Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

Tracking the denim trend

From Levi’s for labourers in the 1800s to inventive ensembles from the biggest names in fashion, denim has come a long way. We chart the journey of this flexible and now highly covetable fabric.
A denim-inspired coat and handbag, part of Fendi's 2016 Resort collection. Courtesy: Fendi
A denim-inspired coat and handbag, part of Fendi's 2016 Resort collection. Courtesy: Fendi

In 1864, Webster’s Dictionary defined denim as “a coarse cotton drilling used for overalls, etc”. Fast-forward to May 2015, when Karl Lagerfeld simulated denim in his 2016 resort collection for Fendi – pieces were printed and woven to appear like the textile in question, and real denim was even bonded to mink to create a reversible jacket.

Lagerfeld isn’t alone in his apparent reverence of a denim-wearing muse. Other recent runway shows have left audiences marvelling at the fact that there is a place for something so seemingly run-of-the-mill in the world of high fashion. From the spring/summer 2015 head-to-toe denim looks at Chloé to the ones topped off with fur in Tom Ford’s autumn/winter 2015 show, luxury brands are wholeheartedly embracing this most humble of materials.

The textile has practical beginnings, used as it was by American men working manual labour in the 1870s. Now, it’s one that top international clothing labels use and even try to imitate. While some brands may have dabbled with denim in the past, it never made significant inroads as an in-demand, fashion-forward material. Yet, 2015 runways have seen a very deliberate denim takeover, causing us all to ask whether or not denims – a pair of jeans included – can still unquestionably be categorised as casual wear.

For spring/summer 2015, the collection from Chloé combined femininity with utilitarian and prairie influences. Three of the looks were completely made up of denim: a detailed minidress, a poncho and jogger ensemble, and a button-down maxi skirt with a relaxed crew-neck sweater. Tangerine lattice-front heels made it clear that these Chloé girls, though robed in denim, were far from casual.

Gucci’s spring/summer runway show also incorporated a great deal of denim, from cropped wide-leg jeans to panelled dresses that mixed different shades of denim with textured eyelets.

Though autumn/winter shows didn’t make as much noise in terms of groundbreaking denim applications, resort 2016 collections showed an invigorating turnaround with the textile. While jumpsuits and jackets alluded to denim at Fendi, at Karen Walker, retro silhouettes were produced in baby-blue denims, and at Acne, the fabric was dyed in shades of indigo and purple before being pieced together in an eclectic patchwork manner.

There’s a fair bit of controversy surrounding the origins of denim. Levi Strauss & Co historian Lynn Downey highlights in A Short History of Denim how debate persists on whether the fabric was first imported from France or made in England. Whatever the case, American textile mills began producing denim during the late 18th century, to make trousers for mechanics and painters, and by the 1920s, Levi’s jeans – called “waist overalls” at the time – were the favoured men’s work trousers. The company grew to become a household name, though the fabric, at times, acquired something of a negative reputation, becoming synonymous with Harley-Davidsons, delinquent teenagers and college protesters. Even today, there are slight rebellious connotations when it comes to denim – a metallic stud-covered pair by Japanese designer Junya Watanabe exudes the same unruly motorcycle vibes that conservative Americans so disapproved of. Imagine their further contempt if they were to learn that this pair in particular costs more than Dh7,000.

In today’s varied jeans market, embellishments such as studs are aplenty, and there is a wide range of styles on offer, too – from classic boot-cuts and bell-bottoms, to more on-trend “boyfriend” and “mom” jeans. Zayan Ghandour, co-founder and creative director of S*uce concept stores in the UAE, says: “Denim has always been a staple in every wardrobe – especially denim trousers, of which every woman owns between one and 10 different washes and cuts.”

But these aren’t the only elements that are used to differentiate between denims – distressed jeans have become increasingly in vogue as well. They have even made a startling entry into high fashion, which is particularly surprising given the rumpled and ragged appearance of distressed jeans, and contrasting posh nature of the orthodox fashion industry.

Nestled in Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Center Mall, opposite a bustling burger joint, lies The Luxury Arcade – a niche boutique offering cutting-edge styles from international brands such as Jonathan Simkhai, Prabal Gurung and Markus Lupfer. Last month, founder Lina Mustafa launched a dedicated in-store denim-distressing station, where customers can bring in their denim pieces and have them customised. “We started this because I’ve found that it’s very difficult to find perfectly distressed jeans according to exactly how you want them,” Mustafa says.

Mustafa opened The Luxury Arcade last year, and at age 23, on her first buying trip to Paris, she ordered heaps of jeans from the Los Angeles-based brand Frame Denim. She is a strong believer in the view that, these days, denim is socially acceptable almost anywhere. “Except maybe to a wedding, I would draw the line there,” she says.

She attributes the growth in popularity of denim to the corresponding rise of fashion bloggers. “It’s the way that they style it – they can pair baggy jeans with a plain white T-shirt and a statement necklace and make it look so good,” she says. She’s likely correct. Take a look at the outfits worn at fashion weeks, and you’ll see how just a buttoned denim skirt, paired with a turtleneck and denim jacket, can look curiously un-casual. Even an ensemble as simple as a pair of baggy, heavily distressed jeans, put together with a crisp white blouse and minimalist handbag, can somehow ooze elegance.

The idea of artistically revamping denim isn’t entirely new – in 1973, so many Americans were decorating their own jeans that Levi Strauss & Co held an art competition, which saw about 2,000 entries. According to Downey, contest coordinators claimed that Levi’s jeans had evolved to become canvases for personal expression. While this contest inspired Americans to carry out DIY projects on their jeans at home, today there is wide range of expressive denims readily available on the high-end market. From Stella McCartney’s new season gold polka dot and embroidered wildcat jeans, retailing at up to Dh2,500, to the Ashish sequinned pair costing about Dh7,800, embellished denims are clearly in demand. Ghandour recognised the global appeal of the dressed-up denim trend and experimented with it earlier this year, when S*uce launched its first in-house capsule collection, titled This Is Denim.

The capsule features denim dresses, blouses, skirts and kaftans decorated with colourful embroidery – all rose bouquets intertwined with hummingbirds. While the base is a typical blue-jean shade, embellishments are dainty and romantic, giving a playful vibe to the jazzed-up denims. “We wanted to introduce a line of denim that included fashion pieces rather than basic staple items,” says Ghandour. She adds that the addition of lace and embroidered elements elevated the pieces from basics to “must-haves” and claims that denim can no longer be confined to casual wear.

“Our capsule proves how it can be extremely fashionable and a standout piece, all on its own,” she says. Ghandour also designs for her own brand, Zayan the Label, for which she has included denim bomber-jacket styles with pastel and metallic bow motifs and embroidery. It’s clear that denim has evolved from the defining cloth of casual wear to a viable textile for high-end design, even here in the UAE.

But since it is so widely available, it can still be challenging for high-end brands to use denim in a truly “luxurious” way. While Ghandour decorates denims with intricate embroidery work, designer Osman Yousefzada says that “using small niche manufacturers, which do small runs and distinct finishing, gives you the rarity that you need”.

He launched his namesake label, Osman, in 2008 and in his latest collection, which is available at Symphony boutique in The Dubai Mall and online at Browns.com, Yousefzada includes on-trend pieces – namely a boyfriend blazer and a pair of culottes in sky-blue-hued denim. “I had been wanting to work with denim for a while – it’s the most ubiquitous fabric,” says Yousefzada.

Seeking this bespoke, pastel blue colour, he found a small mill in Japan that created the fabric on handlooms. “I’m even thinking of doing a denim ball gown, which would look amazing in the right shade of indigo,” he says.

Yousefzada’s musings go to show that designers haven’t yet had their fill of the functional fabric. “Denim will move beyond its basic nature and will begin to be used in more innovative and unexpected ways,” says Ghandour. Meanwhile, Mustafa speaks highly of Korean design duo Steve J and Yoni P, who are known to push the boundaries when it comes to denim, always incorporating the material in some way or another in their seasonal collections. Her favourite pieces include a corseted denim dress, a dungarees-meets-peplum dress and a denim bralette crop top. “My friend bought their denim overall dress and wore it on a night out – it looked so good,” she recalls.

Downey writes that a 1962 article in American Fabrics described denim to be “an honest fabric – substantial, forthright, and unpretentious”. Yet it was also the textile of choice for Brazilian supermodel Izabel Goulart during autumn/winter 2015 couture week in July – and judging by her sultry gaze into the camera lenses of street-style photographers, the image she was going for was anything but unpretentious.


Updated: October 8, 2015 04:00 AM

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