Re-inventing the Five Pocket: The Difficulties of Raw Denim Innovation

Anyone who follows raw denim knows that there a few buzzwords floating through the conversations regarding the current state of our beloved fabric. One of the oft-mentioned terms is “innovation.” I must put it in quotation marks, for the meaning of the word is so debated that it has really ceased to mean anything at all beyond an individual’s definition of it. That being said, I’m here to offer my take on not only the term itself but also the attitudes of raw denim fans and aficionados.

heritage pic inno

Photos courtesy of The Woodlands/Tanner Goods

Many of us who are into raw denim also enjoy the realm of heritage menswear. While I won’t debate the meaning of “heritage”—nefarious in its own right—I will say that the draw of it is we like to look backward for sartorial inspiration, back to a time when we believe things were made more for functionality than fashion, with attention to detail, and with a commitment to sustainability. With its workwear roots, denim is at the forefront of the heritage movement as a fabric meant to withstand the test of time.

But let’s be honest: few of us are wearing raw denim because it holds up to heavy punishment in our manual-labor jobs. It is about fashion for many of us. And the nature of fashion is that it comes and goes.

Yet there are innovators who try new things and push the boundaries of what is accepted by the masses–they offer a new take on something classic or invent new categories to pioneer. In raw denim, our commitment to the past-as-model has cultivated a vitriolic attitude toward anything that strays too far from the traditional five-pocket jean. Yet at the same time, we bemoan all of these brands who “aren’t doing anything new, using the same old fabric, offering the same fit as everyone else.”

slimstraight

We can’t have it both ways. Sure, there will be jeans at which we shake our heads and go, “What the hell was the designer thinking?” I’ve done it on a number of occasions and, to be forthright, I favor more classic looks in both fit and denim, but I like to see new things. I appreciate the fact that designers walk a razor’s edge between “weird” and “innovative.”

Some of these new things may be misfires, but, as with anything, success relies upon trial and error. Go look up Edison’s attempt at the light-bulb. In my mind, there are a few ways a raw denim brand can innovate.

One is fit, but, knowing their consumers, most brands keep it on the safe side, offering some version of a straight or slim-straight fit. There’s also the “anti-fit” push, which represents the pendulum swinging back against skinny jeans, but most raw brands keep it somewhere in the center.

knee-dart

awhall

Another way is through details like stitching and hardware, but, again, most brands play it safe because raw denim consumers on the whole frown upon over-the-top pocket arcs and such (and I happen to agree with this one). However, newer brands like Endrime often get ripped for trying something different on the design front because it looks “weird” or “ugly,” whatever that means.

I’m willing to bet that most people haven’t seen the jeans in person and feel inclined to offer an opinion based upon photos, but one man’s ugly is another’s perfection. One-man brands like Ande Whall are able to offer something unique with extras, but most of them end up on the inside, where only the wearer knows about them.

The crucial component to any jean is fabric, and this is where many denim brands can offer something unique.

An attitude that irks me to no end is the recent trend of writing off Cone Mills denim as boring and unoriginal. It’s impossible to log onto a denim forum these days without seeing some variation on, “Yeah, Cone Mills White Oak denim: it’s all the same.” There are a number of raw denim brands who have committed themselves to complete made-in-the-U.S. production, including their denim, and Cone Mills is currently the only United States weaver making selvedge denim.

1475 final

Tellason 14.75 Oz. Cone Mills White Oak

ecoblue

Cone Mills EcoBlue denim used by Bridge&Boro

But the mistaken assumption that all Cone denim is the same is indicative of the ignorance of people spouting off about something about which they have done little research. Brands like Tellason have worked with Cone to produce their own fabric, unique to their label.

Start-up brands, however, cannot always meet the minimum order requirement for such individualized fabrics. But Cone still offers an array of selvedge denims that go beyond the “normal” indigo.

nf final

Another oft-encountered viewpoint is that some brands like Naked & Famous are “gimmicky.” In other words, they are being different for the sake of promotion rather than offering a product of genuine innovation. I don’t need a pair of glow-in-the-dark jeans, but to hear owners Brandon Svarc and Bahzad Trinos talk about why they make them makes me a believer. They’re passionate about trying new things and tapping into a creativity that is sorely lacking in our little corner of the fashion industry.

The raw denim consumer has a world of options when it comes to N&F denim, and it’s refreshing. Most of their denim is much tamer than the Scratch-and-Sniff pair, but you’ve got to applaud them for doing something different. World’s most innovative? That depends upon your definition.

The market is saturated with five-pocket raw indigo jeans, and many of them are thinly veiled plagiarisms of what Levi’s did a long time ago. I, for one, welcome brands who are willing to take a shot and offer something slightly off-center. Maybe it will flop, but there is no reward without some level of risk, and it’s nearly impossible to move forward if we only look back.

Stay tuned, as this is the first installment of our series exploring brands like Naked & Famous, Tellason, and Endrime and what it takes for them to innovate in 2014′s raw denim market.

Jon Dalley

Jon is crazy about books, music, movies, motorcycles, and, of course, raw denim. He contends that the best method of breaking in a pair of raw denim is to ride a Triumph Bonneville T100 hard and often. Check out his newest blog project at www.hipofftheoldblock.wordpress.com

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  • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

    Good to see an article like this as it is useful to give the increasing “failure to innovate” bunch pause for thought.
    That said I do support the point behind most of these comments, which I see as: start-ups using staple fabrics at a typical price point whilst trying to sell a story are tiresome and irritating.
    It is naïve to believe that one offers something distinctive that a consumer would want to purchase when you are offering the same product with a different story.
    Naked & Famous don’t always get it right, and I personally have no immediate interest in their products, but I do keep an eye out, because one day they may just do something I do like – they are being innovative (or at least trying to be!).
    There are only so many ways you can make a cotton t-shirt and only so many colours the same is true of raw denim, the problem in the industry at the moment is a market driven by artisan demanding heritage loving awesome fading consumers is never going to love the bland and original offering (the £8 t-shirt from H&M – instead I wear Real McCoys). The problem therefore is us and are unwillingness/reluctance to accept mass production and the generic product it brings. (Apologies if this was poorly written – rushed it!)

  • banjobus

    I can’t see paying $200 plus for souped up
    501s. I would pay more for a different look, like the scotch and soda “brewer”, with built in suspenders.

    • http://www.gilt.com/invite/tman916 Thomas

      Why not buy 501′s and add suspender buttons yourself?

      • banjobus

        Not a bad idea. But the “brewers” have that old timey prospector look. For those days when you feel the need to sit around a campfire with your donkey.

  • burbsuncut

    Err, ‘few of us wear raw denim because it stands up to heavy punishment’.. I wear Raw Denim precisely because of their hard wearing nature! I do a daily 3 hour intensive active job, and in between generally don’t sit around a lot. Normal jeans last a few months. My current Nudies have been worn for a year with one wash and still going strong. raw denim for me, works out cheaper, and it’s more environmentally friendly isn’t it?

    • Woofs Mackenzie

      >nudies
      >hard wearing

      choose one

    • Hank

      That’s out of context. He said “few of us wear raw denim because it stands up to punishment in our manual labor jobs.” Meaning few people these days are miners, etc. who are wearing raws.

  • burbsuncut

    Not sure if you mean Nudies aren’t hard wearing? Perhaps I’ve been lucky! I’ll see if I can post a pic or two. the only thing I’m unhappy about is a hole in the pocket bag. My job involves some strong cleaning chemicals, and my jeans, nor myself, worry about it. I do own ‘better’ denims (iron heart, Hiut,), but for the money Nudies are good value and well made, in my opinion.

    • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

      Yet to see a decent faded pair of Hiuts so haven’t purchased a second pair…

      • http://www.ryeandrivet.com emilybihl

        Just curious– meaning that they don’t seem to produce good fades, or they don’t fade quickly, or they fade in a weird manner, or…? Thinking of getting some myself so just wondering.

        • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

          Hi Emily,
          Can’t really say anything negative. The pair I have (gifted now to my father) seem to be made extremely well. I just haven’t seen any fade pics of any note yet; that is not to say there are not any! The ones on instagram particularly just don’t look great (low contrasts, no vivid blue), now I wonder if part of that is driven by hiut’s demographic which seems to be “arty people” who may be over-washing in the first few months? I really couldn’t say. I would take a look on instagram and I’d be interested to hear other’s thoughts.
          Furthermore I reckon David who runs the business is a decent enough bloke from the way he markets the business that you could email him and ask for some fade pics.
          I may be speaking completely out of turn but I’ll let you decide!

        • http://www.promotestatus.com Chris wcrd

          Rivetandhide have posted up a photo – best fades I’ve seen so far.

  • http://www.ryeandrivet.com emilybihl

    Glad you mentioned the point about Cone Mills– sure, a lot of companies use it and so it’s not an area that automatically makes you “stand apart”, but to dismiss it outright is pretty ridiculous!

  • Guest2409

    elhaus has done some major innovation regarding fabric, madly under the radar because they’re from indonesia