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Rivet 50: How the Denim Industry Can Change for the Better

Reporting by: Arthur Friedman, Christopher Hall, Sarah Jones, Glenn Taylor, Liz Warren and Angela Velasquez

If 2020 was the impetus for the global denim industry to press pause and reconsider the strategies and processes put in place to produce and sell more, 2021 may tee up the opportunities for the sector to correct its wrongs.

The 2020 Rivet 50 honorees have their have their own wishes and goals for the global jeanswear industry.

“Covid has forced a lot of industries to slow down and think, and I’ve seen a lot of genuine reflection happening,” said Katy Al-Rubeyi, co-founder of slow fashion brand Story Mfg. “Designers, buyers and consumers are questioning their previous diet of fast, cheap, bad fashion and making commitments to change.”

Though it is an industry that prides itself in collaborations and relationships, when the chaos unfurled across manufacturing and retail, companies’ true colors were exposed.

“[Covid] has highlighted the truth about genuine business partnerships and valued supplier relationships,” said denim consultant Salli Deighton.

Referring to how some brands bailed on orders, while others invoked force majeure clauses, requested discounts and asked to defer payments, Deighton said some retailers took an “every man for himself” approach when business took a downturn.

“We all have the same goals to make a great pair of responsible jeans, generate a sensible profit to ensure we secure jobs, create stability and grow a healthy economy,” she added. “Fairness and consideration for every person and part of the supply chain and the climate should be at the heart of any ethical and sustainable strategy.”

It comes down to re-jigging priorities, said Amy Leverton, founder of Denim Dudes. “In 2019, factory owners had a comfortable life—they owned property, ate well, flew often and stayed in nice hotels. Big businesses paid influencers disproportionate amounts of money to do very little,” she said.

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“I’m not looking for a total overhaul, but I hope that every business out there can look at some of the extravagances and make adjustments to their business models so that the wealth is more considerately distributed,” Leverton added.

Moving forward, Alberto de Conti, Rudolf Group’s head of fashion division, said the industry needs to establish “true trust and collaboration among players throughout the value chain and reasonable transparency that isn’t just tactical marketing.”

The pandemic served as a reminder of what—or who—is at the heart of the denim industry: people.

“We need to change the way we think about humanity,” said Sanjeev Bahl, Saitex founder. “We need to stop chasing the highest value for the lowest price. We need to see all aspects of fashion’s impact on our planet and have accountability for the people who make these garments for us.”

The fact that fair wages are not a given in an industry that produces a garment own by much of the world is lost on makers of locally-made, long-lasting jeans.

When it comes to the term “sustainability,” Claire Ford, founder of Claire Ford Consultancy, pointed out that everyone discusses the environmental issues but rarely how the people in the industry are affected.

“Ninety-eight percent of garment workers do not make enough to meet their basic needs,” she said. “A living wage is a human right and yet brands are cancelling orders without even thinking of the repercussion of their actions on the people who make the clothes.”

The impact of these cancellations on approximately 60 million workers employed by the garment industry has been unprecedented, she added. “People are left facing poverty without wages or working with reduced pay,” Ford said.

London-based Blackhorse Lane Atelier founder Hans Ates said he would like to see the denim industry adapt fair pay around the world and to see more consumers do their part and ditch the “cheap jeans” sold by fast-fashion retailers. Those jeans only perpetuate a cycle of poor quality garments made by workers in poor work conditions.

“As a whole, as an industry, we should fight for fair wages, better produced fabrics for the environment, and universal standards for workers,” he said.

Artistic Milliners has been fortunate to work with organizations like Fair Trade, which have helped the company set up worker relief funds. However, many factories around the world have been less fortunate and the aftermath has been dire for their workers, said Omer Ahmed, Artistic Milliners CEO.

“The people in our business, especially the factory workers are the most vulnerable link in our supply chain and were the most negatively impacted by the pandemic,” he said. “Our entire eco-system must show more compassion when it comes to our workers and work hand-in-hand with relevant NGO’s to ensure that the vulnerable are taken care of in the face of future catastrophes.”

On the consumer level, Outland Denim founder James Bartle is hopeful that priorities are shifting. “I think that Covid-19 will make people more conscious consumers,” he said. “My hope is that during these challenging times people will consider when making a purchase, ‘By purchasing this item where is my money going? Who is benefiting from this purchase? Do I support what this brand stands for?’”

Going digital

Denim, however, is in the business of fashion. Though brands and retailers are bracing for consumers to spend cautiously on familiar brands and fits, others are wishing for a creative renaissance.

“In general, I find that there are many beautiful brands in the world but sometimes there is no true story behind them—and I’m not just talking about sustainability. I am talking about the product, the emotions of shades and details, the study of the garments and the importance of the fit,” said Alessio Berto, founder of The Tailor Pattern Support.

The industry, he added, is void of the “strong fashion attitude” of the ’80s and ’90s.

“Consumers are ready to let go of the cheap fashion that is contributing to pollute the planet, but to do so they need to find something different and [worthwhile] to replace this system,” added Luigi Lovato, Eletti Group founder and CEO.

Untapped existing technologies may help free up time and manpower to push creative boundaries.

“The apparel industry has never been quick to adopt new technologies to simplify our industry,” said Mary Bruno, founder of Life After Death Denim. “There are technologies available today to simplify and streamline development at almost every step of the process. We are at the tip of the iceberg in adding sustainability measures, 3D virtual fittings and virtual shopping experiences.”

Echoing those sentiments, Jeanologia co-founder Enrique Silla said companies will need to be more agile and produce less waste. Therefore, they will have to accept technologies like digital design and digital washes.

“Designers will need to design products using a combination of physical and digital. Those who cannot embrace the digital design era quickly will be left out of the picture,” he said.

How the industry adapted to digital means of communication during the pandemic, however, points to progress. One unexpected outcome of the pandemic, said Jean Hegedus, director of sustainability for The Lycra Company, is that people learned a new way of conducting business.

“Of course, nothing will ever replace face-to-face communication, but I think we may be able to do less of it, be more efficient and reduce our carbon footprint in the process,” she said. “I know I’ve had a number of discussions and Zoom meetings with customers and I think we were both able to accomplish everything we wanted to.”

Liverpool Jeans co-founder and design director Jill Perilman said her team has found their work-from-home groove. “Had Covid-19 never happened, I don’t think I would have thought this was possible,” she said. “I have to say though; this can only happen if you have an amazing team of people who care about the company initiatives and our product like our team does.”

“I think it’s a healthier way of working all around and we probably will continue to work like this even after Covid-19. I think the idea of everyone working in an office every day is a thing of the past,” Perilman added.

Stay local

While video conference filled the gap of in-person meetings, denim experts point to nearshoring as a long-term solution for many of the denim industry’s sourcing and manufacturing woes.

“The opportunities created by nearshoring and for the industry in general to move closer together again—cohesion, cooperation and the right industrial partnerships will be essential,” said Sebastian Klinder, managing director of Munich Fabric Start and Bluezone. By taking a more localized approach, Klinder said it may help eradicate “pre-pandemic selfishness” and “nurture a sense of community.”

“Personally, I would really like to see a move to more U.S.-made and quality denim going forward,” said Frank Pizzuro, founder of Brooklyn Denim Co.

More specifically, Dearborn owner Robert McMillan said he would like to see more accessible American cut-and-sew products. “And I’m not talking about your $300 denim cut-and-sew done in the U.S.—there are plenty of folks doing that. I’m talking about brands that are putting out price-competitive products that just happen to be American-made,” he said.

While Covid has forced many changes, one rule remains unchanged: the customer is always right.

“At the end of the day, the consumer is in full control,” said Menno van Meurs, Tenue de Nimes CEO. “If they turn their back on brands which are unwilling to make a change, the consumer will force the denim business to take a turn.”

Read more from the 2020 Rivet 50 honorees here.