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Partnerships in the Denim Supply Chain are Critical for Sustainable Change

While a “made in Italy” label once added instant caché to any product, changing consumer mindsets and a growing emphasis on sustainable products is redefining what it means to be a premium Italian product.

No company in denim knows this better than Candiani Denim, the 81-year-old, family-owned denim mill located just outside of Milan. A frontrunner in the birth of the premium denim category, the mill has evolved into one of the industry’s most vocal advocates for a greener future and backs it up with new sustainable alternatives. Its latest development, called ReLast, is a GOTS- and GRS-certified denim line made with a custom made recycled elastomer developed by Roica, the maker of the world’s first recycled elastomer.

German brand Closed, a denim pioneer in and of itself, will be the first brand to adopt the sustainable fabric into its collection beginning this fall.

At Denim Première Vision in Milan last week, the trio of companies came together to discuss the collaboration, underscoring the importance of partnerships, R&D, unique products and strong company values.

Developing sustainability

R&D is the “beating heart” of Candiani, said Simon Giuliani, Candiani Denim’s global marketing director.

Research, development, investment and creating products that are aesthetically “awesome” in a more sustainable way, he added, is the at the crux of everything the mill does. And in the case of the Roica collaboration, the mill was able replace a dual core spun yarn with a single core recycled elastomer. The result, Giuliani said, is a recycled product that gives the garment a “higher value” and “really exceptional performance.”

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“We’re trying obviously to differentiate our ingredients in order to have something special,” he said. “We’re always trying to make an R&D together in order to get a step further.”

The biodegradable elastomer eliminates all the toxins from chemicals used in traditional elastomers, said Shinohe Hiroaki, Roica’s chief marketing officer. “At the end of its life, our yarn breaks down without having any harmful substances coming out of the yarn or into the soil,” he explained. “This is a really healthy, environmentally-friendly yarn that can be recycled into the circular economy.”

The partnership is especially unique, Giuliani said, because as a “made in Italy” denim brand, Candiani is always trying to source as local as possible in order to reduce its carbon footprint. Roica’s recycled elastomer is made in Germany.

“We source the ingredient in Germany. We produce everything in Italy and Closed is one of the rare brands in the fashion industry that produces their collections 100 percent in Italy,” Giuliani said, adding that this is what it means to be premium today. “We’re talking about a really locally produced high technological innovation and I think this is pretty much what distinguishes this project in terms of sustainable innovation.”

Designing sustainability

Sustainable innovation is also a way for brands to distinguish their product on the sales floor.

Founded 40 years ago in Italy by François and Marithé Girbaud, innovation was built into the bones of Closed. Uwe Kippschnieder, the brand’s long-time denim developer, says  that passion for discovery and creativity hasn’t faded. A few years ago, the brand introduced Better Blue, a denim collection that brings together sustainable innovations like water- and chemical-reducing ozone washing and laser finishing. The next phase of Better Blue—the Fall/Winter 19-20 collection launching in stores in August, will focus on fabric content and will include Candinai’s ReLast fabric.

For Closed, denim is a starting point. Kippschnieder said the brand aims to have all of its denim be part of Better Blue in the next four to five years and it is integrating sustainable fibers and dyeing methods across its entire collection. However, sustainability takes time.

“The [aesthetic] of the product, and the overall look is still the most important thing also for us,” Kippschnieder said. “So when we introduce new technologies, we have to make sure that the look is at least as good as with conventional techniques. And sometimes it takes a longer time.”

Case in point: When Closed introduced Refibra, Lenzing’s recycled cellulose fiber, Kippschnieder said it took the brand nearly a year to get the washes on the new fabric right. “So we skipped it and we waited another season until everything was just perfect, and then we launched it,” he said. “That’s also something we need to learn.”

Sharing sustainability

Partners like Closed are special, Giuliani said. “They feed off all these innovations. The see it first, they tap into first and they’re the quickest also to bring into the market,” he said. “That gives them a competitive advantage today when it comes to sustainable innovation.”

And the knowledge gleaned from partnerships like that one between Candiani, Closed and Roica are not intended to stay behind closed walls. “When we do a collaboration, we always try to find partners where we can learn something, and also we can share our knowledge or our research and development,” Kippschnieder said.

Closed is also inching closer toward traceability. In the next few weeks, Kippschnieder said the company will release a list of its suppliers on its website along with photos or video footage from its factory partners. “We are very often open so that everyone knows our suppliers,” he said.

Sometimes sharing the story behind a collaboration is enough.

“We invest a lot in explaining the importance of what we’re doing here on a business-to-business level,” Giuliani said. “But we’re also trying to go further into business-to consumer level, because we think this kind of innovation deserves to be explained to the final customer. This is where we collaborate them with the brand in order to develop marketing strategies and materials in order to tell this story and make it easy to understand.”

While Candiani is aware that the promotion it helps build around the Closed collection may inspire competitors to adopt Roica into their own roster of ingredient brands, Giuliani says it’s important for the mill to speak at business-to-business events like Denim Première Vision and perhaps help spark another new idea.

“The way to differentiate yourself,” he said, “is to go not for price, but to go for quality, to go for innovation, to go for sustainability.”