Spectacular, Practical Denim
“I wish I had invented blue jeans—the most spectacular, the most practical, the most relaxed and nonchalant,” fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent once said. “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity—all I hope for in my clothes.” The enduring appeal of denim lies in its versatility. The rugged fabric that crosses a colored warp with an undyed weft is built to embrace contrasts: a pair of jeans can have a timeless quality or evoke a particular era, help one to blend in or stand out, function as a uniform while acquiring a patina that is as unique as their wearer.
Although the history of jeans is somewhat murky, their profoundly American character is undisputed. “Blue denim is America’s gift to the world,” said couturier Charles James, who spent his days shaping finer fabrics to the female form. As the staple of American workwear became popular around the globe in the late 20th century, denim purists, particularly those in Japan, looked back—to the Western frontier, to Marlon Brando and James Dean—in a quest for not only authenticity but also quality.
“In particular the Japanese fell in love with selvedge denim and the idea of replicating a long-lost American past, which was really from the late 1800s to the early 1950s, when the majority of the denim was done on shuttle looms and the quality was a little different,” explains denim connoisseur Scott Morrison, founder of 3x1. “In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the market started to shift toward making production faster and cheaper. A lot of the old shuttle looms were scrapped. Watching that happen and trying to identify what was making this denim better than that denim—what you start to learn as a denim designer is how interesting that is.”
Although ubiquitous, denim remains a challenging textile to master: the options are virtually infinite, as are the design choices. “It was a real learning curve for us,” says Stella Ishii of 6397. “So much of it is the wash. You can’t say for sure that it will come out a certain way.” She soon realized that each step of production, even if carried out by a machine, was controlled by a person. “The finished product depends on the group of people working on your denim—they have to feel what you’re feeling, down to the whiskering and the finishes.”
Ishii’s 6397 has since perfected innovative denim rinses and washes that approximate a lifetime of wear. “It’s great to get a rigid new pair of jeans and wear them in, but it takes years!” she explains. “And we don’t have that kind of time these days. This is the closest thing to having worn them in yourself.”