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How a Decade of Stretch, Skinny and Sustainability Changed the Denim Industry

Each decade of fashion brings with it a new set of rules, trends and challenges. And in the 2010s, they were varied as consumers sent mixed messages with their wallets.

For denim, it was a decade that saw the decline of the premium category and the takeover of fast fashion. Heritage and authentic continued to be buzzwords in the denim world, but consumers also expected activewear-level performance from their jeans. And while all the segments of the industry faced pressure to lower costs, the 2010s brought a greater demand for sustainability, transparency and social responsibility across the supply chain.

Here, denim executives and designers take a look back at the styles that influenced new fabrics, the ways online shopping changed the retail game and how sustainability became the new normal.

Rivet: What grade would you give denim in the 2010s?

Omer Ahmed, Artistic Milliners director: In terms of supply chain transformation, product evolution and sustainable initiatives, an “A” when compared to the preceding decade. In terms of product, the most interesting dynamic was triggered by athleisure, which went from being a niche market to mainstream in the 2010s, and consequently gave rise to the athleisure versus denim battle which saw denim evolve and adapt faster than it had since the birth of stretch denim.

Everybody in the industry became enamored with high stretch and customers for the first time were open to moving away from the classic 3/1 twill and exploring different dobby designs like faux knit and satins. Besides stretch and activewear inspirations, we also saw a heightened awareness for sustainability.

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Ebru Debbağ, Soorty executive director of marketing and sales: I am indecisive as I would rate denim with “A+” for making the effort to bring responsible production and consumption efforts into the industry through innovations that merge technology and design. However, I’d give it a “B-” for taking away from denim’s value and undermining the authenticity and the beauty of denim based on demand for a lower-cost product.

As the progress on sustainability accelerates and becomes almost a marketing tool, it will even be harder for the consumers to make the distinction between the supply offers. A $10 jean cannot be socially, environmentally responsible and contain all elements of responsible raw materials and manufacturing as the math does not add up.

Eda Dikmen, Soorty marketing and communications manager: I would give it a “B+” because I strongly believe in where denim is today, while thinking there is still a big room for improvement. Denim nowadays promotes diversity, consciousness, innovation and well-being like no other item does; yet it is not where it needs to be. The good thing is, I sincerely think we’re headed there.

Conscious consumerism and responsible manufacturing are walking hand-in-hand in most cases. Denim embraces technology, digitalization and innovation more than any other textile. Day after day, multiple brands, producers, players of the supply chain spend incredible amounts of energy, capital and time as they strive to make things better. It is currently possible to find pieces that speak to diverse consumer tribes with a variety of fabric, comfort, color, wash, fit, price and quality options offered by a large range of brands. As it always has, denim today belongs to the people.

However, there also still are lessons we need to learn from. I’m afraid many conversations built around sustainability are vague or confusing and many things are still not done the way they actually should be.

Rosella Giuliani, NYDJ chief product officer: An “A.” It’s been an incredible decade for denim. We’ve moved away from the low-rise denim of the 2000s and into an introduction of new cuts, styles, technology, sustainability and inclusive sizes. There was really something for everyone, which is an exciting time to be a part of the denim industry.

Adriano Goldschmied, “Godfather of Denim”: It is hard to give a grade to a business as there are so many points that are relevant or very influential, even if at that time we didn’t realize the real importance of them. If I really have to, I would say a “C.” The change was not so dramatic like a few that changed the face of denim history. I feel that 2010 can be considered as the end of the “gold rush” in the premium denim market.

Mohsin Sajid, Endrime designer: I would give us a “D-”, only for the fact that we are still making most denim garments across the world in terrible working conditions, exploiting workers and greedy mill owners are opening more and more cotton mills. 2020 and beyond will be about really focusing on a non-cotton revolution, dropping polyester altogether and making factories and environments better for workers. Companies like Saitex are showing us all how you should design a modern denim factory and mill.

Jen Sey, CMO at Levi Strauss & Co.: I’d give denim an “A” for any decade. Jeans are the most iconic, versatile and timeless piece of clothing you can find. The 2010s get an A for chic simplicity—what could be better than a skinny jean, a ballet flat, and a white tee? You could dress it up with a boot or a heel and a tiny blazer, or wear it casual with rips and tears, a pair of sneakers and a hoodie. The other reason I give it an A is that despite the fact that skinny was the thing, it was also that decade that diversity of fits and styles in one closet happened. Women wore skinny, high-rise, boyfriend, wide-leg… it wasn’t truly about one look. [It was] more fun.

Katie Tague, Raymond UCO Denim vice president/denim development and sales: A “B” in my opinion. Overall the decade ended on a pretty good grade, but it still has room for improvement.  The decade was marked with technology and huge strides as an industry. We are heading in a wonderful direction with sustainable practices, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the 2020s.

Rivet: How did the business of denim change in the 2010s? 

Ahmed: The most notable changes have occurred in sourcing and product strategies with a general drive towards responsible sourcing. To understand the shift in dynamics one must reflect on the years leading up to 2010. In the early to late 2000s, major brands were set in their ways. Companies were rarely looking to explore new countries for their denim supply.

Many times, a company like ours, based out of Pakistan, wouldn’t even get an appointment due to our geographic location. Similar was the case when it came to product innovation. Many were unwilling to take a chance on new innovations—manufacturers and brands alike. However, in the late 2000s, the Great Recession hit the global economy like the Big Bang. With sales down and margins non-existent, the whole denim eco-system all the way from raw material suppliers to brands were forced to rethink how they did business and that’s what really set the pace for the decade to come.

Today, the most successful brands have moved from a geographic-based sourcing strategy to a company-based mind-set where the most important criteria are the value proposition a manufacturer brings to the table and how that aligns with the brands values.

Debbağ: What was unique to denim was how it became ubiquitous when the fast fashion brands tapped into the potential of the jeans market. That is where denim started to become commercialized as well as democratized. The business landscape changed dramatically as denim needed to be produced at scale and with a more cost-conscious mindset to cater to the needs of this new consumption trend. We then saw the rise and expansion of Asian mills and vendors. This was a tipping point that redefined denim. And with the help of technology, denim became more technical and performance-driven, enabling further industrial expansion and creativity.

Dikmen: Thanks to the internet and ease of finding information, today’s consumer is learning that there is no end to new clothes, but there is an end to our planet’s limited resources. Gen Z and millennials paved the way to become conscious consumers, compared to how we were 10 years ago. They require transparency, trust, responsibility and sustainability in anything they purchase. This pushed the whole denim industry into a big change. While social media feeds a never-ending desire for newness (which brings along the necessity of speed-to-market business models), at the same time we need to offer responsible solutions knowing that our natural resources are at danger if we continue to consume with the same speed.

Giuliani: The level of technology in fabrics and wash techniques were notable during this past decade of denim. We have been able to achieve looks and a level of comfort that were not available in the past. In addition, there’s increased environmental and social awareness within the apparel industry, that we all need to be smarter and understand that how we make our product and the materials we use impact the environment.

Goldschmied: It is an era that opened up to remarkable changes. Instagram [changed] communication, bringing the consumer to a new position in the game. The skinny jean became king. And the skinny required new fabrics, like the super-stretch and new blends, including Tencel, which are changing the hand feel of denim. And I consider the 2010s the real start in the fight for sustainability in our industry. Before that we were just voices in the desert.

Sajid: I think the advancements in stretch denim in this past decade have been something many might forget about. When I started my career about 18 years ago, I would not even touch the stuff as it honestly looked terrible. But so many advancements were made in this decade, that you can hardly not even tell its stretch denim any more.

Advancements in fibers like Tencel, and in finishing technologies that saves water and reduces manual labor and chemicals are the biggest changes. I designed one of the first laser washes for Levi’s Japan back in 2001-2002. It took Levi’s nearly two decades to roll out its F.L.X. program. This decade has slowly been shifting towards making a cleaner jean, and educating customers and companies on how and why the garment industry is one of the worst. Luckily, with forward-thinking companies like Jeanologia and Tonello and chemical companies like Dystar and Archroma leading the way, we are in good hands.

Sey: Business dramatically shifted to online. In the early 2000s, everyone thought: no one will ever buy jeans online, you need to try them on. But that changed in the 2010s. With better stretch fabrications, fit became less challenging, especially for women. And consumers learned that once you knew your size from a particular brand you could order a few, return what didn’t work, and keep what you loved. In the later 2010s vintage became the thing. Less stretch, more authenticity, harder to find the perfect fit—but once you find a pair that works, it’s your favorite for life.

Tague: The focus on performance characteristics and the push for fast fashion has transformed denim. Where stretch in 2010 was still a relatively fresh trend to denim, especially for men’s, we are now to a point where nearly every denim style at retail has some level of stretch or performance feature. Raymond UCO responds to where we are at the close of the decade by concentrating on a range of technology—whether it be sculpt jeans, a softer hand, stay black, abrasion resistance, or even just making true authentic character with high stretch. Fast fashion has really driven this, as the industry has been called to quickly develop newness to meet the changing trends of the customer. The most exciting change at the close of this decade is the focus on doing this sustainably with less waste and better practices across the industry.

Rivet: Name a buzzword that defined denim in the 2010s.

Ahmed: The conversation the past 10 years has revolved around one word: sustainability. The climate crisis has propelled this subject into overdrive, which has led to corporations completely re-assessing their manufacturing practices. The good news is that as an industry, we have made big strides in the last decade with transformative innovations in fiber, machinery, fabric manufacturing and of course, the laundry.

To give an example, at Artistic Milliners, we are currently recycling more than 85 percent of the water we consume, which roughly equates to 1.6 million gallons every single day. We will continue to invest in water stewardship and are planning to become the first zero-liquid discharge vertical denim company in the world. This is one of many initiatives we are taking on as a company in 2020 and beyond.

Dikmen: Tribal. I think this decade was all about tribes, or consumer groups, where they feel like they belong and what they feel like represents them. In the end, fashion has an amazing source of power of explaining to the world what each of us stand for. Denim is one of the, if not the most, strongest fashion tool with this voice.

From the festival generation to skaters, artistic spirits to gothic lovers, vintage admirers to well-being advocates, sportswear ambassadors to technology experts, minimalists to gamers, conscious living promoters to feminists or climate-change fighters… I think this was an amazing decade of information, connection, and transformation where we’ve discovered time after time where we belong, whom we aspire to be, and who we inspire.

Giuliani: Innovation. We’ve seen so many brands thinking outside the box in a multitude of ways, especially when it comes to technology and sustainability.

Goldschmied: Sophistication. The consumer was more educated, asking for products that were more special than just a jean in the right fit.

Sajid: Sustainability has been overused the latter part of this decade, to the point where it lost most of its meaning due to the greenwashing by many mills and denim brands.

Sey: Skinny. Stretchy. That’s two words—I know, but it needs to be stretchy if it’s going to be skinny. They go together.

Tague: Sustainability. As we come to the close of the 2010s, this is all anyone can think or talk about. While there may be other buzz words like athleisure or nostalgia that helped shape the decade in denim, sustainability has defined it. As an industry, every move we make is starting to first go through the lens of how to do it better. With so many brands getting behind this movement, along with giant initiatives like Water<Less from Levi’s taking us in to 2020, the goals are more big picture than ever to improve denim at all stages.

Rivet: What were some influential denim brands in the 2010s?

Ahmed: Many brands had their moment in the past decade in terms of aesthetics or design, but if I was to pick one in terms their holistic approach, it would have to be Zara. They completely revolutionized the way we look at the business of fashion by focusing on trend, speed and cost, also known as fast fashion.

Debbağ: Re/Done, Nudie, Mud Jeans, Off-White because they all walked their talk and have created communities that can feel a part of the world they are offering.

Dikmen: Everlane, Nudie, Boyish and Mud Jeans are for sure names I’d like to give credit to. They have step by step, consciously and successfully paved their way into ethical, responsible and sustainable jeans wear. Personally, I appreciate small, niche and unique brands that produce with close attention to detail to ensure they not only meet their high-quality standards, but also ethical and environmental standards and doing so transparently.

Giuliani: For me, I love seeing a combination of niche brands break into the market and major players bring new ideas and unique approaches to creating denim. This includes, but not limited to, Everlane, for introducing transparent manufacturing and its eco-consciousness; Levi’s because it’s incredible to see how the brand that founded denim became relevant again through homing in on their mission to produce more sustainable denim and recycle what was so great in the past [with] Re/Done; and NYDJ. I’ve been lucky to be part of a team that was one of the first introducing key technologies for style and comfort, along with body inclusivity.

Goldschmied: J Brand. It was the one—more than any other—that was interpreting the aspirations of the customers.

Sajid: This decade, I’ve really admired the number of independent denim tailors and small workshops that have been established across the world. They have influenced some of the high street and larger brands, especially in regards to authentic denim and workwear tailoring. Artisan designers like Ben Viapiana, Takayuki Echigoya from Bowery Blue, and Iu Franquesa from Companion Denim have inspired a lot. There are also a number Japanese brands which I admire. My personal favorite being Stevenson Overall for its Western but modern detailing, and the Japanese high-street label, John Bull, for its clean and sophisticated approach to denim tailoring.

Tague: There have been multiple brands with huge influence in different ways. Brands like Mother and Current/Elliot pushed women’s fit and design direction of the decade, while Diesel pushed the athleisure trend with its for the Jogg Jean. Then you have Levi’s that continue to drive the industry it created towards sustainability.

Rivet: When future generations look back at the 2010s for design inspiration, what trends will they pull from the decade? 

Ahmed: High-waisted, high-stretch skinny jeans and athleisure-inspired indigo knits will be the most iconic of the 2010s.

Debbağ: I believe that the future generation will aspire to the innovative and technical developments that denim went through in the 2010s and they will despise the cost-conscious, landfilled masses. It is essential to think what will be beautiful in 100 years to come and design accordingly. Have we been acting upon this thought the past decade or two? Not really. The future consumer will appreciate the niche, independent brands coming out in the 2010s and making bold statements about responsible consumption.

Dikmen: While many strong names used their voices to reach out to their followers around the world to raise awareness on gender equality, the 2010s showcased a giant shift towards gender fluidity. Fashion has always reflected the cultural happenings of the time, and the 2010s played host to multiple discussions of gender and sexuality, questioning gender norms or what it really means to be masculine or feminine. In this era of change, denim created room for an outlet for experimentation.

Giuliani: For a big portion of the 2010s, it was all about the skinny jean. However, I love that as we got further into the decade and today, there is no longer only one specific fit or style that owns the times. It’s about what feels good to you and what looks best on you, whether that’s a straight, a boot-cut, a wide-leg or a skinny jean. They are all relevant and can be worn and styled differently.

Goldschmied: The 2010s are still too fresh. The inspirations for the future generations are very different today. Fits, fabrics and washes are going into a totally different direction.

Sajid: Maybe future generations will design fabrics that look like they were made from cheap polyester, with a high shine in the weft, but with sustainable fibers. This might be a funny joke, but it could happen when future designers look at this period in time. They will be shocked by the level of polyester we used.

Sey: First skinny. Then super skinny. Then high-rise. And then, at the very end, [they’ll] turn to looser fits…whew.

Tague: Boyfriend jeans, athleisure, high-waisted jeans, Trucker jackets with custom details and non-denim tailored styles being translated to look like denim.