I had the pleasure of attending Initiatives in Art & Culture (IAC) 16th Annual Fashion + Design Conference, featuring a panel discussion titled “From Fiber to Style: New Visions for Denim.” The panel comprised denim aficionados including Adriano Goldschmied, “the godfather of denim;” Andrew Olah, CEO, Olah Inc, and creator of the denim sourcing trade show Kingpins; and Rebecca Duval, vice president and equity analyst for the retail sector at BlueFin Research Partners. The discussion was moderated by Arnold J. Karr, senior editor for Women’s Wear Daily.
While the seminar was geared more towards the women’s market, there was still a lot to be learned. Goldschmied admitted that the denim industry is in a critical state. He said, “Denim sales are down. Innovation is the chance to save the industry.”
When asked for signs of life, Olah said emerging markets like India and China are showing “enormous growth” and are “carrying the global industry.” He also mentioned that these markets are gravitating toward denim made from stretch and knit fabrics.
“The customer doesn’t need basic skinnies,” said Duval. “She’s saying, ‘If I have it then I don’t need it.’ It feels like there’s a lack of innovation on the sales floor. Retailers are trying to drive traffic, but the bigger stores are scared to take risks because of margins. Privately owned stores can take more risk, and those who are [stocking the floor with coated and patterned denim] are finding success. And everyone is bringing their own version of athleisure: yoga, soft pants and joggers.”
The conversation turned towards environmentally friendly denim. Goldschmied, who admits to causing major harm to earth with stonewashing and other treatments, says that while we saw positive changes in the early 2000s, most customers don’t care about things like sustainability and organic cotton if that means paying a higher price. Olah agreed, “No one knows how or where a jean was made. We need the consumer to ask where it was made first, and until they do, the industry will never change.”
Duval added that retail is in a promotional environment and consumers are driven by price. “And we trained our consumer to be that way.”
Olah agreed, “The fastest growing retail brands are growing by conspicuous consumption. My friend just bought four ski jackets from Uniqlo because the price was good. No one needs four ski jackets.”
Goldschmied said the only way for the industry to grow is through technical innovation. “We don’t want to lose our customers to active brands. We’ll see more things like stretch in all directions and man-made fibers for a new level of comfort for this new active, stylish lifestyle. The future of denim is inspired by an active world.”