Eighty years have passed since Levi’s launched its female version of the blue jean and denim is still at the cutting edge of fashion. This season it is having a catwalk moment, with designers interpreting the fabric in embellished jeans, shirts, jackets and dresses.
“I love jeans”, says Karl Lagerfeld, who devoted a generous section of the Chanel Métiers d’Art catwalk show in Texas in December to denim. “Today denim is the universal material. Fashion without jeans does not exist,” he says.
For his final Louis Vuitton collection Marc Jacobs overlaid classic boyfriend jeans with intricate jet beading; at Balmain ladylike jackets and skirts were reimagined in frayed and ripped denim; at Ashish jeans were drenched in sequins. Donatella Versace gave us double denim-clad Axl Rose groupies and Donna Karan played with boho indigo denim for her mainline collection and 1990s dungarees at DKNY. There were denim trouser suits at Acne, Western pin-ups at Alexis Mabille and girlish pastel-coloured denim at Isabel Marant.
Online sales of denim by major department stores in the UK and US have risen 14 per cent in the past three months compared with the same period last year, according to Editd, the retail analyst site, and it is forecasting sharper growth in the next quarter.
Vikki Kavanagh, women’s leisurewear buyer at Harvey Nichols, says tastes for denim are diversifying. “The biggest trend at the moment is for blue denim pieces such as dresses, jackets and dungarees,” she says, adding that Harvey Nichols has increased its buy of non-jeans denim by 30 per cent across international stores this spring. Oriole Cullen, acting senior fashion curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, thinks denim’s trans-seasonal quality explains its current popularity. “Designers are catering to markets around the world at any one time, so they increasingly need to create pieces that work everywhere,” she says.
Denim has had its moments in the fashion spotlight before: from Gloria Vanderbilt’s designer blue jeans of the 1970s and Brook Shields’ Calvins in the 1980s to Tom Ford’s feather-embellished denim for Gucci in the 1990s. Today, designers are once again challenging its democratic “everyman” status.
Lydia King, womenswear buying manager at Selfridges, the London store that last summer launched a 26,000 sq ft Denim Studio – the world’s biggest denim department – says customers are responding well to luxury designers working with the fabric. Take Junya Watanabe’s patchwork jeans (£535) which have been selling out since last season. King anticipates that, this spring, an indigo-dyed denim dress (£702) by Marios Schwab and a Givenchy denim bustier (£1,300) with matching ruffled skirt (£700) will be similarly coveted when they hit the shop floor later this month. She attributes the vogue for high-end denim to a change in the way women want to dress. “If the current fashion landscape were to be summed up by one idea, it would be the breaking of rules”, she says. This rebelliousness can be seen across other trends of the season: “The resurgence of sportswear and its acceptability as workwear, for example, or the fact that designer sweatshirts can now be worn as eveningwear,” says King.
Marc Jacobs, whose embellished Louis Vuitton jeans will sell from £1,090, recognises the power of putting denim in a new context: “We wanted to mix things up, masculine with feminine, sportswear with formal wear. We were customising things, making them chic.”
While many would balk at spending such a figure on a pair of jeans, King is confident that customers recognise the distinction between designer womenswear and branded denim. “The women who will embrace these pieces are fashion-literate,” she said. “They understand the nuances behind trends and are able, and happy, to pay accordingly.”
But shifting the status of fashion’s workhorse fabric may prove tricky in reality.
Louise Riordan, senior director at FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm, has some misgivings: “The best thing about a great pair of jeans or a denim shirt is that they are a staple you can wear with everything. The problem with luxe denim is how to wear it.”
Harvey Nichols’ Kavanagh says: “There will always be a market for the show looks … but the majority of our business will come from beautifully fitted skinny jeans that can be worn everyday, season after season.”