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Opinion Piece: The Lack of Innovation in the Modern World of Denim

American Denim FlagIt’s hard to imagine that selvage jeans were a lot harder to come by some years ago, especially considering that you can get them in virtually any high street shop nowadays. But the growing online denim community, the general obsession with Japanese clothing and the resurgence of proper menswear or the heritage movement, as you might call it, changed that. A pair of jeans in raw selvage denim is now considered a must in any man’s wardrobe on par with the white t-shirt and a pair of clean trunks. You hardly have to mention the fact that it’s selvage denim, you just take it for granted. But that doesn’t justify the fact that brands and manufacturers are resting on their laurels when it comes to innovation.

American and Japanese Denim To the Masses
Being quite obsessed with denim I consider this a good thing by any means. I like that there’s an abundance of selvage jeans on offer. You can get them at a lot of different price points and from a myriad of different brands. It’s even a good thing that people are finally wanting something else than the annoyingly modern classic, “New Standard” by A.P.C., which probably was, and still is, the gateway to much better jeans for a lot of people.

A decade ago, finding American made or Japanese made jeans weren’t as readily available as they are now. That’s why I was really pleased when more and more American companies started having their jeans made in the US again. Another good development methought. Cone Mills became the supplier for many of them and my head was nodding like a bobblehead doll. It seemed like the perfect combination considering Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler weren’t doing any significant production in the US anymore. So here comes these new brands wanting to breathe new air into the denim production in the US using American materials. Perfect.

One Business Model Suits All
Unfortunately that business model has now become the recipe for a ton of second wave of American denim brands and honestly it’s starting to taste like stale bread. And actually I can’t believe that so many companies can share the exact some business model with a product that is very identical – of course there are a few differences, but it’s getting increasingly harder to tell the jeans apart. I know, it’s all ”just” blue jeans, but God is in the detail, you know.

I mean, if they’re all making their jeans in the US, and they’re all using Cone Mills denim, and they’re all making that regular/slim fit, which looks a lot like the New Standard with that unmanly low waist, slim thigh and seat, and the somewhere-around 8” hem, then what sets them apart individually?

Don’t get me wrong. I really like Cone Mills denim. Or I rather like the idea of Cone Mills. But I don’t get why they aren’t pushing the limits too and, for instance, I don’t get why they aren’t making chambray any more.

Where Is the Innovation?
It could appear that innovation in the denim world stopped some time in the last century. I had high hopes when this new wave of American denim brands surfaced. I was hoping that we would be seeing a lot of new and interesting fits, seeing some new interesting types of denim put to use, possibly variations of the 5 pocket jeans and last but not least improvements to jeans as we know them. Of course I like many of the Americana denim brands. I’m not bashing their products. There’s nothing wrong with them, I just hope that they’ll start pushing the boundaries of denim and more importantly develop new fits.

To make matters worse, the newest developments are going in a direction of brands producing jeans at a lower price because they are “cutting out the middleman” and artisan makers who are making jeans by hand at a high premium. Of course the business model is a bit different here, but they’re all basically using the same components and again the fits are very similar. Does the denim market really need price competition? The competition on price was the problem to begin with and the sole reason that production moved to the far east and the evolution of jeans – and workwear – stopped around that same point. Manufacturers turned their focus to how they could keep costs down and not how they could develop their products further. Price war is the best way to kill of any innovation.

What’s Next?
So where should things be going? I’m not entirely sure and I’m in reality not trying to give any definitive answers. But I do believe that there’s an endless potential to denim that reaches far beyond the 1947-rip offs or new New Standards. The brands and makers should be knocking on Cone Mills’ door demanding custom denim or Cone Mills should probably already be more interested in offering custom denim, so the American makers don’t start looking more towards Japan. Plus it wouldn’t hurt if the brands offered some new, interesting fits – again there should be endless possibilities of offering something different than their competitors. But please keep manufacturing away from the far east.

Disclaimer: For good measure it should be mentioned that this piece doesn’t necessarily represent the attitude of the entire Rope Dye team. It’s a personal, opinion piece by me, Simon Tuntelder, and if you bothered to read all of it, and you have any questions or a retort, I would gladly like to hear them, and I’ll do my best to respond.

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35 comments

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DenimDoodler September 12, 2013 at 20:11

Naked and Famous experiments. Maybe more people should take that approach.

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CVanDriel September 12, 2013 at 21:22

To be fair some “quality” brands try to be innovative, Naked & Famous Nudie’s & Levi’s Made & Crafted spring to mind but in my humble opinion they’re not too cuting-edge.
I would like to point out that I did state “quality” brands, high street brands like Diesel, True Religion, etc. innovate every season but these brands are not really looked upon with high regard in the selvage denim community. I don’t believe that the costumers that buy brands like Levi’s Vintage Collection and Lee are looking for extra stitching, belt loops, pockets and bright colours. They want to keep it “original” but that mustn’t mean that you should not innovate, you can but too a lesser extent and to an extent that keeps your clientele loyal to your brand.
For me good examples of an innovative heritage brands are LVC with for example their new orange tab collection, Lee 101 with their collaboration with Saint-James and the Otter wax jeans, Nudie’s with their organic “green” denim and Japan Blue / Momotaro with new fabrics with mixed cottons.
But unfortunately you’re right, I’m growing tired of the many new brands that just release their copy of a American made ’47 or ’54 501 they’re of great quality but again they missed a great chance to do something new.
Then again its all our fault we self acclaimed denim lovers like it simple. We want a blue, selvage denim. No frills no extra details.
Rant over, good article. Thanks

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Charlie Browning October 26, 2013 at 15:23

Amen! Keep it simple stupid. And I don’t mean you but all the die hards that are following there passion and hand making quality denim goods for guys like me who just appreciate good pair of simple, sweet jeans.

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driftwoode September 13, 2013 at 00:56

The reason so many brands are making the exact same selvedge jeans with the exact same cut is because their is a market for it. A big enough population of people want it, so many brands, even huge retailers like the Gap, are more than willing to produce it. This trend happens in almost all forms of clothing, denim is no exception. However, If you want to see more innovation in denim jeans, then go out and do it. You make that new cutting edge jean with the modern fabric and fit and see where it goes. But I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the reason their isn’t more innovation in denim jeans (other than the gimmicks occasionally put out by brands like Naked and Famous) is that you really can’t improve on what’s already been done. Denim jeans, especially selvedge denim, are the perfect clothing item. And as for fit, really, how many different fits can you create (and stay comfortable)? For me, the pinnacle of selvedge denim innovation was already achieved a long time ago. The Levi’s shrink-to-fit jean, especially the 1947 year, represents the best denim work-wear has to offer. perfect fabric, perfect fit. Everything else is just a facsilime; an attempt to rediscover magic that has long since passed us by. I understand why people want something new, it’s exciting, and it seems to be hard-wired into our DNA. But when it comes to quality selvedge denim, what’s to improve upon?

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Chief White Horse September 13, 2013 at 15:41

As it stands now, you can go knock on Cone’s door and get something custom, sure. Their response? Sure, your minimum is 15,000 yds and you might get on the production board in 9 months. If you aren’t the big three, you are stuck with the standard fare. That is the reality now. We are going to change that reality. You want innovation? Let me introduce you to the International Jean Makers Union. We are going to change the game.
Ryan
Proprietor White Horse Trading Co.
Co-Founder, International Jean Makers Union

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Johnson Benjamin February 11, 2014 at 21:14

I want to know more.

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Johnson Benjamin February 11, 2014 at 21:14

I want to know more.

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JanP September 13, 2013 at 18:20

I agree that there is more and more selvage denim coming out (soon H&M i fear…) but I think we pay more attention to it because we are denim enthusiasts. For the greater audience the concept of selvage is still unknown niche. If you look at 100 persons pass in the street you will maybe see one pair of selvage denim. If you look at girls only – it is one out of 500,

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VW September 13, 2013 at 20:58

I think I saw a pair of H&M selvage jeans a couple of months ago…

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CVanDriel September 14, 2013 at 19:12

Here is a great example of a innovative brand. Keeping it simple but still new and cutting-edge.
http://www.rawrdenim.com/2013/09/japan-blue-fallwinter-2013-springsummer-2014-coming-soon/

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Benito Carreon January 27, 2014 at 07:20

In my opinion, small companies need to stop competing with bigger niche brands, US and abroad, by pricing their products at ridiculous retail prices. Anyone that has attempted to make their own jeans knows that it doesn’t cost $200+. These companies should instead focus on making their products stand apart in terms of innovation, creativity, and functionality. I understand companies need to make a profit, but it shouldn’t be at the customers expense. I mean that monetarily and morally.

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SleepyHead May 7, 2014 at 20:47

Can someone explain why we are lamenting lack of innovation when it comes to new/unique/different/fashion forward/whatever-you’d-like-to-call-it fits? Let us put aside, for a moment, the position of many denim purists/enthusiasts take in being fans of the universal (ie accommodating) straight leg silhouette.. Everyone DOES realize that selvage is the STRAIGHT edge of a woven fabric, right? A straight edge of intact selvage necessitates a straight outseam. Looms do not weave in widths tapering and expanding in order to facilitate the evanescent, new and interesting fashion silhouettes complete with intact woven in selvage ID’s.. that would be preposterous. Isn’t that the whole point of being into selvage blue jeans in the first place, because they stem from a time and place and way of doing things different from that of today, that they are old-fashioned? Innovation on the fabric itself could easily evolve, sure, and if you were to ask me, is has and is still, but lets check ourselves before lamenting the impossible.

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