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Amid Pandemic, Independent Denim Designers Have a Chance to ‘Catch Up’

The future of denim looks different depending on who you ask.

For Mohsin Sajid, designer and founder of educational denim platform Denim History, the future is full of natural alternatives to cotton and polyester.

In a panel discussion moderated by Style Bubble founder Susie Lau on Monday, Sajid said the industry’s pause as a result of the COVID-19 crisis has allowed people to slow down and reconsider every part of the denim making and buying process.

And one of the main points of focus is the materials with which a denim piece is made. Sajid called out two alternatives, Tencel and hemp, which are natural fibers that use less water than cotton.

According to Orsola de Castro, panelist and co-founder of Fashion Revolution, focusing on a garment’s makeup is something both the fashion industry and consumers should prioritize now more than ever. “We need to interrogate our clothes as much as we interrogate our food,” said de Castro.

She added that the shift has already begun, and it’s a direct result of the younger generations looking to “quieter heroes” for guidance.

“We’re looking at a generation that is growing up worshipping doctors, nurses and public servants,” she said. “And I think that it will stick; that we will be finding value and appreciation in people who are less visible—the quieter heroes.”

Also included in the panel were young designers Patrick McDowell and Bianca Saunders, who create sustainable collections that have gotten the attention of major industry leaders and publications such as Vogue. For Saunders, the pause is a chance for her to catch up.

“As a small brand, trying to keep up with bigger brands has been quite a lot of pressure,” she said. “Using this time now, I can think about the next steps and slow down to make sure designs I’m producing are going to be useful for the future.”

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De Castro echoed her statement, noting that the pause is leveling out the playing field. “We need to slow down the mainstream; the culprits; those brands that are producing billions of garments a year,” she said. “We don’t have to slow down the Bianca Saunders [of the world].”

Panelists agreed with the concept of a slower industry post-coronavirus, which is a conversation many are currently having. In the Vogue Global Conversations that were presented last week, Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and others discussed the need to reconfigure the fashion calendar so collections are more timeless.

While innovation will never end, Sajid believes the immediate future will likely see an uptick in core styles at an affordable price. Likewise, Keith O’Brien, panelist and marketing and business development manager at Isko, said this will make consumers more creative in how they restyle what they already have.

“Now, I think there are two types of people: those cleaning out their wardrobe and getting rid of their old jeans, and the other type who are trying to figure out what they can do with those jeans and how they can change them into something else,” said O’Brien.

For those who can’t redesign a jean on their own, Anna Foster, founder of E.L.V. Denim, started a business that does just that. E.L.V. Denim is a zero-waste company that repurposes old or damaged denim to breathe life into what would otherwise go to landfill. In recent years, Foster says a growing number of people have become more receptive to the intricacies of one-of-a-kind pieces. In a post-pandemic world, she sees the sentiment continuing.

Sajid agreed, adding that younger generations of designers are taking a stand against waste and working together to do so. He called attention to a student who, despite being focused on denim, designed a pattern for zero-waste medical scrubs that she then shared with other companies to copy.

“Now everyone’s using this pattern, and it’s quite remarkable. So, being clever like this is the next stage,” he said.