Denim: A Transatlantic Journey
Today, jeans are a global symbol - garments with equal appeal across class lines, and across borders. From the legs of ranchers to rock stars and vintage collectors to designer devotees, no other piece of clothing is as ubiquitous or as universally cool as a good pair of jeans. But the journey of fabric that’s come to represent American spirit and innovation actually started centuries ago in its birthplaces of Nîmes, France (the word “denim” is thought to have evolved from “de Nîmes”), and Genoa, Italy. Only around the turn of the 20th century did jeans catch on in the United States - in large part due to a scrappy dry goods entrepreneur from the Old World, and an imaginative tailor who’d change fashion forever.
Ripped Jeans, Bellbottoms, and Acid Wash: Denim Trends Through The 1900′s
Ripped jeans are a celebrity style staple now, but Levi Strauss’ first pants were designed to take a beating. Around the same time that the Bavarian-born textile merchant was experimenting with more durable fabrics for hard-working California gold miners, Nevada tailor Jacob Davis was inventing the rivet - a tiny piece of metal that reinforced pants pockets at the corners, and that would earn the two men their place in history. Strauss and Davis patented the original Levi’s 501 design in 1873, and modern men’s jeans, with their blue collar street cred, were born.
It didn’t take long for blue jeans to transcend their humble beginnings; John Wayne, with his easy masculinity and screen presence, was the first star to make men’s jeans a coveted fashion item. While he wouldn’t be the last, in 1939 World War II broke out - and with it came another international turn in the saga of denim.
The six years to follow were full of tragedy, but also opportunity, as American women began entering the workforce en masse. While US troops overseas first exposed Japanese nationals to blue jeans, American women making weapons and other supplies adopted the same tough-as-nails clothing as their male counterparts. Women’s jeanssoared in popularity - a symbol of women’s labor and resilience during the war - on the front of The Saturday Evening Post.
In the 1950′s, big screen bad boys like James Dean and Marlon Brando turned denim from the hero’s uniform to that of the anti-hero; Rebel Without a Cause was even shot in color to showcase Dean’s custom dip-dyed Lee 101′s and iconic red moto jacket. Japanese entrepreneurs who’d learned of jeans during the war saw a major opportunity in rebel culture, flocking to import them for resale and design inspiration - and brands like Big John, with its North Carolina bought fabric and obsessive attention to authentic “American” detail, marked the beginning of Kojima and the Okayama Prefecture’s rise to worldwide denim domination.
Not far behind rebel culture came hippie culture, with its anti-capitalist ideals and well-worn aesthetics. This shift was a boon to the secondhand denim market, as rock stars and everyday people began embracing ripped jeans, patchwork details, and other features unique to pre-owned pieces; today, Levi’s “big E” jeans often sell for thousands of dollars on the vintage market. The hippie look lasted into the 1970′s, before the resurgence of a more polished, disco-ready style helmed by designers like Gloria Vanderbilt and Sergio Valenti, Calvin Klein and Jordache’s high waisted jeans in the 1980′s, and the 1990′s hip-hop driven trend mastered by Tommy Hilfiger and Marithé & François Girbaud.
Black Jeans, Blue Skies: Bringing Denim Back to the American West
From skinny-punk inspired black jeans to perfectly bleached blue joggers, much of modern denim design is owed to “Godfather of Denim” Adriano Goldschmied. Like Strauss’ fabric and Davis’ rivets a century earlier, all the Italian expat needed was the right combination - in his case, stone-washing and stretch fabric - to revolutionize the apparel industry as a whole. And Goldschmied didn’t stop at improving the comfort and fit of jeans; his whiskering, honeycombing, hand-sanding and other methods of embellishment influenced a generation of designers seeking similarly distressed looks. His 20-year presence in Los Angeles also ushered in a new way of American denim manufacturing; in an era when most companies use overseas factories and cheap materials to keep up with the demands of fast fashion, Goldschmied has inspired young brands like DSTLD to make our jeans with love and care on US soil.
Denim may have started across the Atlantic Ocean, but today its legacy spans across the Pacific, with competition in the premium market coming largely from Japan. DSTLD borrows from the best of Eastern and Western denim making conventions, using ring-spun and selvedge denim from traditional shuttle looms to make jeans worthy of putting on in the morning - and of their incredible, cross-continental history.
Words by Nora Whelan