Since the start of the pandemic, soothsayers have been insisting that the end—for denim—is nigh. That people are moving away towards other forms of comfort wear. But then, they should know it’s not without reason that denim has ruled. It’s tough, it survives, and it evolves.

Many things happened simultaneously as the pandemic started spreading in early 2020, with lockdowns being clamped down in one country after another. Each cog in the supply chain was affected, and in turn had repercussions on links both up and down the line. First, shops were closed, factories were shut, transportation was halted, trade came to a standstill, and people stayed indoors. Then each of these had deleterious cascading effects on others in ways still being studied.

As the shape and form of daily activity itself changed, so did buying trends and dressing habits. At least for the period of the lockdowns. People bought what needed to be worn indoors, and all purchasing plans for outdoor apparel were put back on the shelves. Denim was an obvious casualty, as also were other apparel categories like formalwear, ethnic wear, luxury wear.

With some semblance of normalcy returning in quite a few countries, denim could well be back in favour, findings from a survey by KRC Research in the US suggested. The findings pointed towards a new “business casual” that is slowing coming up. An overwhelming majority of office workers (84 per cent) said a wardrobe refresh was in order. These consumers planned to spend $445 on new clothes, with more than 8 in10 (82 per cent) saying that they would buy new jeans in the next 12 months, many

of whom planned to wear jeans more frequently when they return to the office. The reasons: their current jeans were old or worn-out (45 per cent), no longer fit (32 per cent) or felt buying new jeans would brighten their mood (34 per cent). Though the survey had been commissioned by Kontoor Brands, the parent company of Wrangler and Lee, there is nothing out there that refutes the numbers. And, this could be true in many countries.

So, What happened to industry meanwhile?

With economic activity almost groaning to a rest, trade events began to be called off. Some organisers—with evident foresight—deferred or scrapped events months ahead; others—failing to see it coming—dithered till the last moment and had to call off eventually. With the situation much better now a year and half into the pandemic, albeit in regulated environments, trade events are just beginning to make a comeback. But in physical forms, with travel still being a party-pooper.

One such dual event is slated for the end of next month (August 31): Blue zone and Munich Fabric Start (MFS). It’s the first which is of primary interest here—it’s labelled ‘the international denim trade show’; it will be the first to reflect what has changed indeed, and how things will now play out.

There are obvious questions that linger on in one’s mind. How much did the covid-19 pandemic affect the denim business worldwide? Who were the most affected: the brands or manufacturers?

Sebastian Kinder, managing director of the MFS platform, is a good person to put things in perspective: “The effects on brands and manufacturers can’t be seen separately. Like the overall model of the fashion industry, if brands weren’t able to sell their collections, some of them cancelled their existing orders or minimised their orders for their following collections which in turn affected the manufacturers massively. The pandemic also changed society a lot—which also affected the denim industry.

Numerous new movements and strong values have emerged. Just as an example, the inclusivity movement. The denim industry is paying more and more attention to ordering and producing larger sizes, adaptive jeans and in genderless styles.”

The pandemic affected MFS considerably. “Hoping, negotiating and adapting flexibly to the changing circumstances and then in the end having to cancel multiple of our shows has been very tough. But this is why we really can’t wait to reunite the industry again at Blue zone. We also used this time to develop new projects—for example the Blue zone living page blue zone. Show that showcases unique content and the most important industry information for all denim lovers.”

Some numbers to this end come from an industry report by Fact.MR. Santosh Kumar, a senior research consultant at the agency, says: “The global sales of jeans nosedived due to numerous factors such as prolonged lockdowns, supply chain disruption and manufacturing plants shutting down. Demand saw a decline of 4.5 per cent in 2020 as compared to 2019. The demand was mostly impacted in first two quarters of the year, and a significant leap was observed in Q4 of 2020. The US, Netherlands, Bangladesh and Vietnam were the denim manufacturing countries most affected. While production in the US fell by 7 per cent, in the Netherlands, Bangladesh and Vietnam it fell by 5 per cent, 3 per cent and 2 per cent respectively in 2020 with respect to 2019.”

The “leap” observed in this study is quite in sync with the plans for denims in the KRC survey.

What can change with the ‘new normal’?

The reverses suffered by denim during the pandemic arenot unique to the segment; that the entire industry was brought down to itsknees have been well documented and done to death. What is of interest, andgreat import, is how experts from across areas in this segment look at the daysahead.

The industry can be looked at through many prisms, one of them being sourcing. There are two important factors, from the perspective of both fabric and apparel sourcing. First, the China factor. Second, obviously the pandemic itself. Would the two (fabric vs apparel) be affected differently?

Says Kinder: “Regarding the China factor, we have the feeling that for now China remains one of the important sourcing areas for fabric and apparel sourcing. However, as we are currently witnessing, production costs in China have been increasing over the past years. Therefore, we are seeing a trend in companies, who are diversifying their sourcing activities to other Asian and European countries. Then, the pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, also in terms of sourcing. Due to stringent travel restrictions and quarantine requirements imposed by governments, this affects Asian suppliers who cannot travel abroad to meet partners or join trade fairs in Europe or elsewhere.”

The MFS sourcing expert Eddy Wong expects that on the one hand Asian suppliers may focus more on their local markets, while they are also trying to expand their reach to overseas potential buyers via e-business or with the help of industry agents. On the other hand, underlines Kinder, “we can also see that European manufacturers are taking this chance to show off their power in the sourcing market, as they can visit European brands and now exhibit at the textile trade shows being held in Europe in the next few months. It’s no wonder then that at our upcoming Munich Fabric Start and Blue zone shows, we are welcoming numerous quality sourcing exhibitors from Portugal, Greece, Italy, Turkey and Romania as well as local agents representing our Asian exhibitors.”

The other prism is that of fibres. Some expect a shakeup in terms of fibres— traditional cotton vs alternatives like hemp. If that were to happen at all, who would be driving this change? Will brands and manufacturers do this? Or will the demand for change come from end-users?

Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lensing Fibres, argues, “For the past several years, there have been more multi-fibre blends used in denim to achieve an aesthetic and lower environmental impact. The modern definition of denim is not about one look, one style or even one fibre. There is a diverse mix of fibres with each having its own purpose.

The mills are a key force towards innovation in the denim industry, which is quite different from other segments. The investment in developments from spinning, weaving, finishing and even marketing by the denim mills is a key factor driving the change. Now, consumers are asking more questions about who makes their garments and how they are made. We are all part of building back better.”

Today, a significant chunk of denims is from elastane / MMF / regenerated cellulosic fibres. There is one role that brands/manufacturers play, but design is a different ballgame altogether. If denim were not to be the traditional cotton-driven segment, how would this affect the design process? Will design be increasingly dictated by demands of the market (in terms of fibres/fabrics)?

Franco-German fashion designer Tilman Wrobel, who has seen it all having been associated with a range of brands from Adidas Originals and Lee Cooper Brands to even MFS/Blue zone, puts down an emphatic: “Yes, it will.” He goes on to add: “The fashion forward brands that I work for—they’d rather skip a design or a fibre, if these are not sustainable. Some brands do rigid denim because of sustainability points—not because of the look. But Canadian’s CureVac might be a gamechanger.”

[CureVac is an innovative technology developed and patented by Candi ani Denim that uses a plant-based yarn obtained from natural rubber to replace synthetic, petrol-based yarns. Made from organic cotton wrapped around a natural rubber core, the result is a yarn that is completely plastic-free. By replacing conventional synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with a new, custom-engineered component, Candi ani has created an innovative biodegradable stretch denim fabric – without compromising the elasticity, physical qualities, and durability of jeans.]

Meanwhile, at leading industry event Kingspin24 Australia in the last week of June, Carey spoke about ‘Colour-Collaboration-Circularity-Carbon’. “As the issues of society, fashion, and the denim industry have risen to the surface, we look at how we are part of the change which needs to happen. The four topics—colour, collaboration, circularity and carbon—are areas of focus for Tencel Denim.

“Starting with colour, we launched our Tencel Modal with Indigo Colour technology on February 23 at Kingpins New York. With this product we incorporate indigo pigment into the fibre production process with significant resource savings of water, chemical, and energy.

“Collaboration is at the core of everything we do as an ingredient fibre for denim. We are highlighting our Bast Recast concept capsule with Naveen a Denim Ltd, End rime, Jean logia and other partners. This capsule takes inspiration from vintage garments and interprets in blends with Tencel Lyocell and hemp. End rime designed and produced the garments which Jean logia finished using laser and ozone technology.

“With 50 million tonnes of textile and apparel waste discarded annually, we are approaching design and end of use with a new perspective. Tencel Lyocell with Refire technology upcycles cotton waste into a new fibre which is soft, strong and addresses the waste factor.

“Climate Action is SDG #13 which is likely to be one of the greatest challenges we have to tackle across not only the apparel industry, but all sectors. Lensing’s contribution to lowering the carbon footprint is True Carbon Zero Tencel lyocell and modal fibres. Through reduction, engagement and offsets, we are able to produce the first certified carbon neutral fibre.”

The ‘Tussle’ of athleisure vs denim

Fair enough, one might say. But that would take one backto where one started: the point about what people wear. With athleisure andcomfort wear reportedly being the apparel of choice during the pandemicvirtually across the world, how has workwear of the tough and rough denimfared? Would the industry see denim repurposing itself in a post-pandemicworld?

 Frank Junker, creative director at MFS, has this to say: “There has been an obvious increase in the need for comfortable apparel, leisurewear and athleisure, but just as much there has been a rise in demand for tough, durable denim in general.

With outdoor activities and DIY projects being the number one leisure-time activity over the last several months, the latest search figures underline that workwear denim has been highly requested. Just think about oversized shirts and straight, rough fits in new grey, muddy green or brown tones being the must-haves of the moment. People are searching for denim all-rounders in different shapes fitting to all kinds of bodies—and can be worn in the office, on after work walks or even hikes, to wear on the bike but also in the restaurant.

“Our denim trend expert Wrobel also mentioned that the word ‘athleisure’ seems a bit outdated now. Of course, the demand for very comfortable bottoms with a high elasticity will go on, while the actual looks and designs might evolve. In the upcoming season, he is expecting these comfy fabrics to be adapted to suit more of the demands of gamers, also in an aesthetic inspired by their worlds, as well as a new generation of low-rise party bottoms inspired by the 1920s formal looks.”

Carey weighs in for denim: “While consumer apparel habits have changed over the past year, denim is a tried-and-true staple. Silhouettes, finishes, fabric and fibre choices will adapt to the consumer demands of comfortable and casual looks. Denim will address the hybrid lifestyle and not just for jeans, but also in truckers, shirts, and dresses. We want to shed the clothes worn during the months of lockdowns and restrictions. As we return to offices, events, and travel we are changing our attitude towards our style which expresses the current hope and optimism.”

Then, there is the subject of trends in terms of styles, fabrics and washes. Junker goes on to explain the scenario: “Right now, denim is in the process of reinventing itself. We see more diverse styles than ever before, also in terms of sustainability—the denim industry really surprises with non-stop innovations. Just think about vegan trims, hemp as the new sustainable super-textile, production processes using no water at all and completely compostable denim!

“Theresa Walter, who curates and manages the exhibitor portfolio at Blue zone, highlights the importance of loose fit, rigid denims—which are thoroughly more sustainable since these styles are produced from 100 per cent cotton without added materials like polyester or stretch and can therefore be easily recycled. Denim specialist and trend expert Wrobel, on the other hand, underlines that a huge wave of euphoria will conclude in a strong focus on body moulded fits just as much as we will see a comeback for low-rise jeans and skinny fits.”

When asked, Wrobel himself goes far beyond—where no man has gone before: “My team and I have been participating in a contest of the Mars Society (an American worldwide volunteer-driven space-advocacy non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars).

In it, we detailed in terms of design, function and ingredients—how we see denim being a mandatory and ‘human’ fabric in the workwear of space-workers and astronauts in the future on Moon and Mars bases. Well, the contest was mainly about architecture, and so we didn’t make it into the finals. But yes, I definitely see a future of functional workwear with indigo pigments maybe not on cotton-based fabrics, but with the natural pigment usage ingredient.”

Sustainability will be on top of the mind

The keywords, through another prism, remain sustainability and circularity. In this too, the denim market is not all that different from the textiles-apparel-fashion industry as a whole. But the pressure on denim to be sustainable, while maintaining circularity in its processes, is immense.

A name that has led by example on this count is Nudie Jeans, a denim brand founded in 2001 by Maria Erixon. Nudie Jeans is based in Gothenburg, Sweden, and it is reckoned to be one of the most transparent brands in the world, for the way it works and presents itself.

The ethics and operations of Nudie Jeans are widely referred to as templates to go by. Sustainability manager Sandia Lang dwells on the brand’s evolution: “The statement of becoming the most transparent brand was not there when the company began 20 years ago, but has developed as we have learnt more and more about our supply chain.” Nevertheless, there is still scope for improvement. “There are several areas we need to focus on and get work done. Biodiversity is one; social dialogue, gender issues and increased recycled fibres are others. Within sustainability there are so many areas of interest, and we have worked a lot with both social and environmental issues for so long and we have come far. But it is also a work that never ends, so we can always become better.”

Lang explains how this has to plug away: “We think we have built a good structure and base for our transparency work with the public online list of suppliers, the production guide to see the supply chain per product category, and then the transparency at the product level. With that structure we can add on many more KPIs if we want to—social and environmental—starting with launching of CO2 emission and water use per product data later this year. But we want to keep to things that matter and are understandable to the consumer. So, it will not be an information overload, and not be transparent for the sake of it.”

In more ways than one, Nudie Jeans has been a trendsetter, and Lang agrees that the brand’s transparency quotient is the trend that has caught on the most. “Our work with paying our share of living wages, and our repair-and-reuse concept in our stores are areas where we have been pioneers and where we can see that others have followed. We have a lot of dialogue and collaborations with other brands sourcing from the same suppliers and we can see that many want to hear how we manage to work with living wages, increased transparency or our reuse concept. What we are mostly known for or appreciated for is probably that we rather do first and talk later.

“For our manufacturers—many of them appreciate what we do and that we are trying to do business in a better way, and sometimes they use us to promote themselves to other potential clients. For end users, I believe that they appreciate the high quality we have in everything we do—from the products (point of view) of course, but also for the customer service and our sustainability work. It would be great if we could inspire customers to adjust to more slow fashion and prolonging the life of the garments they buy, not only from us but also from other brands too.”

But are brands still to make that big jump into sustainable materials? Right now, many brands seem to have one or two sustainable lines (insinuating that the rest of the lines are unsustainable). In fact, denim expert Christine Ricci remarked in an interview last year: “Other challenges are convincing a client or brand to use sustainable materials. Often, they only care about margin and the bottom line and will opt for cheap raw materials, which never produce the right look.”

This is what Ricci has to add to that remark: “I feel mill and fibre companies have made great efforts to pivot towards more sustainable initiatives, but again when you speak frankly to them, the first thing the brands/customers are looking for is cheap prices.

Imagine if all a denim mill produced was a small selection of all sustainable products and only offering these options, the volume would go up and the price would come down. I feel the same way about single-use plastic which is a far worse pollutant in the denim and fashion industry at every level of the supply chain. Bioplastics, also known as bio-based plastics, are plastics that aren’t made from the usual Earth-polluting materials. In recent years, scientists have discovered that sugar from plants can be broken down into molecules that can link together to form plastics, reducing our dependence on oil and the carbon footprint that comes along with it. Bio-compostable bioplastic bags are made from by-products of the agriculture industry, and this can include cotton.”

And, Ricci does not mince words as she pins it down to the bottom line: “I have been writing about this for over three years and the bags will degrade in less than a month. Again, cost seems to be the factor when sourcing sustainable eco-friendly raw materials. Brands use marketing with little green leaves for one or two styles, while still offering a huge selection of non-sustainable products. Denim brands have a serious responsibility to drive this process towards full sustainability by 2030. Again, look at the “organic” food industry and where now organic food is priced better than non-organics. It’s unrealistic to say don’t buy any new clothes, then what... the whole industry folds up. Rather, sustainable, transparent and cooperative circularity is the only way to go.

I have said that mills and factories need to “drive the boat” and in doing so help the planet and satisfy their customers. Less is more and the bottom line is sustainability must be the bottom line. The money spent marketing the idea can be better spent in actual sustainable initiatives.” That’s not to say there haven’t been improvements. Nesli an Sable Under, sustainability specialist at Rota, looks at what has changed and what has not. “I am relatively new to the denim world but have been working on sustainability for over 10 years now. I have witnessed a great increase in greenwashing which is mainly caused by lack of standardisation and control.

On denim specifically, besides greenwashing I have been seeing increasing pressure   coming from brands and retailers on emissions and energy-water use as well as the use of alternative fibres. Some of these are set as very aggressive targets without solid grounds which puts the denim supply chain under more pressure. The sector has been working to solve the issue with excessive water and chemical usage in production as well as the issues related to unsustainable cotton practices for many years now.

“Some traditional solutions on water and energy are in progress through the denim supply chain and we will see some good results in the coming years. But other solutions that work on bio-technology or circularity, for example, unfortunately stay at the R&D stage or lab stage or do not reach the consumers—because the sector wants to use the newest innovative solution as it launches on a large scale and that really doesn’t give these projects enough space and time to grow. And I think this really inhibits the creative stage of the start-ups and innovators.”

Meanwhile, designers too have a role to play here as Wrobel points out: “It’s fun to observe how great designers embrace the new culture of sustainability and for years work with circularity targets in their minds. It should be understood that sustainability and circularity are not a trend, but an important ingredient of more or less trend-related denims in terms of design.”

The issue of recycling will be crucial

There is one element within the sustainability/circularity approaches that is of great import: recycling. In a contributory chapter titled ‘Understanding Denim Recycling: A Quantitative Study with Lifecycle Assessment Methodology’ for the open-access peer-reviewed book Waste in Textile and Leather Sectors last year, Under and three other researchers had explored the subject of recycling technologies potentially representing a new way to engineer products. One of the major points argued was this: “Especially for water and land use, fibre growth stage has more than 90 per cent impact on the overall score. Fifty per cent recycled cotton use decreases both impacts by 50 per cent.

Therefore, it is better to use recycled content to decrease the environmental impact of water and land use mainly.” Questions galore, therefore, would gush forth: how much of recycled content are we seeing today in percentage terms?

How easy/difficult is it to implement the technology that can deliver this? What is feasible/practical: should manufacturers do the recycling themselves, or should it be done specifically by recycling companies?

Under explains this to a T: “Today, we see examples of recycled fibre usage in the wide range of 5–100 per cent in denim. But here this recycled content could both pre and post-consumer recycled and also made from cotton, polyester or a mixture of bio-based solutions as well. So, there is a wide range of recycled solutions in the denim world in terms of recycled fibres. The question of how easy/difficult to implement these solutions into your product depends on the recycling technology—hence, the quality of the recycled fibre. For recycled cotton, the majority in the market is made via mechanical processes, where production wastes such as cuttings or the post-consumer garments are cut into smaller pieces and then made to go through shredding and tearing steps where the fibre lengths are shortened significantly. This also causes a weakening of the fibre strength.

“It becomes a challenge for spinners to use recycled cotton. To increase yarn strength, we need to mix it with virgin but also high-quality fibre. This way we can achieve better efficiencies in the following production steps such as dyeing, weaving and finishing as well. From our experience, we saw that after spinning, a good dyeing, weaving and finishing performance can still be achieved with fine adjustments while using recycled cotton in production. Another point here is to also achieve a good efficiency at the spinning stage—meaning nominal breakages, low waste production, optimum virgin fibre and energy usage, etc. Because we do not want to lose on other parameters while incorporating a good thing which is recycled cotton into our products. That is why we believe there needs to be a balance when we process such fibres into the production. Moreover, this requires a good design and well-established communication between production units.”

The argument that Under makes is that producing recycled fibre should be done by recycling companies because it is a whole another specialty and process. “It is a waste management business in which you need to abide by different rules and laws other than the ones we are more accustomed to. In textile recycling, while you are producing a product from waste, you are also generating waste which might require further processing for a safe disposal. We also have systems and machines where we process some of our own production waste fibres and incorporate them back into our processing, but these wastes are already our own, clean, good quality waste that are very valuable and we feel confident to re-feed them into our production,” she buttons up the contention.

A number of challenges were also listed by Under and her colleagues. If recycled content is to be used, then these challenges must be overcome. What steps are companies/associations taking to overcome those challenges? Surely, whatever is being done now is not enough.

Her response therein: “The most prominent issue we face here is the lack of good quality recycled cotton supplies due to technological inadequacies in the mechanical textile recycling system. But this can be eventually overcome with new advancements in chemical recycling processes, and there are new tech companies, mostly start-ups that already work on this, besides bio-based solutions.

“Personally, I see the problems with waste collection and management systems all around the world as the biggest challenge for the recycled fibre cycle. Pre-consumer textile wastes are already gained back to the economy (mostly downcycled, but still better than landfill) by the current local laws in place. The issue is mainly faced with the post-consumer waste because consumers tend to throw them away along with their household wastes, which make them impossible to be reused or recycled. Therefore, now brands and NGOs are working on educating consumers and take back programmes for establishing better collection and management systems.”

A crucial point was also highlighted by the researchers: “The more complex the composition, the harder it gets to recycle jeans mechanically.” But as pointed out by them earlier, more than half the jeans content comes from elastane / MMF / regenerated cellulosic fibres. It sounds like it would get more and more difficult to extract fibres into recycled fibres. And, that remains a problem area.

Under agrees: “That is the downside of denim. The pricing pressure as well as special characteristics such as need for high performance pushes manufacturers to use synthetic blends and other fibres which in turn affects recyclability of the products via mechanical systems. Most mechanical recycling systems tolerate 98 per cent cotton 2 per cent elastane blends. But this is not enough when you think the whole denim cycle. Therefore, there are studies, working groups and collaborations that work on content scanning/detecting/separating systems and also chemical recycling systems similar to viscose production which extract cellulosic from the feed. We see a great potential for bio-based solutions—both as well as technologies and therefore follow them closely.”

This article was first published in the July 2021 edition of the print magazine.