The Genteel
October 17, 2017
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James Dean. Source: kitmeout.com, Jean Detailing. Source: brandflakesforbreakfast.com, Kate Moss. Source: leblogdesovena.com, Colour Denim. Source: 25.media.tumblr.com

"When I asked my little sister what her price was for going to stay with her friend while I stayed home [with my lover], she demanded jeans - we called them blue jeans back then, or studded pants…That made sense. Jeans were still something special at that time, they were chic, and they promised liberation from herringbone suits and big-flowered dresses." - The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

Until something really comes along that can take its place, it's [denim] here to stay.

Vive le jeans! From farmers to fashionistas, jeans have deep roots in Western culture. Jeans have withstood world wars and decades of cultural and ideological revolutions, yet they still remain sexy and fresh. Made from denim, a textile that is both high and low fashion, there is truly a jean for every occasion.

It wouldn't be a world-renowned fashion piece without some debate as to its origin; so, who invented jeans? It is widely believed that Levi Strauss - founder of iconic brand Levi's - "created and patented the world's first blue jeans," in the 18th century. Although we can definitely thank Strauss for popularising the style, it is believed that we ought to credit 17th century Italian sailors and fishermen of the Genoa port, for blessing the world with denim. The "bleu de Genes" - the blue of Genoa - became a trading commodity during the mid-1600s and were popular amongst Englishmen, who also shipped them to America.

Another player, Jordache, was responsible for heavily populating shelves of American retailers with jeans. In 1968, the three Nakash brothers partnered to sell jeans out of a Brooklyn storefront, under the name V.I.M. The brothers didn't have to wait too long before denim manufacturers rushed to check out which styles were in demand. After the store burned down in 1977, the brothers moved into denim manufacturing: "It was the time of Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, and designer jeans were hot, selling under labels such as Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chic, Sasson and Sergio Valente." After a very sexy commercial featuring an apparently topless model on horseback in Jordache jeans, Jordache quickly took off into major high-end department stores, selling at what was then a hefty US$26 a pair.

In 2005, Marshal Cohen of NPD Group (a research agency) stated to Forbes.com: "Denim has become not only a staple in the wardrobe, but it's become a premium product. It's at an all-time high in price and in prestige. Until something really comes along that can take its place, it's here to stay." Seven years later, Cohen's statement is still relevant - the fact is, denim is fashion's "most wanted." Today, jeans are a cultural icon that have expanded into casual jackets, blazers, skirts and even faux-jean diapers. There are many ways to make a jean-anything, simply by blending with cotton, lycra or spandex. Besides the traditional blue denim, every season features a trendy "in-style" colour.  Although, the jean-making playing field has some star players - J Brand, True Religion, Citizens of Humanity, 7 for all Mankind, Hudson - the roster is diverse. 

Before the Party, Denim on Denim, 2011.
Source: denimu.com.

From fishermen to couture, jeans are a true "from rags to riches" story. Although widely popular, there is still an essence of individuality that is attached to every pair and jeans continue to serve as cultural inspiration. Artist Denimu, for example, built his entire career around jeans. British born, but currently based in Sweden, Denimu creates artwork purely out of "denim on denim," he calls it. "Finally I was able to express my thoughts and memories. Finally I had found my voice. Through a material that while personal to me, is also so ubiquitous - transcending borders, race, age, social class and time. A link to my past, but also to one another. My own fluent language," the artist professes.

Denimu's work plays on the varied textures of the fabric and its wide range of tonality. The material, "that abounds in dualities and meanings. A symbol of both egalitarianism and of materialism. A reflection of the world in which we live," charges Denimu's artwork. It is the fabric's imperfections and textures that enliven Denimu's work; whether a portrait or an urbanscape, each art piece - just like the denim material used - is truly one of a kind. Denimu's work offers a fresh way to look at denim.

The appeal of jeans lies in their simplicity, easy sexiness and not-trying-too-hard chic. Most importantly, denim is a liberating fabric. As author Bernhard Schlink points out in The Reader (set in post-WWII Germany), jeans offer an escape from rigid tailoring and ordinary fabric design. Jeans have grown to fashion staple status; yet remain in the every single season's "trend column" around the world.

Jeans also inspired Chanel's limited edition nail colour collection, "Les Jeans de Chanel," that was released in September 2011. The colours, Blue Rebel, Coco Blue and Blue Boy, are all inspired by shades of denim. Chanel's extension of denim into beauty products reveals our love and obsession with everything denim.

The entrenchment of jeans in decades of our culture causes us to revisit and re-imagine them again and again - along with other period style trends. With every season, from year to year and culture to culture, jeans remain at the centre of our world. 

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