Column: Fashions

by Long Nguyen

A Glitch in Fashion Intellect; Or: The Fall of Designer Jeans
For the debut of his ready-to-wear collection for Dior at last October’s Spring-Summer fashion show, Raf Simons made the bold decision to take a bow on the runway in denim. For the momentous occasion, Simons wore a slightly faded, blue Helmut Lang jean jacket decorated with three hand painted red stripes, paired with black wool pants and a blue cotton shirt.

Simons’ mission was to usher in a new era for Dior. Considering his own history of creating menswear based on youth culture, it’s only natural that the Antwerp native would wear a historically casual denim look from Lang.

Lang’s independent ethos paved the way for other designers, like Simons, to work outside the immediate confines and hierarchy of fashion. In a decade when Tom Ford exploded Gucci into a megabrand with his ultra sexy garments, Simons was inspired by the youth subcultures that thrived beyond the immediate reach of wealth and power.

But the designer is not only famous for the rigidly austere silhouettes he marshaled into the fashion world at his Paris debut in 1986. While trendy menswear fashion obediently followed his slim cut tailored suits, his landmark jeans collection launched the ‘premium’ denim craze of pared down, dark, raw selvedge jeans that retailed for more than $200 in 1996.

Wrapped with his tenets of design restraints, Lang’s jeans marked a rising interest in the importance of fabrics, in particular the use of selvedge denim—woven in the Okayama Prefecture in Japan—as opposed to extraneous designs and overt displays of logos prevalent with higher priced jeans.

Dark, unwashed, and slow dyed indigo jeans were the opposite of the loud displays that formerly characterized garments at the designer level. The former replaced the previous stalwarts of luxury fashion. And Lang went beyond the raw denims to offer paint-splattered, dirty jeans, copied endlessly by other manufacturers.

Before the late ’70s, jeans were the exclusive property of the three big brands: Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler. These brands dominated the market share for the utilitarian garment. The ubiquity of the Big Three in the jeans market ended surreptitiously in 1980, and their demise was marked by two prominent events.

The first occurred in 1980 when Debbie Harry fronted a campaign for Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans. The designer, a New York high society socialite, launched her jean company with the Murjani Group in late 1978. The focus was on her name, and her trademark swan embroidered logo placed on the back pocket. The jeans had a mystique that led to a significantly higher price tag; 700,000 pairs sold in the first year.

The second in 1981, when Brooke Shields, fresh from a stellar performance in Pretty Baby, declared in a TV commercial that nothing comes between her and her Calvin’s. The young actress created a mass market buzz and sales for Calvin Klein Jeans—a basic 5-pocket denim pant with back pocket wiggle thread patterns—which reportedly sold 50,000 units a week. Here was the ingenuity of marketing over substance, of selling a perception to a larger range of customers rather than concentrating on a more expensive product for a smaller niche market.

Soon the likes of Jordache, Sasson, and Sergio Valente joined the competition, using the formula of a highly visible coveted name and logo, higher price points and snug fits. Nina Hyde, the influential fashion critic of the Washington Post, declared 1978 the year of the status jeans.

Yet the jeans that bore Vanderbilt’s name weren’t meticulously made. In no way did they stand out against countless offerings from garment manufacturers. Within a decade of the launch, Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, like many of her competitors that joined the designer jeans bandwagon, faded into the sunset.

In the late ’90s, designer fashion houses upped the ante with serious displays of brand logo and decoration. A faded and torn Gucci jean from spring ’98, modeled in an ad campaign by Gucci’s exclusive model, Ryan Locke, imparted a mythic appeal to what is basically a pair of dyed washed cotton pants.

By the end of the ’90s, the status jean bubble burst. “More than a decade ago, there weren’t so many options about quality denims. Then it was all about the brand and not about the actual denim. This is the progress of designer jeans from the days of Sergio Valente, Vanderbilt, Jordache, and CK Jeans, where pocket design and a logo leather patch mattered more than fabric and fabrication,” said Gordon Heffner, the owner of Blue in Green, a New York men’s sportswear store, whose bulk of business comes from selling branded Japanese denims.

That’s when Lang turned the tide by emphasizing the specificity of his carefully handcrafted raw denim jeans—from the purveyance of the raw and unwashed fabric, to the limited quality of production that endowed each pair of denim.

“There’s an evolution toward more subtle details that are not so flashy. More companies realized that the best denim fabrics come from Japanese mills using older machines that give the fabric a thickness that resounds with jeans from a century ago. Flashy designs are gone. So are the Made in China labels. Limited quantity assured a higher price and gave new premium denims an aura of the old authentic jeans,” Heffner says. “The denim fabric is now the most important element of a pairs of jeans.” As it should be.