The Hub fashion trade show wrapped up last week, having successfully introduced new and varied niche brands to Hong Kong. While the event showcased mostly premium and luxury menswear brands, what stood out most was the large number of denim labels.
It's been 140 years since Levi's gave the world the first five-pocket pair of blue jeans - the fabled 501 - and since then denim has been the fabric of choice for everyone from farmers to miners, the common man to aristocracy and punks, rockers, rappers and hipsters.
In Hong Kong the denim market follows extremes: high-end luxury labels at the top, cheap alternatives at the bottom. In the past two years the casual-wear sector has grown with the entrance of retailers including Gap, H&M and Abercrombie. But the most rapid growth, albeit from a smaller base, has been premium denim from small independent producers, especially from Japan.
Japanese designer Hidehiko Yamane is as close to a cult figure in denim as you can get. He started a slow-burning global trend for Japanese denim when he established Evisu in 1991. Some denim in Japan is particularly sought after because it uses traditional American shuttle looms. In the '50s and '60s, denim manufacturers in the US switched to more industrial projectile looms to keep pace with increasing demand. Most of the old looms were mothballed until small Japanese companies such as Evisu saw the potential and brought the machines to Japan.
The difference between denim made on the old-style loom and the new projectile is obvious. Very simply, old-style looms create denim with clean, tightly bound edges, what's known as selvedge denim, while the new projectile looms have given us denim with more frayed and loose edges which is likely to wear a lot faster.
Yamane, who now designs denim under his new eponymous brand, speaks through his interpreter and general manager Yuji Yosumi. He believes that people today are more interested in details and quality. "Cleaning and washing," says Yosumi, repeating Yamane's mantra that jeans should be about the way the indigo colour is revealed with washing and the way that colour fades over time. Yamane's denim obsession has spread to a lifestyle collection that includes shoes and bags, illustrating the way the fabric has become more widely used in fashion.
Dutch brand Blue Blood also exhibited at The Hub, and Morena Ferrier, the brand's marketing and communications associate, was surprised by the positive response. "Consumers are open to new things; they are looking for something different, something authentic," says Ferrier.
Blue Blood wad started in Amsterdam in 2002 by two friends who couldn't find expertly made, high-quality indigo jeans. "We are called Blue Blood as we say there is indigo coursing through our veins. And there are people like us, denim experts, everywhere. In Holland and around the world, there are these experts and the number's growing," says Ferrier.
Hong Kong/Japanese brand Washi and Hiut Denim from Britain are two brands that did not show at The Hub this year but have found a receptive market worldwide for their authentically made jeans. Washi was founded in 2012 by Hiroyuki Yoshikawa. "I've been living in Hong Kong for 23 years, it is my home, but I couldn't find good quality denim here. That's one reason why I started Washi. The denim is 100 per cent Japanese made, so, unlike Chinese denim or denim from other places, the indigo fades in a very beautiful way."
British brand Hiut Denim has built its business around catering to consumers looking for authenticity and difference in all aspects of their life and not just denim. "We live in a world that is the same. That conformity, that uniformity, there is a growing zeitgeist away from that," says David Hieatt, co-founder of Hiut Denim. "We had all that distressed stuff and I think it reflected a time that was a bit shallow. The jeans we make are not distressed, they are not fake, and thus represent a time that is more authentic.
"It's not for everyone, but the discoverers and early adopters are saying: 'I don't want to be the same as everyone else,'" says Hieatt.
"There's a geekiness to [denim]. There is selvedge denim, there is hand-dipped denim, there's denim made with indigo, there is denim made with fake indigo. There's lots of nuances with denim and that leads to the geek coming out," says Hieatt, adding that the trend for specialist denim has been helped by people wanting to "buy less but buy better" for environmental as well as monetary reasons.
Mainstream denim is also adapting more than ever. Invista, one of the world's largest fibre companies and the inventors of Lycra, has been busy creating denim fabrics that meet the increasingly varied demands of consumers. "We meet with brands to understand what they are looking for, but we also do market surveys and interview consumers to find out what they want," says Julian Born, Invista apparel's Lycra fibre commercial director for Asia Pacific.
Invista was due to exhibit its new denim products at the Kingpins fashion and textiles show in Hong Kong that was cancelled a few weeks ago because of Typhoon Utor. Undeterred, Born is looking to get the word out to garment manufacturers and brands about the new fabrics Invista has created and how it can change the market. "With skinny jeans it was a trend developed by the market, but through our innovation we were able to produce fabrics that added 30, 40 sometimes 50 per cent more stretch into denim jeans without compromising on quality or style. We enabled more designers and brands to more effectively realise their designs and create products that are comfortable and fit better."
Invista has created several denim technologies that it believes will have as big an impact on the garment industry as Lycra did, and companies such as Diesel, 7 For All Mankind, Levi's and Guess are working with Invista on future products. "We created ToughMax Lycra denim that gives stretch recovery power without compromising the strength and durability of the denim." ToughMax has already been adopted by rugged jeans maker Wrangler. Coolmax technology is another development. This allows perspiration to be more effectively removed from the body, ideal for humid climates such as Hong Kong's. firstname.lastname@example.org