When and where was premium denim born? Much like the definition of the phrase itself (see the pages that follow), the answer to that question often depends who is speaking. But the general consensus is that it began in Europe and/or Japan and then “emigrated” to the United States.
For Adriano Goldschmied, the so-called “Godfather of Denim,” the roots of the phenomenon can be traced back more than three decades ago–to Europe, not the USA. “In Europe I started working on the premium denim in 1975 or 1976,” he says. “If you consider the history of premium denim, premium denim does not belong to America. Also because the history of the denim in Europe and America is totally different. In America for a very long time it was considered a utilitarian product. In Europe, and particularly Italy and France, we had a different approach and so we immediately started to think about a better product, a better design and quality.”
Founding his legendary European creative studio and style and marketing bureau Genius Group in the early ‘80s, Goldschmied and his team, which included Renzo Rosso and Claudio Buziol, worked there until it shuttered in 1985 and helped birth such innovative and cutting-edge denim brands as Diesel and Replay. Meanwhile, in France, denim masters François and Marithé Girbaud began designing under their own names the following year.
Around the same time in the ‘80s,the Japanese were becoming fanatics for genuine vintage denim, spawning a new appreciation for selvedge fabrics and giving rise to brands such as Evisu, which traces its history to 1988. “The brands which gave life to this evolution of the denim market was Japan,” notes Tiberio Pedrini, marketing manager of the Italian premium denim brand Scarti-Lab. “It taught total dedication to a product that is based upon a deep and extensive knowledge of the product in denim and other universe of clothing.”
“I began to notice a ‘premium’ phenomenon taking place in the mid to late ‘90s with brands like Evisu, Diesel and Levi’s selvedge denim,” recalls Robin Chretien of Robin’s Jean. “For the first time, we began to see a high level of quality in denim production and the introduction of selvedge denim into fashion, not just casual attire.”
A native Frenchman, Chretien moved to Los Angeles in 1996–and he was far from the only European denim designer to make the move there around that time, a creative emigration that Goldschmied, a fellow LA transplant, believes also helped transform the City of Angels into the eventual capital of premium blues. “I think that the fact that some key people moved to America from Europe because we had the feeling that the market was evolving was an important factor,” he says. (Of course, the pioneers of premium weren’t all European or foreign born. In fact, what is arguably the first American premium denim brand, Earl Jean, was started by former entertainment stylist Suzanne Costas-Freiwald in 1996 and California native Scott Morrison helped launch another groundbreaking premium label, Paper Denim & Cloth, in New York three years later.)
“The other important thing is the fact that Los Angeles as a city was at that time in a very particular situation because mass production was moving to Asia and all of the infrastructure basically became available for different projects,” continues Goldschmied. In some ways Los Angeles was giving a very important infusion to the denim and that was to make a sexy jean. This, plus the power of Hollywood and celebrities made America–and Los Angeles in particular–dominating the denim market and bringing a totally different version of the European one.”
Economics also played a factor in the rise of LA, says Michael Scott, a longtime denim veteran who is now president of sales at the newly launched line Driftwood. “In the early 2000s when companies like Replay, Diesel, Big Star and the top European denim brands were introducing an option to Levi’s, Wrangler and some of the emerging designer denim labels like Calvin Klein we were still on an even playing field as far as the dollar to any of the European currencies,” he says. “Then the bottom fell out of the dollar and Los Angeles production was born out of necessity. So, even buying the best fabrics in the world, a great pair of jeans could be made in LA for almost half the price of what the same jean made in Italy would cost… thus the switch from designer jeans to premium denim.”
Morrison, who now runs the 3×1 denim brand and store, also believes that changing trends at the time also helped give rise to this second,
bigger wave of premium mania, and a mushrooming of new brands as a result. “You really have to give a lot of credit to Earl Jean and what Suzie [Costas-Freiwald] did. I think that was a huge part of prepping America for that,” he says. “But more than that it was a time when people started wearing denim almost anywhere. It became fashionable throughout the world and I think we kind of hit it at the right time. I mean, there was myself and Jerome Dahan started 7 for All Mankind after and it just spiraled out of control from there.” He adds: “Over about ten-year period you saw three or four brands start out and at the peak there were maybe 120 brands in the space. And now it has recoiled back to maybe 30 or 40 brands that are relevant.”
But now that the sector has corrected its crazy saturation, what is next for old and new purveyors of premium denim? For Morrison, it is the tried-and-true formula of innovation and good marketing, which has always kind of driven the premium push anyway. “I think the reality is that any brand that is going to be relevant today has to specialize in something. They’ve got to be known for doing something well,” he says. “I think that brands are going to have to continue to innovate and that they are going to have to really identify themselves amongst an audience that’s pretty intelligent and has figured out what a good jean looks like. They already have 20 pairs in their closet so to buy something just for the sake of buying it really doesn’t speak to them. I think that we as manufacturers have to get a lot smarter and tell a good story and make sure that the customers know who we are and what we are all about.”
“I define ‘premium denim’ by three elements, the first being fit, the second being wash and hand of the goods and three the overall finish and details of the product.”
MICHAEL SCOTT, PRESIDENT OF SALES, DRIFTWOOD JEANS, USA
“Premium denim is defined by its beautiful quality; a no expense spared approach to creating the best jeans possible. Premium denim will stand the test of time, working for your shape with every wear.”
CHLOE LONSDALE, FOUNDER OF MIH JEANS AND JEAN MACHINE, UK
“I would define premium denim as top quality denim fabric. I think this is the biggest component is a premium pair of jeans. Whether the denim be from Cone Mills in North Carolina, Turkey, Italy or Japan a great pair of jeans has to start with premium denim. From there the makers can combine the premium denim with their tested signature fits to create great styles that will last a long time, hold their shape and feel good to wear. The premium denim is the reason why most people who wear premium jeans know that once you put on your first pair, it’s hard to go back to anything of a less quality.”
JENNY GALLEY, CO-OWNER, DENIM SALOON STORE, OMAHA, NEBRASKA, USA
“The whole idea of premium denim came into play when designers like Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein entered the arena with their designer jeans labels. What was once viewed as workwear was now seen as fashionable. Jeans were created to fit the lifestyles of their customers. The educated customer wants to know that their money is well spent. The look and feel of premium denim is very different than what they find at stores like Gap and Old Navy. ”
ROHN PADMORE, DIRECTOR OF PR AND MARKETING, M+F GIRBAUD USA
“My definition of ‘premium denim’ is when high quality, good design and personal expression is combined with respect for old, original denim
ÖRJAN ANDERSSON, DESIGNER AND FOUNDER, ÖRJAN ANDERSSON JEANS, SWEDEN
“As a definition a jean is considered premium when it is designed and especially developed using the best denims, more researched washes, employs the most special accessories and special maniac- like attention is dedicated to details such as sewings, pocket linings or the back leather label.”
TOMMASO PECCHIOLI, OWNER, GERARD LOFT, FLORENCE, ITALY
“Now premium appears to describe only a high price point. Real, beautifully crafted product is never determined by price but by the enjoyment it gives. I find as much joy in my Volkswagen as I do in my Porsche– both wonderfully crafted with great passion selling at completely different prices.”
MICHAEL SILVER, CEO, SILVER JEANS, CANADA
WHAT IS PREMIUM?
THE TERM ‘PREMIUM’ IS ALL AROUND IN THE DENIM WORLD. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT EVERYONE AGREES ON ITS MEANING-NOT EVEN IN THE INDUSTRY. BY SABINE KÜHNL During the Kingpins 2014 New York and Europe edition organizer Andrew Olah initiated a seminar to discuss one of the key denim questions these days: What is premium? In New York he gathered four panelists on stage (TRC Candiani’s Alberto Candiani and Damiano Dall’Anese, Cone Denim’s Kara Nicholas and fashion editor/Jean Stories co-founder Jane Herman Bishop) to discus the topic. The audience quickly got involved and pointed out its opinions. One thing became clear right away-the industry is still looking for a proper definition of what “premium denim” is and in what context the term shall be used. Here are some highlights of the discussion.
ANDREW OLAH: So what is premium? I get confused myself… Speaking of its history it comes to my mind when Legler started with Replay and Diesel back in the days to do something that no-one else did, and this is how premium denim started.
ALBERTO CANDIANI: Premium denim was created in the early ’90s. We built our success on stretch denim. Premium is more a female thing. Today it is about something else, because everybody does ring and stretch today. Therefore, today premium is about quality and sustainability.
KARA NICHOLAS: Fabric, fit and finish and all the little details like pockets, constructing–that all adds up to “premium denim.”
JANE HERMAN BISHOP: As a fashion editor I see rather the consumer side and their reception of premium denim. In their minds it is about brand names and price points over $200 that make a pair of jeans “premium.” And it is not about the fabric or finishings. This is what they connect with it. It has lost its initial meaning.
DAMIANO DALL’ANESE: Premium denim is also about innovation. The jeans should stay tight for example. And clients need to feel these differences. Some brands are increasing the knowledge on the fibers and what they are made of.
ANDREW OLAH: On the one hand everybody can make a pair of jeans for six dollars and sell them for $200. On the other hand Uniqlo sells Japanese selvedge denim for $49 right now. So how do we differentiate?
ALBERTO CANDIANI: High-end clients want customized, better product. They would go mad if I’d sell them the same stuff that I sell to fast fashion retailers.
KARA NICHOLAS: We are not in the $49-selvedge-denim market. We produce on vintage looms and that feeling is woven into the fabrics. Of course Uniqlo does that for
marketing reasons and because selvedge is so popular at men’s.
JANE HERMAN BISHOP: Maybe the mills together with the brands should create a counsel for premium denim to get some certification or approval just as France does it when you want to become a couturier.
ANDREW OLAH: What if we change the word “premium” to “luxury”?
DAMIANO DALL’ANESE: I think this doesn’t work because luxury is about a different attitude. Premium denim was always mean to have a more relaxed attitude. You also don’t need luxury, premium is the best you can get.
ALBERTO CANDIANI: I talk about the material, its quality and comfort. But it is a different story what the brands make out if it. I give to my client the good pasta and I hope they cook it well.
KARA NICHOLAS: More education of the consumer would help to get the “premium” story along.
ALBERTO CANDIANI: It is tough to make organic cotton. Sustainability is about new technologies with lower impact. Still, it is a “left-wing” idea but the price points you reach make it a “right-wing” idea.
KARA NICHOLAS: The term of sustainability is used in many different ways. We think of sustainability also with regards to produce local: our material is from North Carolina, it is woven in North Carolina etc. With sustainability you can also tell a story to the consumer.
JANE HERMAN BISHOP: Of course, everybody should take part in sustainability. Still, the female consumer wants to look good, that is the main thing for her.
DAMIANO DALL’ANESE: There is still a difference between the European and the US market when it comes to sustainability. Europe is a bit further in that context. The American market does not really embrace it yet.
ALBERTO CANDIANI: Most of our innovative products are sustainable products. We try to explain our concept to the brands and hope they explain it to their customers, But the whole process is not fluent yet. For example, consumers don’t consider recycled products as premium.