It’s difficult to write anything about denim that hasn’t already been written countless times before. Denim is something special, an icon of modernity and somehow, simultaneously, a throwback to a bygone era. Deeply engrained in our collective cultural consciousness, denim’s history is closely entwined with the history of the conquest of the West, and the birth of the American Myth. The Levi’s double arcs and deep blue’s conjure up images of cowboys and Gold Rush miners, weathered by the toils of frontiersmanship, in dogged pursuit of the American Dream. This idea of the rugged, individualist man inevitably rubbed off on the elements of his uniform, chief among them his pants and his leather jacket. The natural evolution of the cowboy, the motorcycle outlaw, adopted the jeans and leather jacket into their uniform, distinguishing themselves from the Company Man’s charcoal suit, and identifying them as a rebel, existing, by choice, on the fringes of society. Steve Mcqueen and Marlon Brando, solidified themselves as the epitome of masculinity for an entire generation, clad in a pair of Levi’s 501s and astride their motorcycles. The status of denim as the pant of choice for the counter-culture continued through the 70’s civil movements, where the fit became more flared and deviated from function and into fashion. Denim barreled straight into the 80’s, finding itself right at home in the emerging punk and metal scenes, while simultaneously being adopted by the designers of the time. The transformation of jeans from a membership badge to a counter-culture to a symbol of sex and the mainstream began in the 80s, reaching fever pitch with the famous (or infamous, depending who you ask and what church you belonged to) Brooke Shields Calvin Klein commercial. The 90s and 2000s were host to some of the most eccentric experiments and egregious crimes in fashion, with designers trying and, in retrospect, falling flat on their face, to adopt denim as a fabric and not simply a pant. Everyone remembers Justin and Britney. No one wants to remember it, but the image is seared into our retinas just as aggressively as Brando or McQueen’s are. No doubt in part because of the popularity of jeans that would make Liberace roll in his grave, the mid to late 2000s finally saw the emergence of a backlash against garish and poor quality denim. We all unconsciously know that a good pair of jeans is crucial to any man’s wardrobe, but the resurgence of an interest in craftsmanship, quality, and attention to detail, via the raw and selvage denim craze, finally means that handsome, classic, and durable denim is yet again widely available.
Frankly, you probably knew all of that already. You’re also probably scratching your head and wondering why the history of denim is brought up at all. However, one of the emerging trends in fashion today is paying denim and it’s many forms the respect it’s due. From Yeezy and his redefinition of the Canadian Tuxedo, to APC and their French, cosmopolitan, take on raw denim, all the way to Japan, where the construction and quality of denim has been taken to fetishistic levels, denim is experiencing a spiritual renewal that no other garment or fabric in recent memory has.
The kick-off point for any conversation on reinterpreting denim and Americana as a whole will always be Visvim and Hiroki Nakamura. Nakamura is on the vanguard of denim revivalism. A native of Japan, but raised with a love for American culture, Nakamura spent part of his youth in Alaska, and a part of the same youth digging for gold in vintage stores. Nakamura translated his appreciation for quality clothing and traditional techniques, coloured by a preference for utilitarianism and American cultural references, into a uniquely intriguing fashion house. Visvim utilizes a dizzying number of artisanal techniques to design their clothing from the thread up, employing, in his bag of tricks, traditional Japanese dying techniques and vintage American looms (dumped into Japan’s lap by America, in favour of faster, but lower-quality projectile looms), a melding of traditional and contemporary fabrics (wool jackets with Goretex lining, for example), and hand-painted garments. This isn’t cage-free, locally sourced, Wholefoods “artisanal”. The truly artisanal construction techniques range from the ancient, to the experimental, to the avant-garde (and more often than not, a combination of the three). Hiroki Nakamura has on many instances employed a dyeing technique which sources it’s otherworldly crimson hue from the crushed up Cochineal insect, a cactus parasite native to the Americas. On another occasion, Nakamura made a robe out of tree bark.
None of visvim’s work can be put into context without understanding the importance that denim holds to the brand as a whole. The worn hues of vintage denim and bright, flat navy of raw denim stand shoulder to shoulder, the backdrop to every visvim collection. Nakamura’s use of denim contradicts itself, simultaneously anachronistic and ultra-modern. The jeans are still there, yes, and the jackets too, but visvim uses the old forms to create a new nostalgia, often building a jacket from a patchwork of differently worn denim, or replacing the trim of the jacket with a pattern of New Mexico desert hues that would make Frank Lloyd Wright swoon. Beyond this, however, Nakamura captures a design appeal broader than clothing. Visvim demonstrates a deep reverence for the romanticized West, the California of yore, drifting vaguely into Mexican and Native American territory without appropriation. However, Nakamura collects his inspiration globally, and is equally likely to reference the robes of a Buddhist monk, or a Scandinavian interior design aesthetic, as he is to reference American lore. Placing denim in a larger, more global context, Nakamura’s trademark effortlessness simply embeds denim deeper into the global cultural consciousness. In doing so, Nakamura has legitimized denim as a fabric in the greater fashion context, deftly reinterpreting and pushing the emotional, nostalgic weight of what was once a humble fabric.
It is worth noting that Nakamura’s use of denim and indigo has opened the door for other designers of elegant, denim-centric, design houses. Among the masses, Kapital – a brand specializing in indigo dyed casual clothing with an aged, repurposed, ethos, and Tender – a British brand rooted in the Steam Age, with similar dye and construction philosophies – distinguish themselves. Kapital has it’s roots in American denim, as their founder, Toshikiyo Hirata, began his career working for a Japanese denim company that, as was common at the time, only made copies of American denim. This reinterpretation, and the introduction of truly Japanese jeans, poured the concrete for a creative enterprise that would eventually be co-captained by the son, Kazuhiro Hirata. Kapital blossomed into a mish-mash of influences similar to Visvim, but with sometimes less subtlety and often more artistic panache, with less architectural and design influence and more tongue-in-cheek Americana references.
Tender, founded in 2009 by William Kroll, is a British brand drawing from the Great British Steam Age. Although denim is inherently associated with the US, it is also one of the most popular fabrics for the working man worldwide, and as such, has some history on the British Isles as well. Tender is known for an obsessive attention to even the most minute or seemingly insignificant detail, casting their hardware in house and altering their patterns from the norm to better accommodate the movement of the wearer. In addition, they employ a multitude of oldschool dyeing techniques, such as using woad, a plant that produces a dye similar to indigo used for denim but with less staying power, or tanning leather with oak bark.
Although denim has been wrangled (pun somewhat intended) into new and captivating forms, the fabric itself (indigo-dyed vertical, or warp, threads, white dyed horizontal, or weft, threads, in a twill weave), remains mostly consistent. However, it is worth examining what, if any, variations can be conceived and employed. No company is better at this than Naked and Famous. You name it, Naked and Famous has tried it. From constructing the world’s heaviest denim (32 oz. denim, 2 or more times heavier than your average pair of jeans. It stands up by itself. Seriously.), to making scratch-and-sniff denim (with scents such as raspberry, mint, and evergreen. Also seriously.), Brandon Svarc and the team at Naked and Famous refuses to acknowledge that there is any sort of boundary whatsoever on what denim can aspire to be. A native of Montreal, Svarc sticks to a few refreshingly pointed rules for his denim; always made in Canada, always from raw, Japanese-made fabric, absolutely no bullshit (although it could be argued that scratch-and-sniff denim is bullshit, it can also be argued that it’s misunderstood genius. I prefer the latter argument, because a willingness to experiment without fear of backlash or repercussions encourages the sort of creativity that keeps Naked and Famous special. – EP) Naked and Famous has grown to become a juggernaut of raw denim, more often than not being the first pair of raws any budding enthusiast buys. With no indication of slowing down or easing up on the experimentation, Svarc and his brand effectively hold the title of raw denim ambassadors, pushing the gospel of denim, and using the proceeds from their evangelism to push the fabric itself. The pricepoint, drastically lower than visvim, nevertheless demonstrates a true love for denim. There will always be a need for craftsmanship, and for innovation, but Svarc has created a way to afford getting in on the ground floor. The more democratic pricing, coupled with uncompromising quality and a strict philosophy of No Bullshit, makes Naked and Famous equally as important and influential as visvim, Kapital, or any of the plethora of other brands who are only now truly beginning to truly worship at the altar of denim.
Denim has always been a tool for taste-makers. Virgil Abloh knows this. A man who wears many hats, Abloh is perhaps best known as the man at the helm of Off White, a fashion label based in Milan known for their flat-washed denim and trademark diagonal white lines motif. Vocal in his admiration for the classics, you’re more likely to see Abloh wearing a Levi’s trucker than his own designs, but his label has in its short lifespan repurposed the classic paradigm for a modern audience. Stretching sleeves, removing hemlines, even colourblocking broad swaths of a jacket or pair of paints, Off White marries a DIY, homebrew-esque sensibility with an architectural approach to reconstruction. However, the aesthetic is also dominated by a heavy graphic presence. Harkening back to his roots as a streetwear aficionado with grand aspirations, Abloh and his cohort Kanye West (for whom Abloh works as creative director) have molded trends along their singular marriage of high- and low- fashion. The resurgence of the Canadian tuxedo seen frequently on Kanye succinctly encapsulates the blurring of fashion’s traditional divisions (especially when it’s pointed out that his outfit most likely cost twice the price of the 1998 Ford pickup and can of chewing tobacco we were most likely to associate with a Canadian tux before Mr. West came along.) Perhaps partially in reaction to the resurgence of raw denim, and partially as a result of the democratization of fashion as a whole, the DIY aesthetic and allure of torn (or borderline annihilated) denim, home-patched jackets, and lighter washes has an undeniable grip on current fashion trends. Abloh, along with Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo, among others, are putting the traditions and uniform of the grunge and punk scenes into an entirely new framework, treating the art of destroying and rebuilding a garment with the same reverence Savile Row puts into constructing a suit. Some may accuse them of inauthenticity and appropriation, but Abloh’s career, at least in regards to fashion, is about as punk-rock as it gets. His first venture, Pyrex, consisted of screen-printing a logo on deadstock Ralph Lauren Rugby shirts and reselling them for 500$, which is about the biggest subversion of how we have come to traditionally distinguish between high and low fashion; if something’s expensive, it better be couture.
Virgil Abloh has been nominated for the LVMH Prize. Naked and Famous is in every boutique and big box store. That kid that used to line up for 6 hours in the rain just for a chance to cop a pair of Jordan 6 Infrareds is now desperately trying to figure out how to proxy a pair of Visvim shoes from Japan (and wondering whether it might just be cheaper to fly there and buy them in person.) The new world of Tumblr and Instagram, Complex and Hypebeast, has provided the tools to an entire new generation of young and hungry kids to participate in the world of fashion, without regards to the barriers of entry that for decades made it the playground of the rich. Yet, over a hundred years after denim became a staple in our wardrobes, it is still ubiquitous, incapable of being replaced, and so deeply rooted into clothing that to tell the story of style is to repeat the history of denim. The cyclical nature of fashion is evident, but the fact remains that denim remains a blank canvas for a generation of supremely talented, endlessly ambitious tastemakers. Denim is still cool as fuck.