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Denim goes beyond blue for spring

America's favorite fabric will be coming in more shades than the ever-present indigo for men. Women will see bell-bottom styles.

August 22, 2010|By Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times
  • Las Vegas' MAGIC fashion trade event.
Las Vegas' MAGIC fashion trade event. (Jonathan Hokklo )

Reporting from Las Vegas — Last week, Sin City was the center of the denim-dealing universe, as purveyors and purchasers of the (usually) indigo-hued cloth clustered on trade show floors to write the next chapter in the history of what's arguably America's greatest contribution to the world's wardrobe.

In preparation for the retail season six months hence, retail buyers and fashion industry press descended on the desert to roam the twice-yearly cluster of apparel trade shows staged here, most under the aegis of MAGIC, which originally stood for "Men's Apparel Guild in California," although it has long since switched states and grown to encompass women's clothes, footwear and accessories as well.

What they found was that while the economic malaise of the last several years may have thinned the herd of premium denim brands, it has by no means driven them to extinction, with many using the opportunity to evolve beyond the traditional notion of denim into something more akin to a premium twill, still in the familiar five-pocket silhouette.

Jeff Shafer, owner and designer of the Agave Denimsmith premium label, calls it "the simplest extension [of traditional denim] there is." But to anyone unfamiliar with the specifics of America's favorite fabric, understanding exactly where the new crop of gray, khaki-colored and white jean-like trousers fits in the denim landscape is anything but simple.

So, first, a mini primer: Denim, as it's usually understood, is a durable, cotton twill fabric with an indigo-dyed warp or top yarn and a white weft or bottom yarn (which is why, if you turn up the cuff on a pair of jeans, the inside has a noticeably lighter cast). The relatively coarse traditional 3x1 weave (which means the thread crosses over three perpendicular strands before going under one) gives denim its durability and familiar ribbed texture.

The passage of time and effects of wear on a fabric constructed this way — and the fact that the natural indigo dye will fade — gives denim unique properties. "It's almost like it's this living, breathing fabric," Shafer said. "It changes when you sand it and wash it, and the variations give the fabric an amazing depth. The possibilities are endless."

While many denim wearers may not understand why their jeans whisker, wear and fade the way they do, or know the processes the designers use to pummel, abrade and launder them to look that way, they have shown a willingness to pay good money — often in the triple-digits — for the results.

Until recently anyway. America's closets are now jam-packed with premium blue jeans, and while the economic downturn of the last few years didn't result in a full-fledged bursting of the denim bubble the way some had predicted, it has made consumers less willing to stray too far from their comfort zone.

The result is a move into the non-indigo territory in a big way — offering the five-pocket silhouettes in traditional denim fabrics but a host of other colors, as well as lighter, softer 1x1 twills (think traditional chinos) with the same treatments.

"People have been calling it a denim shift," said J Brand's men's and women's design director, Matthew Saam. "I don't think it's a shift. Premium denim isn't going anywhere, but how much [indigo] denim can you own?"

Saam prefers to use the word "evolution," and the next rung on J Brand's evolutionary ladder will come next spring, with the introduction of a new men's five-pocket premium twill, slim and straight-legged in khaki and gray shades and washed-down and worn to a vintage feel. "It's the same durable twill weave as the indigo [jeans]," Saam said, "and constructed in the same way so it can handle the sanding and washing treatments."

It was the same story across the show floor at the Mandalay Bay convention center, with brands from the established, such as 7 for All Mankind, to fledgling first-timers, such as German label Miracle of Denim, adding or expanding selections of non-blue bottoms. Waving his hand at forehead level, Miracle of Denim's co-owner Elias Rumelies explained his reasoning: "People have denim up to here," he said.

But the spinning of the color wheel for the denim we'll be seeing in collections for next spring and summer has manifested itself mostly on the men's side. On the women's side, denim designers are going big — at the ankle.

"We're doing a very flared '70s hippie-inspired bell bottom," said Ryan Dziadul, PR manager for 7 for All Mankind. "We've made them on a custom basis for our celebrity clients before, but this is the first time we're adding a bell bottom." The relatively unembellished jean is figure-huggingly skinny until mid-calf, where it flares generously.

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