Denim Is Dead (Distressed?) . Long Live Denim !!

This is a guest post by Sourabh Sharma. He gives a great analysis on the distressed denim  with a historical perspective in this article.

We live in times when distress is actually in fashion.

denim is deadI was surprised when I realized this. To think everyone preaches the exact opposite. My addiction to denim has made me curious about another trend that I have not quite embraced; distress.

On unbuttoning a favorite pair of jeans, I noticed the words “Denim is Dead” engraved on the button. I looked at my marginally frayed and excessively faded  jeans, and thought, perhaps denim is indeed dead . This is not denim, or the classic denim that I have known for a lifetime. But then I noticed a smaller inscription on the rivet. Recalling that the rivet is to a pair of jeans like a spine is to a human being, thus the mandatory asset to hold a pair of jeans up and in place, I closely examined what it said. “Long Live Denim”; a stark juxtaposition to the former statement, and one that I will discuss later. It is an interesting acknowledgment of my conquest to know why distressed jeans are so important to fashion history, and so prevalent in today’s world.

denim skirt fashionAs if warning consumers of the distressful economic times to come, distressed jeans have technologically advanced over time and become a symbolic fashion staple . Wherever I go, regardless of what city or transit-zone, regardless of what type of location it is, an airport or club, restaurant or beach, I always see it. A bony knee, poking out of a perfectly asymmetric ripped hole, a chunk of thigh peeking out through what looks like the survival from a tiger attack, and sometimes I wonder if I’m looking at someone who is missing the homeless sign from their fingertips, or whether the Armani shirt or Jimmy Choo heels that they are wearing with the denim carcass is in fact stolen. I know that sometimes one can tastefully rise above regularity and seem eccentric, but this fad takes a while to swallow.

Why should I wear denim that is so worn? Worn is an interesting word. It can either mean pre-possessed, or overused. In both cases, it epitomizes distress. And distress is the new fashion statement.

Or maybe not so new. Unbelievable as it sounds, distressing denim has been in style for about five decades. However, unlike the analysis of denim openings and waist rises, the distress phenomenon is not cyclic, but additive. With each add on, designers instantly craft combinations of denim creations, in effect creating a layering effect of various types of designs, levels of distress, etc. filtering down to what we have today: strategically ripped denim.

Types of Distress (for Denim)

Un-distressed Jeans

With distress being so much in vogue, a term for the un-distressed, plainer counterparts seems to have languished over time. Classic, perhaps? Nevertheless, these are as they seem. Some categorize them as grandparents’ jeans, blaming the ever widening generation gap. Jeans have historically first been worn by carpenters and workers, when utility and comfort were more prominent factors than style. Which explains why this look is often one that goes negative on the scale of flattery, with bulges in inappropriate places, and tapering so stark that it makes its wearers seem like they are auditioning for a circus that is going out of business. However, off late the trend  has revived itself in the form of trouser jeans. Much like Classic Coke’s timeless taste proposition, these offer a timeless fashion proposition.

I squirm at these too, for they are closer to trousers than they are to jeans. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, we have distressed jeans. Having worked and dined with many designers, I have found that there is actually a process that goes into distressing jeans, despite many people’s willingness to massacre their own vintage denim so as to keep up with the trend.

Applique Technique

Applying something on denim is akin to accessorizing it, as it does not deviate from the essence. Splattered paint is a fashionable recollection of yesteryears. Although it started off as painting simply on jeans to form uniform colors and hues, the messy and chaotic look revived itself with the grunge era, as a form of self expression, and still prevails today. Embroidery on jeans started as a symbol of grace, but quickly moved towards self expression, too. Over the years, embroidery has gotten louder and more creative, differentiated from its archetypal ‘pretty’ routine. Embroidery’s natural next extension is embellishment, often intertwined with embroidery. This falls into two categories; the aesthetically pleasing, and the disorientingly chaotic. The pleasing segment ensures symmetry and style, mostly on back pockets and leg linings. The experimental ones offered more than just sequins and patches, but relays whole stories. The combination of these appliqué techniques yields a creative and chaotic look, evoking emotional adjectives like wild and free, the very words that form the foundation of distress.

Worn Jeans

Fraying is a natural phenomenon. Jeans as a fabric tend to stretch, and thus the ends fray with repeated wearing. If one works in bent over positions for whatever reason, the knees lose color and texture. Due to the way humans walk, the edges of the hips can give way over time to. The concept of worn jeans came into limelight with pre-washed jeans, an idea initiated by Lee and followed by the Abercrombies and the Gaps. This made fraying such a demanded style that consumers did not have to wait for their jeans to fray naturally, but could either expedite the process, or better yet, purchase a pair of worn jeans. For dramatic frayed denim jeanseffect, the whiskering technique is utilized, drawing attention to the worn out streaks around the crotch area, inevitably impacting a consumer’s choice for the perfect fitting jeans. As if pre washing jeans was not enough, stone washing became popular, starting with private designers in France, with the use of various stones like pumice and pea gravel, enabling a fiber plucking and rip inducing effect, usually achieved by washing the denim with these stones, or by scraping effectively. Stones are now classified by their porosity and abilities to induce damage. Acid washed jeans give them a more uniformly coarse feel, for a level of distress that is a notch higher.Acid washing also allows for more creativity, depending on how and where it is utilized. Sand blasting, usually used to clean or etch a surface, was first conceived by Italian designers, almost like a hybrid of acid washing and stone washing. Mass retailers have greedily lapped the concept, marketing their jeans for the active, trendy, or simply sexually charged youth. The actual sand blasting technique has attracted some negative buzz due to health concerns for workers used to manufacture denim with this technique. Bleached jeans amplify the natural wear and tear, especially in that they bleed the blue out of denim. Bleaching dramatizes the distress, thereby making it more appealing. After all, all dramatic things have a tendency to garner more attention.

Strategically Ripped Jeans

Strategically ripped jeans, as I like to call them, are an amalgamation of all the aforementioned distress factors and techniques. These lead to the strategic and inevitable fraying and ripping of jeans at various predictable areas around the leg, knee, hip and butt zone. As noticed, distress is not a sequential process, but an additive one, using several techniques in simultaneity to create an almost customizable level of distress to suit a mood or an occasion. Its not only retailers, but even top end designers that have lapped up on the trend. They are for any occasion too; severe distress for the beach, tasteful distress for a party, and slouchy distress for a brunch. There is no bar; the jeans are available for everyone at varying levels of design, distress, and price, from Paris Fashion week to Lakme India Men’s Fashion week, from a mere twenty dollars to an appalling three thousand dollars. And for seek luxury within distress, there are the diamond encrusted jeans for over a million dollars. Whatever the case, distress prevails throughout.

The Chaotic Denim Market

Due to such trends, we live in an era where there is not just one denim market. It has been segmented into various categories based on tastes, occasions, preferences, geographies, social acceptabilities, and  many more refined market segments, each of which has a surplus of brands associated that cater to it. Denim has gone into use beyond jeans, and into jackets, bags, car seat covers, and numerous other accessories and products. Some have argued whether we live in a denim bubble which will burst soon. Judging from the rising sales of denim, the annual introduction of new denim brands, the forays of all designers into the web of blue, regardless of whether they are mass or niche, and an equator-wide range of price points luring consumers from all market segments, I do not foresee the denim bubble bursting anytime soon.

So what is the point of wearing a pair of denim jeans that has is so worn? Why do silhouetted ramp models continue to strut in these shards of fabric, inevitably inspiring the world? Why does Zac Efron succumb to wearing his jeans multiple times to give them a worn in look, and perhaps marginally worse, admit to doing so?

The Mindset Framework, which relies on emotional intelligence and emotional attraction, can explain the target market segments that such distress appeals to. However, distressed denim is more than just an appeal. To better understand the existence of a trend that has permanently cemented itself in the history of fashion, I think it is more appropriate to look at the the four quadrants of pressure which influence decision making.

Explaining the Trend: The Four Quadrants of Pressure

I feel that there are four types of pressures that drive a trend into continued existence. These are perhaps the key to deciphering which fads are lovemarks in my favorite marketing framework. These pressures are placed upon individuals to make decisions, and can be well adapted to explaining the success of distressed denim.

denim buying pressure

Business Pressure

Businesses thrive to capitalize on a presently profitable idea. The pressure is thus to reinvent the success, or diversify from it, keeping its essence in tact.

Durability: Denim is definitely durable. Unlike other fabrics which become synonymous for wardrobe malfunctions, denim rips do not necessarily translate into irreparable damage. Denim is a fabric which can still be physically held up, and deemed wearable, even after exposed to deathly conditions. Although this is perhaps an ode to the patenting of its rivets, it is this characteristic that has prompted businesses to test the durability of denim by exposing it various levels of distress in the name of product development.

Reinvention: Distress is one of those rare elements that is not replicable. Ever notice how some retail brands promise customized distress to ensure no two pieces are alike? This gives creative minds a virtuous cycle of continuous reinvention with regards to the distress phenomenon. The tears, cuts, embellishments and numerous other techniques give birth to a plethora of combinations, especially when paired with the various sizing and fit variationsthat consumers are assaulted with in a denim store. Both creative enthusiasts and tactful businessfolk see this as a win-win situation. And when such a situation exists, businesses compete vigorously to reap the maximum benefit.

Diversification: Diversification from a successful product is a classic growth strategy. Distressed denim is akin to what one marketers may call a line extension. Denim colors have never really taken off as a trend, with the exception of perhaps black or white jeans, but even these fall pale in comparison to classic hues of blue. So, if you cannot change the color, you may as well change the texture. Simply ripping the fabric has successfully become both a consumer friendly and a business friendly trend. This explains the start of businesses like “Destroyed Brand” or “Indi”, which monetize the trend and destroy your clean, plain jeans for you! When is the last time you paid to have something damaged?

Societal Pressure

Society often coerces us into doing things that are seemingly correct, or are simply being done by everyone around us.

Me-Too : What’s in vogue is always followed, sometimes mindlessly. While the ‘me too’ phenomenon generally spells doom for a brand, it is sometimes quite successful if done right. This explains the rise of fads like Crocs and Lance Armstrong bracelets. Similarly with denim fashion, once something is in style, worn on catwalks or by celebrity favorites, or simply created by easily devoured brands, it becomes gaped and aped worldwide. Hence the success of distressed denim, owing its popularity to societal pressure and the human psych!

Emotional Pressure

Feelings have the power to overpower us. There are some things that we simply cannot bear to ignore, bear to part with, for fear that the aftermath will be intolerable.

Adoration: Although adoration for something does not explain why one would purchase a pair of worn jeans, it does validate why one never wishes to part with a pair that has been a companion for eons. Clinging onto an item that is akin to an artery in your heart, and thus irreplaceable, may be the reason why distressed jeans came into style in the first place, as the worn look relays an association of eternal companionship!

Liberation: Strange (and sad) as it may seem, psychology has shown that destruction can be quite liberating. Bonfire parties fueled by end of term papers, chucking a delicately intact crystal wine glass against a tough stone brick wall, the classic movie scene of a person sweeping a tabletop worth of breakables and easing the tension by hearing the sequential crash, or a macho wannabe clutching a glass so hard that it shatters to release ketchup (oops, I mean blood). Psychology has shown that the snipping sound (even more magnified when snipping tough) is extremely gratifying to a distressed mind. Distress for distress?

Frugality : Frugal consumers often see that if they can change the look of their jeans by simply distressing it, then why not? This explains the rise of DIY distress procedures, so readily available and so simplistic to undertake with the help of utensils like graters, knives and sandpaper! Combine this with the societal pressure of reusing and recycling, and you have a prefect value proposition for keeping the trend of distressed denim alive for centuries.

Unknown Pressure

As Oscar Wilde said, you can resist anything but temptation. And that which is unknown is, to some degree, very tempting.

Enigma: As the classic gossip phrase goes: “Love it, hate it, but you cannot ignore it.” Ever thought of what this “it” is, especially if no emotion can be attached to it? More than any other era, now is the time to question why distressed jeans are so much in vogue, after so much damage has been done to them. With so many answers, there still lies a gray area in the realm of conviction, which gives distressed denim its veil of mystery. Wrapped in such enigma, there is something severely sexy about their appeal, so much so that nobody can pin point the exact reason for their success. And that is what makes them all the more appealing.

Next Steps: More or Less Distress?

I have not fully accepted the hype behind jeans that are damaged beyond repair, and sometimes do sympathize with the DIY folks who turn their vintage into carcass. And then, I envy those who can carry it off with amazing grace and poise. It is a classic dilemma that many are in, perhaps waiting to see just how much more successful this phenomenon can get, and whether it will ever diminish with time. So, will it? And if so, what’s next?

jeansAs with all businesses, I believe that diversification, despite its many advantages, can be a plague. One issue that I have seen is that denim is no longer purely denim, but is often interwoven with the likes of lycra, nylon, or polyester, which factually reduce its durability. Jeans rest on the surface of durability, and to play with this core competency is a seemingly erroneous move. I do foresee this trend rising dramatically, as rivalrous designers churn out products to clamor for a finer niche in the densely segmented market, introducing jeans that relay different aesthetic feels. My feeling here is that designers should not stray too much from the crux of denim’s durability, unless it exponentially boosts marginal returns. Denim, as a fundamental foundation for all distress techniques, will remain unchanged.

The distress factor itself however, is probably not going to disappear. We may go through a less distressed phase, when whiskered and slightly faded jeans are in vogue, but the snips and cuts will soon creep back in. With the penchant of distress for looking simultaneously drab and alarmingly stylish, this fad has become a lovemark, and much beyond it, and will not languish for many, many years.

Recalling the juxtaposed phrase of “Denim is Dead” and “Long Live Denim“, tactfully placed in zones of undoing (button) and support(rivet), respectively, I realized how clever Topman is in engraving these onto their jeans.  In retrospect, this is a sattire of a proclamation using the same two phrases in synchrony, replacing ‘Denim’ with ‘The King’: “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”. Naturally, the Kings in this reference refer to the former deceased King, and the successive heir, respectively; the phrase itself is used after the selection of a new monarch. Topman, my favorite brand of London origins, could not have nailed the reality and the irony of distressed denim more aptly. In some eras, in some regions, denim may seem dead, but will actually just be reinventing itself, perhaps going through a patch of distress. Its reign shall never die out; denim will indeed live forever. It may just change its face from time to time, owing to various levels of distress.

Long Live Denim. With or Without Distress.

Picture Courtesy: The Sartorialist

About Sourabh:
sourabh Sourabh Sharma is  professionally a marketer, a strategist and an engineer, has worked in corporate arenas for cosmetics and consumer products, but has flexibly crossed paths with the fashion arena, both via work and through perpetual passion. He has worked with brands that sponsor fashion weeks worldwide, yet the inclination towards fashion has been more inevitable. With denim being his favorite conversation piece, it is only natural that he chooses to investigate denim throughout the tides of time, cutting through barriers of trends, culture and creativity. He runs the blog – Food, Fashion and Frameworks

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