Has denim been promoted from staple to statement?

Elevated denim is on the rise in various forms: from structured outerwear to inventive textures, the timeless textile finds its way out of casual wear.

With the number of options denim has to offer just off the racks of Topshop, it’s no surprise if one owns more than three pairs of jeans. Chances are, you own enough pairs to represent every category – skinny; straight; low-rise; high-rise; and depending on the look you’ve subscribed to, either boyfriend jeans or mom jeans. But beyond jeans, denim has been executed in multiple renditions – be it dungarees, or a classic denim jacket. With something as versatile as denim, it’s understandable why it manages to stand as a singular market. 

Up until the nineties with the emergence of dungarees and rise of the denim miniskirt, denim was found only in the form of jeans. Despite its pedestrian nature, this didn’t stop major figures of popular culture from endorsing them. The boot cut made its transition from the ranch to Hollywood, with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean donning them on the silver screen in the fifties. The following decades saw a proliferation of the textile. With the sixties came bell bottoms and embroidered styles, which characterised the Hippie movement that dominated youth culture. In the seventies, denim was taken mainstream with Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche collections. Attempts to revitalise denim are not new – the eighties and nineties marked the rise of customised denim; from frays and rips of the punk rock movement to iron-on patches and rhinestone embellishments of nineties pop. All throughout history, numerous subcultures claimed denim as their blank canvas for expression. In terms of styling, we witnessed the bold pairing of denim on denim – the most iconic exhibit being, bar none, Britney Spears’ and Justin Timberlake’s couple ensemble at the 2001 American Music Awards. 

What denim seems to have retained throughout years and cycles of revitalisation, is its immediate association to casual wear. Having successfully integrated itself into everyday wear, denim now faces yet another phase of regeneration. The demand for denim jeans is unlikely to falter anytime soon, but this time, designers are looking to assert denim’s potential beyond the domain of daily attire. So how is the timeless textile revamping itself to stimulate new interest? 

There is perhaps no label more recognised for its use of denim than LVMH Prize-winner Marques’Almeida, whose Spring/Summer 2016 collection continued to show growth by referring back to its raw aesthetic. At its first off-schedule presentation, the London-based label showcased a range of pieces that clearly maximised on technical experimentation. Denim was translated into rips and shreds, but at the same time, layered to create frills and ruffles – an unexpected take on the romantic ruffle trend that was seen all over catwalks this season.  

A noteworthy contender, Rachel Comey, managed to garner a loyal following with her signature shadow hem culotte. The brand decided to stick with commercially viable fits, but experimented with the wash by introducing a line of Japanese shibori-dyed pieces, offering an understated alternative to acid-washed skinnies.

Then there’s Roberto Cavalli and Marc Jacobs, whose collections this season seemed to proclaim that stonewashed, coloured denim is far from seeing its decline. Even the big names of luxury, namely Chanel and Chloé, both decided that denim would play a leading role in their Spring/Summer 2016 collections. Lagerfeld effectively contributed to the elevation of denim, by rendering classic silhouettes in denim. Paired with Chanel’s constant, tweed, it lent denim a newfound status as an equally premium textile. Chloé, on the other hand, continued to tap on the seventies’ aesthetic through baggy harems and smocked one-pieces. 

On the streets of global fashion weeks, denim is no longer seen in just the form of mom jeans but as palazzo trousers, cinched long-line trenches, frayed outerwear and matching co-ordinates. The play on surface takes it up a notch, too. Unexpected combinations with sequinned appliqués, floral embroidery, mottled washes, and panel patchwork bring a new attitude to the table. Designers like Holly Fulton and Faustine Steinmetz are ones to watch for their takes on denim. 

Denim requires no persuasion when it comes to the high street; the difference now is that it's managed to locate a newfound status alongside dressier looks on the runway. Sara Maggioni, director of retail and buying at trend forecasting agency WGSN, says: "This is a look that’s emerging really strongly on the catwalk — this tailored, dressed up denim with a raw natural sheen on very simple constructions and clean silhouettes. It kind of offers a modern take on workwear and more retro styles." Progressing from its synonymy with slouch and rebellion, denim's new upgrade puts forth a fresh spin on formalwear, without compromising on comfort. 

Mo Lin, sales representative at womenswear line MomoKrom, has witnessed an increasing demand for their raw denim pieces. The label has since capitalised on this response by channeling their efforts into a more tailored collection of denim. "I think it sets us apart from our competitors; it’s more of a differentiation move for us," he says. Perhaps this is the driving force behind the rising trend of elevated denim – designers and brands are seeking ways to keep up with the insatiable appetite of customers. 

But is meddling with an established staple precarious ground for the high street market? "It's a staple that's being reworked, and that seems exciting. At the same time, you don’t know how customers are going to react to it. Because for denim, you don’t need more than five pairs of jeans. It’s quite a small market," says Jennifer Nguyen, designer of womenswear label Gessy Fashion. With its deep-seated image as a perennial basic, it's hard to tell if everyone will be on board with its new identity.

One thing's for sure, though – the reinterpretations of denim have led to a shift in its reputation as a wardrobe basic. Alator Wang, fashion editor of juksy.com, agrees: "I definitely see denim taking off in a new direction, it's becoming more of a statement piece than a neutral piece." With denim's universal cultural resonance, it may be natural that this is just another act of reflection of the industry at work – we always want more.

FeaturesWeiqi Yap