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Denim Minds Under 30: Chigo Ikeme

Like any business that has been around for more than a century, the jeanswear industry has its legends. It is also continuously reinventing itself and welcoming more opportunities for innovation—and oftentimes, it takes a fresh perspective to make real change. Rivet’s Denim Minds Under 30 column shines a spotlight on young professionals committed to pushing the denim industry forward, paying special mind to the planet and its people.

In this Q&A, Chigoziri “Chigo” Ikeme, Reformation’s associate manager of denim product development, talks about her time at Reformation, and her visions for diversifying and cleaning up the denim industry.

Describe your current job.

CI: Currently, I am the associate manager of denim product development at Reformation. I manage the development of wash, trims and all denim categories while adhering to strict sustainability guidelines and an incredibly quick speed-to-market.

What drew you to the denim industry?

CI: What drew me to the denim industry is how much of an involvement it had within American history. It’s inspiring to see [how] what was once a workwear staple has evolved over the years through different trends and innovations. Most importantly, denim is statistically one of the least environmentally friendly manufacturing sectors, but having the opportunity to be a part of the changemakers who are disrupting the conventional process is both exciting and rewarding.

What is your first denim memory?

CI: My first memory that really piqued my interest in denim at an early age was when I had finally saved enough of my allowance to buy my first pair of designer jeans in middle school. They were a pair of Pepe Jeans, which were all the rage back then. They were the coolest capris that had black, red and white skulls embroidered on the back pocket plus cuffed hems that had contrast skull-printed fabric. I wore them every chance I got and felt cool because no one else I knew had that same pair.

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Since working in denim, has anything surprised you about the industry?

CI: What surprised me the most in the denim industry was how labor-intensive traditional wash processes were. Everything from hand-sanding, to adding grinding and destruction was essentially a skilled craft. Now with the push to a more sustainable and ethical way of developing denim, I’m amazed at how technology has been introduced to mimic the traditional dry processes and reduce water usage at exceptional rates.

What are your short- and long-term goals for the industry?

CI: My short-term goal for the industry is to continue to learn the best ways to develop denim sustainably, and keep abreast of all the latest innovations within raw materials and manufacturing. Luckily my current job allows me to do just that, as our core values center on people, product and planet. My long-term goals in the industry are focused on amplifying Black voices within the denim community and creating a collective of sorts to inspire, educate and network with Black denim tastemakers. A dream of mine would be to create an after-school or college readiness program that focuses on the business of denim.

Which brands or supply chain partners do you look up to, and why?

CI: I’m a bit biased, but to be on the inside and witness firsthand the steps that Reformation takes to be an industry leader in the sustainable fast-fashion sector is truly inspiring. I can attest there’s no greenwashing whatsoever—we have by far the strictest industry standards, and rightly so. Honorable mentions to Nudie Jeans and Triarchy for also being at the forefront of sustainable denim. Though I haven’t worked with them yet, I look up to Saitex for being one of the leading denim manufacturers dedicated to a better environment and way of working.

What do you think the denim industry will learn from the pandemic?

CI: The denim industry will learn the importance of having a diversified sourcing strategy and being open to onboarding more sourcing partners globally. The pandemic also brought to light the importance of e-commerce and direct-to-consumer selling, because even in the midst of a pandemic, people are still buying jeans.

What advice do you have for other young people in the industry?

CI: My advice for other young people in the industry is to trust your knowledge and skills. Obviously we still have so much to learn as we continue throughout our career journey, but never lose sight of how talented you are. In addition, find a mentor and stay up to date with the happenings in the industry. I’ve been an avid reader of the Sourcing Journal since 2013 and I’ve learned so much that has helped me get to where I’m at today.

What will be the biggest impact that young people will have on the denim industry in the future?

CI: I think the biggest impact that young people will have on the denim industry is that we demand radical transparency. It’s no longer enough to make claims about sustainability—we want to see it in action. We want to know everything from the name of the sewer to the farm that the fibers came from. But beyond sustainability from the product level, we also care about ethics and representation in the industry.