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Texworld USA, Denim Innovation: Reinventing Nature

While Texworld 2014 is well-known as a bustling hub of commerce, connecting buyers and sellers of all stripes, it’s also a symposium of industry experts eager to share their insider knowledge and analysis. Combining retrospective assessments of the sourcing industry’s recent past with a clear-eyed prognosis of the future, Texworld’s seminars collectively provide an education in business worthy of a university.

One of the most edifying of these seminars was held Tuesday, January 21, titled, “Denim Innovation,” which assembled some of the leading executives on the front lines of denim innovation. Tricia Carey, U.S. Merchandising Manager for Lenzing Fibers Inc., introduced the distinguished panelists: Michael Kininmonth, Denim Project Manager for Lenzing Fibers Inc.; Mark Messura, Senior Vice president for Global Supply Chain Marketing, Cotton Incorporated; and Howard Malpass, Technical Senior Consultant, Dystar U.S. Karla Magruder, President of Fabrikology International, moderated the discussion.

Mark Messura opened the discussion by pointing out the central significance of denim not only to the apparel industry but to the lives of ordinary Americans. On average, a U.S. consumer owns between eight and nine pairs of jeans. This statistic is especially impressive if you consider the longevity of denim products in comparison to other fabrics, or the fact that jeans counts as only one denim category among eighteen others.

Cotton Incorporated is a widely recognized as a leader in cotton innovation and so it was no surprise how many cutting-edge initiatives Messura could detail. First, he discussed Cotton Inc.’s collaboration with Jeanologia, a Spanish manufacturer of of finishing machinery. The Holy Grail of denim production, Messura explained, has always been the achievement of unique design in tandem with reproducibility. However, the conventional methods available to achieve these effects are notoriously labor intensive and, as a result, fall short of environmental sustainability. However, taking advantage of innovative research, Jeanologia has been employing a wide array of new technologies including ozone and laser distressing that uses less water, fewer chemicals and incurs much lower labor costs.

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Messura also described Cotton Inc.’s “Trans-Dry” technology,  a patented, high performance moisture management application that allows fabric to wick perspiration away from the skin with even greater efficiency than most high-tech synthetic fabrics.  Trans-Dry technology treats cotton yarns with a special process that makes them water repellent but still maintains some of the principal attractions of cotton: soft feel and maximum flexibility.

And Cotton Inc. has been rolling out a series of new programs devoted to sustainability along the cotton and denim supply chains. “Cotton LEADS,” a collaborative partnership designed to provide support for various research projects, acts as a centralized hub for information regarding best practices and facilitates the creation of partnerships centered around cotton and its promotion.

Formed in partnership with the National Cotton Council of America, Cotton Council International (CCI) and Cotton Australia, Cotton LEADS is first animated by a desire to raise awareness about responsible growing practices on display in the U.S. and Australia.

The core commitment of Cotton LEADS is the advocacy of the socially and environmentally responsible production of cotton. The basis of the initiative’s creation is the recognition that sustainable cotton production requires a collective stewardship that not only encourages and communicates best practices but also supports new research and development as well as investment.

The U.S. and Australia together comprise the geographic center of Cotton LEADS’ efforts since each furnishes stellar examples of best production practices and because both combined account for 17 percent of global cotton production.

Michael Kininmonth began his comments by announcing the continued significance of cotton. “Cotton is still king,” he said. He observed that denim manufacturing has historically revolved around the “Four F’s:” fiber, fabric, finish and fit. In the last two years, fiber and finish have risen to the top as the dominant categories of concern. However, the push in the industry towards supply chain integration, not to mention transparency and supply chain control, has encouraged a more holistic approach to all four components.

And according to Kininmonth, the most impressive innovations in denim will be a result of precisely this congealing of previously disparate links of the cotton supply chain. Producing a garment that is “super-soft” that still stretches well means more manufacturing collaboration, bringing together mills, chemical scientists, designers and other participants in the process. This is the only way to successfully combine the right aesthetic (comfort, moisture control and drape), performance (synthetic add-ins like Tencel) and ecological responsibility.

Howard Malpass deftly discussed his area of expertise as it applies to denim manufacturing: chemicals. He quickly conceded that his subject area is both forbiddingly complex and sometimes mischaracterized as a “dirty” part of the denim business. However, scientific innovation with respect to new chemical processes can be a key factor both in reducing costs and increasing the ecological integrity of garments.

Part of what makes denim such a unique fabric, Malpass shared, is that it’s such a traditional staple of global attire; consumers want that informal look, but available in multiples washes and fits, and long-lasting as well. And denim, in contradistinction to most fabrics, looks better with age, maturing into a worn aesthetic that consumers often pine for. That iconic indigo blue, the “purest shade of blues,” maintains its brilliance as it wears, as opposed to other blue dyes that gradually dull unto a “reddish caste.”

One of the most attractive features of indigo dyeing, Malpass said, is that it is naturally well-suited to environmentally responsible processes. Indigo dye is biodegradable and, since it is less labor intensive than other processes, usually involves lower labor costs as well.

Malpass struck a pragmatic note, saying that while consumers increasingly demand apparel that is more ecologically sustainable, they also want products at lower prices. In some cases, he candidly confessed, the goal of “going green” will potentially raise costs, at least in the short run.

“Denim Innovation” was an eye-opening tutorial in the way the cotton industry is seamlessly combining nature and man-made technology, discovering unprecedented ways to forge a symbiosis of science and sustainability, of nature and innovation.