Aritzia, head of denim
Natalie Nelson
Aritzia, head of denim

Deep Dive

Natalie Nelson has headed up the denim program at contemporary women’s wear label Aritzia for four years. A veteran of Gap and Levi’s, the seasoned designer and product development specialist has spent her career steeped in indigo. A self-described “jean queen,” Nelson’s creations have been featured in top fashion magazines and on curated “best of” lists, evincing a laid back, casual style with retro appeal.

Nelson is the brains behind Aritzia’s in-house denim label, Denim Forum, which launched in 2018. Featuring organic cotton denim staples from skinny jeans to wide-leg cuts, shorts and jean jackets, garments are made using water-saving processes and eco-friendly softeners and are finished using laser technology that saves energy and promotes efficiency. Meanwhile, the line encapsulates an effortless, Cool Girl aesthetic that has put Aritzia’s denim offering on the map.

What denim buzzword do you think is overused? And what would you replace it with?

Greenwashing. The word is negative and tends to dismiss brands’ actions, whether small or big. For example, I re-engineered a wash at Gap, making a minor adjustment that saved us over 1.8 million liters of water in one season—substantial savings—and maintained the original aesthetic I wanted. A small incremental change can mean a monumental impact at scale. We should celebrate the small and significant changes; every step towards the goal is impactful. At the same time, some bad actors make false claims about the impact of their initiatives and rightfully deserve the moniker of “greenwashing.” I would prefer to see the term reserved for the real culprits and steer brands towards using a “transparency” message versus more murky green language that leaves them as targets despite the mind-blowing positive impact.

What do you wish more consumers knew about the jeans they buy?

Craftsmanship is the backbone of denim, shaped by the hands of artisans who are behind the scenes quietly produce creations stitch by stitch. Therefore, no two pairs are exactly alike, and I want everyone to appreciate the uniqueness in every pair of jeans.

If you had one request for denim brands, what would that be?

Commit to the ethical production of all products, especially denim. Designers can drive positive change by making the right decisions early on and setting the path toward more equitable outcomes. Embracing fabric, design, and wash innovations that reduce environmental impact is one of my guiding design principles.

What can other apparel categories learn from the denim industry?

Many designers in the apparel industry don’t have the breadth or depth of technical experience across the fabric, wash, garment construction, and sundries that are integral in creating an excellent denim product. Many have never spent time on the denim factory floor. I have the benefit of academic schooling as a textile engineer, hands-on training in Levi’s school of product development in factories worldwide and being a design leader at the biggest denim companies in the industry. Deep knowledge allows for innovative thinking and progress. Other apparel categories would benefit from a similar depth of expertise at the design level to create highly executable and innovative products.

What was your most recent denim purchase?

I recently bought a 1970s vintage, dark wash but lived-in denim Trucker to customize for my 7-year-old daughter. She loves denim and getting involved in styling and designing product. Working on some clothing with her is a fun way to spend our time together.

What is your first denim memory?

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I have an early memory of my mother wearing a denim jumpsuit in the ’80s while hosting a party after my father’s concerts, surrounded by women dressed in light flowing dresses. Something about the denim, mixed with her soulful confidence, added to her glow. The result was my mother being a personal denim muse for me and an example of how denim can shine in so many contexts.