Jean Genies: The traditional denim elevates from street to chic

A raft of designers have turned back to the traditional blue jean for inspiration. Alexander Fury looks at denim's universal appeal

“The most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.” So said the late, great Yves Saint Laurent – a fashion designer famous enough to warrant two biopics this year. What garment – seemingly impossibly perfect, idealised even – was Saint Laurent talking about? The humble blue jean.

He isn't alone. For spring/summer 2014, a raft of designers have turned back to the traditional blue jean for inspiration, some cutting it raw and ragged, others twisting, patching, embroidering and bedazzling the fabric until both its surface and its price tag resemble the costliest of couture silk.

Marc Jacobs appliquéd it with Victorian jet and showed jeans under gossamer evening gowns for his swansong show for Louis Vuitton. Junya Watanabe showed distressed skirts as well as the patchwork styles he made a sell-out success for last winter. And Marios Schwab and Marques'Almeida both leapt into the fray and showed slashed and torn styles in London (a cliché, but the capital is the home of punk). "The frayed denim – it's almost like our logo," says Paulo Almeida, one half of the latter. "We've always got a denim jacket, but it's got a hint of the season," says Marta Marques.

The duality of approach – the co-existence of the raw and the rarefied – is important. "We're interested in the idea of contrasts and something a little more refined, a little more street; and that's the dialogue that we've always been interested in," says Lazaro Hernandez, who alongside Jack McCollough designs the New York-based Proenza Schouler label. "Girls ask us all the time, 'What do I wear this jacket with?' And if we say jeans, they say 'Do you guys make jeans?' And we're like, no, you'll have to get them from Levis or something. So why don't we make our own jeans?"

That was the thought process that motivated the 2012 launch of Proenza Schouler's own denim collection. It followed a 2011 collaboration with denim specialists J Brand, who have also worked with designers including Erdem, Meadham Kirchhoff and Christopher Kane (a collaboration with Simone Rocha is on the cards for later this year).

Despite the fabric's French origins – the word denim is a contraction of the fabric's original moniker, serge de Nîmes, after the French town where it was originally manufactured – denim has always been a low-cost, low-fi work-wear fabric. Serge de Nîmes was crafted into jeans – or rather, Gênes, named after the Genoese sailors who first wore the loose trousers. The trousers could be worn wet or dry, and easily hauled up when swabbing the decks.

Fashion's elevation of denim, and the jean, from street to chic was relatively recent. First of all, jeans got cool, courtesy of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the Fifties, and cinematic idols are wont to be emulated the world over. Marilyn Monroe donned jeans for her role in River of No Return in 1954, forging an iconic image of female sexuality that sent women flocking to buy Levis as casualwear.

Despite their ubiquity in pop culture, it wasn't until Calvin Klein in the Seventies that any designer thought to stamp a designer name on denim. Klein did – tweaking the cut to give his jeans a sexiness synonymous with his brand, inspired by the hedonistic clubbers of his favourite haunt, the New York nightclub Studio 54. In 1978, when Klein's jeans – or, simply, Calvins, as they later became known via a provocative ad starring Brooke Shields – hit the market, they sold 200,000 pairs in their first week

Klein, of course, made millions – as did legions of designer imitators. By the Eighties, every label from Armani to Versace had its own line of denim. Even avant-garde labels got in on the act: Vivienne Westwood created denims to sit alongside her main collection, printed with giant polka dots or baroque cherubs. It also became synonymous with Jean Paul Gaultier, who launched a line cleverly titled "Jeans Paul Gaultier" to capitalise on the appeal.

When Gaultier launched the haute couture division of his fashion label, Gaultier Paris, in January 1997, denim was a key part. "A long denim coat, all denim coat with black jet," says Gaultier of the first denim look he showed. "Then with feather… already three or four outfits of denim in my first couture, which is a lot for denim out of 50 outfits!" A selection of those denim looks is on display as part of his forthcoming retrospective at London's Barbican.

Gaultier's haute couture Lesage-embroidered serge de Nîmes is an extreme example of a penchant for deluxe denim, but others are getting in on the act. Donatella Versace's spring show was inspired by "the girl on the street", and offered cut-out and embroidered skinny jeans, while Olivier Rousteing's Balmain collections have featured high-octane denim from his first season. This season, a more casual streetwear mood was underlined by the fabric being cut into roomy bomber jackets, slouchy sweatshirts and salopettes (fashion talk for dungarees). By contrast, the idea of anodyne designer denim – of banging your label on a bland pair of blue jeans to make a billion – is over.

"That market's done. It's not innovative," concurs Lydia King, buying manager for women's contemporary at Selfridges. She would know: in June 2013, Selfridges' London store opened a 26,000sq ft "Denim Studio", devoted to every conceivable 21st-century incarnation of the stuff. Its inventory of more than 11,000 denim items – from £11 to £11,000, included specially designed pieces by JW Anderson and Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci. Speaking of her customers, King states, "When it's a designer denim piece, they're going for something special – but I think that's driven by the designers. I don't think designers, when they're experimenting with denim, want to do something boring and functional."

Yet, at the same time, there's an eternal, universal approachability to denim that appeals to both designers and consumers. "It's more a mood and an attitude," says Lydia King. "It really appeals for that non-effort fashion look – Emanuelle Alt [the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris] just wearing her jeans with a blazer. "We think it's time for us to do something more democratic," reasons Lazaro Hernandez. And hard-wearing, work-wearing denim is nothing if not democratic.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

    Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

    £40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

    Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent