Coated denim is in the midst of a comfort and quality evolution, and it could not arrive at a better time.
Demand for leather and leather-like looks is piping hot this fall. Beginning in August, global fashion search platform Lyst saw searches for leather apparel climb 31 percent, with items like jackets, oversized blazers and puff-sleeve dresses being among the most coveted leather investment pieces.
The rise of leather’s popularity, however, isn’t a pandemic fluke. Momentum for leather has been building since Fall/Winter 18-19 when Marc Jacobs, Saint Laurent and Givenchy presented ’80s-inspired all-black leather ensembles, followed by F/W 19-20 collections dense with leather outerwear. Leather also made an unseasonable appearance on the S/S ’20 spring runway with designer labels like Salvatore Ferragamo and Bottega Veneta introducing brightly colored leather pieces.
But while consumers and designers alike are keen on the high-shine, elevated aesthetic that leather provides, it carries with it a number of problems that directly affect the modern consumer: it’s often neither sustainable nor reflective of conscious consumption habits.
Though the leather industry is making inroads to clean up production by exploring plant-based tanning methods and adopting traceability tools, environmentally speaking, leather can require high levels of energy and a number of chemicals such as mineral salts, formaldehyde and coal tar derivatives, as well as various oils, paints and varnishes—some of which are cyanide-based.
The leather industry is also up against a growing population of vegan consumers.
In a report released in March, Ipsos Retail Performance said the number of Americans following plant-based diets is up nearly 9.6 million from 15 years ago. U.K.-based non-profit Veganuary, a group that encourages people worldwide to try vegan for January and beyond, had 400,000 people pledge to take the vegan diet for a spin this year. Retail market intelligence platform Edited reported that Latin America and India experienced the steepest growth in supporters this year.
Data by Edited shows how the vegan movement is going beyond diet and influencing other purchases consumers make, including fashion and beauty. New vegan arrivals in stores saw an upwards trajectory, increasing 8 percent year over year across categories from Aug. 1. Investment in pure leather products, however, slowed, with arrivals dropping 11 percent year over year.
But faux leather is often no better, typically featuring polyurethane, which is made from petroleum and does not decompose.
For denim consumers seeking the elevated look of leather in jean form and without the elevated price tag of genuine leather, coated denim has long been an accessible alternative. Coatings that emulate the look of leather, however, do not have the best score card when it comes to quality and wearability. Common gripes about coated denim bemoan its crunchy and stiff hand feel—a major no-no in an era of comfort—and a cheapened appearance.
Denim brands and their suppliers are challenging this notion, beginning with re-evaluating their base fabrics for coated styles.
Premium denim brand DL1961 offers coated denim in its ultra-soft, high-stretch fabrications that have high retention and a soft hand feel. The jeans are made with a blend of Tencel, cotton, polyester and Lycra. It’s a combination that is more or less echoed in coated jeans styles by H&M, Levi’s, J Brand and more.
To achieve a softer touch for coated denim, Pakistani vertically integrated denim manufacturer Soorty uses regenerated cellulose base fibers to make the base fabric in special constructions. The company’s capabilities in spinning allow it to work with different elasticity levels and stretch options, adding even more comfort to the final product.
Turkish denim mill Calik applies its coating technology to fabrics with thermoregulation features, helping wearers feel more comfortable throughout the changing seasons and allowing coated denim to be year-round product. Fabrics with high elasticity, meanwhile, provide “freedom of movement,” said Serhat Karaduman, Calik Denim technical and R&D deputy general manager.
“For these reasons, coated fabrics provide a much greater advantage than the use of leather fabric in every sense,” Karaduman added.
Thanks to new resource-saving finishing processes, denim experts are quick to tout coated denim as a sustainable alternative to leather.
Innovations in foam dyeing allow Turkish fully integrated fabric manufacturer Bossa to apply leather-like coatings to denim surfaces using air instead of water. This process allows Bossa to reduce its use of chemicals, water and energy in the application.
And with the number of conscious consumers growing—be it in the name of veganism or an effort to make more responsible purchases—Patricia Medina, executive director of Mexican garment manufacturer Aztex, points out that one of the greatest advantages coated denim has on leather is its human- and animal-friendliness.
“Because the coating is done on the finished garment, there are no animals killed in the process, there are no rivers polluted in the process of curing the leather and there are no chemicals affecting the workers,” Medina said.
While leather effects are hot right now, Eda Dikmen, Soorty’s marketing and communications manager, warns that leather-looking coated denim is not an exact alternative to the real deal. “Coated denim and leather are two very distinctive, different products where the consumer expectations of the product are very different,” she said. “We can assure similar looks with lowered impact, but the end product will never be exactly the same.”
Genuine leather continues to be a part of denim brands’ collections. NYDJ recently introduced a leather moto jacket—a higher-priced item at $498—as part of its new offshoot NYDJ Signature. Leather pieces also enhanced the disco-cool vibe of J Brand’s collaboration with Halpern.
“Similar but not the same” may work to the denim industry’s advantage. Coatings allow brands to introduce a new level of creativity to their collections, and perhaps a higher price tag.
“Sometimes we say we are adding makeup to the fabric,” said Burcu Dalaman Ozek, Bossa sales manager. “By coating, you can change the face of the fabric. You can add a new look and more value,” she said.
Aztex offers a variety of coated denim effects, including those that have a crinkled or suede appearance and effects that replicate leather patching. For this reason, Medina considers coated denim an art form.
The application of coatings allows designers to manipulate the fabric surfaces in unique ways but in a controlled manner. “Our denim coated offerings are beyond a copy to leather—they are real works of art,” she said. “It can be applied in every possible way that the imagination can create.”