of its consequences, to get back into action.
VW: I would like to see the industry keep the focus on long-term goals over short-term gains. I’ve spent much of the last two years talking to people in our industry about how they had been doing business before the pandemic and how they hope to do business in the future. I hope as businesses reopen and rebuild, we all continue our efforts to make the industry better and work together toward a more sustainable future.