New labels tackling the "dirtiest product" in fashion all agree that the traditional working fabric is in urgent need of a three-pronged makeover – design, technology and environment.
Niche specialists will take denim into the future
"Think of these as the denim equivalent of one of the concept vehicles that the big car companies make for the motor shows," suggests Shubhankar Ray, head of marketing for the Dutch denim brand G-Star.
He is speaking of its new 5620 Dimension jeans, created not only by stretching or shrinking the seams on each panel as they are stitched together, but by then using advanced heat applications and resin treatments literally to bake in the shape.
The result on the hanger is an odd looking garment. Not much like traditional jeans, designed for the three-dimensional shape of the human body.
"We still love old workwear and all the nostalgia around denim," says Ray. "But we know we need to adapt the design to make it more relevant for today."
Certainly a radical reinterpretation of such a wardrobe stalwart may be what the market needs - because it is not enjoying the boom times it once did. Two of the world's biggest players, Gap and Levis, have suffered runs of poor sales. According to the analysts Koncept Analytics, the market's double-digit growth is gradually - perhaps inevitably - declining as sales channels reach saturation point in a general absence of innovation.
Indeed, while global sales towards the end of 2010 showed marginal growth of just 2.6 per cent, according to the market research company NPG Group, sales of jeggings - the jeans/leggings hybrid that have been something of a fashion craze - saw a 200 per cent year-on-year increase.
The classic five-pocket western jeans may be just that - a classic - but perhaps more consumers are now asking whether they really need another pair. Or, perhaps more precisely - the need to meet some fleeting fad for high-rise or flares or "boyfriend" jeans aside - what makes the next pair special enough to justify the outlay.
Certainly the market continues to see a proliferation of new brands to match that of a decade ago, when Earl jeans, launched as an outsider to compete with the big three - Levis, Wrangler, Lee - was sold for US$86 million (Dh316m) and Nudie joined the fray. More recent years have seen the likes of 7 For All Mankind, True Religion, Ernest Sewn, 18th Amendment, Citizens of Humanity and Raleigh, among many others.
"When we launched 10 years ago there was nothing new happening in the market, just the big brands. Now we face the opposite situation," says Palle Stenberg, co-owner of Nudie.
The company has recently made a foray into khakis - in part to offset the dip in interest in denim.
"It feels like there's no passion in the industry at all - just different brands trying to do the same thing over and over," he says. "The market is saturated, in part because the internet has provided access to such huge choice. It won't kill interest in jeans - but it will mean brands will come and go much faster."
Like G-Star, AG Goldschmied is a brand that sees a more directional response as the way ahead. Fashion may provide temporary interest - and its coloured denim, twills and prints have provided new options that customers have responded to. But its designer, Sam Ku, also puts faith in what might feel like the antithesis of denim's 19th-century authenticity: technology. His company is working on fibre blends to give better stretch denim, for example, and cotton/Rayon/Tencel ones to provide denim with the soft hand that comes with wearing it for years.
"Technology is going to be increasingly important to maintaining interest in denim," says Ku. "In fact, developing the right washes and treatments to get a certain look has long been a very technical process, which is why a lot of companies that have jumped on the denim bandwagon have found it harder than they expected. Jeans will be with us at least for our lifetimes, but it is technology that will push the new ideas along, even if brands still like to look to denim's roots for inspiration."
But such a bold new definition of jeans may not be the only way ahead. Chasing environmentally sounder versions may also be key.
After all, says Nur Basaran, the brand director of Kuyichi, denim is "one of the dirtiest products in fashion".
Kuyichi is a pioneer in its field in using organic denim, which is increasingly available in large quantities out of Turkey, and streamlining its production to use fewer and less harmful chemicals, as well as to cut the amount of water used.
Even the rivets are nickel-free and the leather patches recycled.
"An entirely sustainable denim isn't possible yet, because chemicals are required to get the right look for denim, without which it won't sell at all," explains Basaran. "But then just a few years ago nobody even asked the question of denim. For the moment there are few customers really looking for a more sustainable denim - but differences like this will prove more important to success in such a crowded denim market."
Stenberg agrees, arguing that the only way for new brands to go the distance will be "to become very clear in their message, and to be very niche".
That means specialists rather than designer brands, local heroes rather than global giants. Rising Sun, for example, is one of the most insider of denim brands, launched by a husband and wife team in California off the back of an inability to find the jeans they wanted: each pair is handmade on vintage sewing machines and might command a $500 price-tag.
That has not stopped the company tripling its distribution over the last year. Co-founder Mike Hodis argues that not only is the market seemingly offering "the same old same old" encouraging the rise of what he calls "denim micro-brands", but that these brands are responding to a growing number of customers who have undergone a deep denim education.
"They know how good jeans are made now," he says. "They can spot the difference between a pair that is made with a $2 denim as opposed one made with a $25 one. This consumer is still ready to spend on jeans, but wants quality. That's one key characteristic in a market in which some real point of distinction will be necessary to survive."
Victor Lytvinenko, the founder of the US-made Raleigh brand, also believes that a "fewer and better" buying behaviour means quality will prove key and that a new breed of ultimate jeans, as it were, will be those the shopper turns to - and, for all that the internet may have helped the market to explode, it also provides access to these more esoteric labels.
"In the broad sense, a pair of jeans has always been considered a commodity product, so applying the quality approach seems like an odd idea," he says. "But that's what's missing in the market right now. Whether it's through making a greener product, a more experimental one or a more artisanal one, niche is right for the future of denim. We make in a year what the big companies make just as samples. But there's a new denim connoisseur market that's growing enough to keep us in business."