Once the roughly hewn uniform of cowboys, the appetite for premium denim shows no signs of abating, says Rebecca Gonsalves
A pair of jeans has long been one of the great equalisers of the Western world, worn by rock stars, Hollywood A-listers and regular folk alike. But now that a premium pair leaves your wallet a few hundred pounds lighter, why hasn't the bottom fallen out of the market?
It all began in the Fifties. After a century cladding the legs of cowboys, denim was embraced by the teenagers emerging in post-war America. Marlon Brando's rebellious turn, sporting jeans and a leather jacket, in The Wild One, spurred them on and remains a defining image of that era.
By the late Seventies, jeans had passed from subversive to standard attire and were likely to fit into certain criteria: denim was blue – possibly stonewashed if the wearer considered themselves trendy – and not particularly well-fitted or flattering; and, above all, American-made and inexpensive. In the early Eighties, designer denim courtesy of Calvin Klein, Guess and Gloria Vanderbilt elevated jeans to a status symbol, though a relatively affordable one at that.
While the comparatively refined fabric we know as denim today is a world away from the rough utilitarian cloth of 60 years ago, some things never change and our dependence on jeans continues to grow as retailers report a seemingly insatiable appetite for premium jeans with a premium price tag to match. Although a steady stream of new names launches on to the market every season, there are still a few that hold the top spots. Hudson, J Brand and Current/Elliott have successfully bridged the gap between fashion, comfort and utility.
Founded in 2002 by Los Angeles native Peter Kim, Hudson aims to blend Cool Britannia with the free spirit of LA – and the cachet of celebrity fans and a campaign fronted by Georgia May Jagger. "We believe that when you look good, you feel good," Kim says. "And when you feel good, you can do and be anything you want."
"Hudson was born in the early years of Californian premium denim," explains Ben Taverniti, the brand's creative director. "Denim had been around for quite some time but premium denim was very new at that time. When designing, our golden rule is 'fit, fit, fit'. Perfect fit can only be achieved when design, production and, most importantly, love are combined with a highly trained group of individuals who are passionate about what they do."
If for such a practical product this approach seems rather esoteric, it has at least resulted in a brand renowned for quality: "Fit, flattering cut, longevity and fashion are all important when creating the perfect pair of jeans – quality and comfort as well as the right fashion."
Although boyfriend-fit, skinny and straight styles in blue and black denim are the workhorses of these brands' collections, it is the fashion-forward and more frivolous styles that help to cement their place at the top. For Hudson, the Leeloo, available in a range of colours with a contrasting tuxedo stripe down the side, is a prime example of a trend-led take on a classic product.
"This year has seen our contemporary-denim business grow rapidly," says Gary Edgley, buying manager for women's contemporary- and casualwear at Selfridges. "Over the past few seasons, it's been really interesting to see the shift in popularity of different aesthetics. Denim is one of those categories which can be really indicative of the wider fashion market. There was this huge boom in 'it-jeans' which were focused on print or even which were more pants than jeans – think J Brand's Houlihan [a skinny-fit cargo pant that became the 'it-trouser' of 2010]. Now, it's much more about a return to true denim."
When jeans are a staple of casual, office and evening attire, there are shopper who feel a £200-plus price tag can be justified. Those who subscribe to the cost-per-wear school of shopping would see the benefit of investing in longevity through quality. Edgley agrees: "With premium denim in particular, which inevitably is seen much more as an investment, the most important thing is always fit – closely followed by fabric quality and longevity. It's so important for jeans to retain their shape and not loosen over time, which is one of the most common problems with cheap denim."
Whether patterned or plain, American brands retain something of an advantage in the market. "The majority of our bestselling brands are LA-based at the moment, and have been for some time," Edgley confirms. One of the newest lines picked up by the department store is Koral Los Angeles – a project led by Peter Koral, the man credited with starting the tidal wave of LA labels when he co-founded 7 For All Mankind in 2000. Seven years later, he sold it for a reported $775m, so understands the market potential. According to Edgley, the selling point of Koral's new line is the quality of the fabrics and a variation of washes that ranges from raw denim to "36 months", which is hand-processed to resemble the natural wear of a three-year-old pair of jeans.
Mother is another label with roots in 7 For All Mankind – co-founder Tim Kaeding cut his teeth there before teaming up with a former rival, Lela Tillem Becker, two years ago. "With our rich past in denim, we were looking for an outlet to expand on some of the ideas and inspirations that weren't always appropriate in the past," the pair say. "Mother is our vehicle for exploring more fantastic ideas without the constraints of corporate direction. We don't conform to any ethos or archetypes of 'premium denim'; we're free to be as creative as possible."
Almost 60 years after Brando starred in The Wild One, a celebrity sporting a certain style is still enough to send pairs flying off the shelves, though nowadays it is more often a star off duty. With the lure of dressing like an A-lister every day, no wonder premium denim is going stratospheric.
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