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Jean therapy: The history behind fashion's denim obsession

Neil Mota Author: Elle Canada Credits: Neil Mota

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Jean therapy: The history behind fashion's denim obsession

Nicolas Ghesquiére walked out at the end of the Louis Vuitton show in a faded jean jacket and dark rolled-up jeans. There was nothing fashionable about the double-denim getup: The hems on the jeans weren’t selvaged, and the jacket was a little dirty. It just looked like he had stayed up the night before working hard on the collection.

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Denim is a fabric that can tell you a lot of things about the person wearing it. And, at the same time, it can tell you a lot of wrong things about the person wearing it. Because denim is the great befuddler – the fabric that is all things to all people. Does the person wearing dark 501s, a white T-shirt and a jean jacket secretly fancy himself a rugged frontiersman? Are faded dungaree overalls a permacultural style statement? Are the Stella McCartney workerwear onesie and the Chloé jean maxidress a signal of impending religious conversion? Of course not. Or, rather, probably not. But denim always comes with a backstory, and the narratives mash up in the mix. It is universal yet utterly American. Classic yet rebellious. Dust bowl yet designer.

This season, and the last, designers have been doing denim. Dolce & Gabbana adorned theirs with more embroidery and baubles than a Vatican cushion. Saint Laurent chopped theirs off into miniskirts and sent them into the mosh pit. But the pale-blue denims at Lacoste, Rodarte, Kenzo, Veronique Branquinho and, especially, Eckhaus Latta are the story.

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The pale blues form an interesting little faction in denim’s massive comeback. They don’t have the over-the-top irony of normcore mom jeans or Jerry Seinfeld acid washed high-waisted pants. Rather, they possess the Middle American, JCPenney-like gentleness of classic American sportswear, minus the elasticized waist and wide-load seat. “That colour – the jeans I’m wearing right now are a really white blue – that’s the colour we are drawn to,” says Zoe Latta, who is one half of – with Mike Eckhaus – the bicoastal duo Eckhaus Latta. “The cornflower blue and the sky blue are what we’re also really drawn to. The colour is not really a statement in itself; it’s a classic idea, without whiskers and weird washes. That’s the way we treated the denim. Completely raw, not washed.”

Colour isn’t the only thing that catches the eye at Eckhaus Latta; the extraneous details do too: the panels that stream off the sides of wide-leg trousers and an apron dress, the mud flaps over skirt pockets, the faux pants-on-pants. Other than the last item, which riffs on a Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe idea, the garments are not aggressively avant-garde. But the pieces conceptually challenge denim’s utilitarian code: “We were thinking about denim as a large, expansive plane of a surface and using it in that way...as a tarp,” says Eckhaus. “It’s a word that has an outdoor quality and notion of utility – about covering your body and being able to move easily. But when your garment is pouring off your body, that’s when the idea of utility becomes a graphic idea.”

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Jeans are an ideal canvas for ideas, but they are even better carriers of personal history. Jeans embody time. They are one of the few objects left to us that do not feed instant gratification. It takes time to break in a good, durable pair of jeans, for them to develop a legitimate patina. It’s like waiting for a bottle of wine to age, a Jamón Ibérico to properly cure or a wheel of brie to lusciously ripen.

For denim purists, the breaking-in process is so long, arduous and smelly, especially for raw denim that must stay unwashed for half a year, that one company hired people to break in its jeans before selling them. The Guardian recently ran a story about a Welsh denim company, Hiut, that sends its jeans to “breakers” who wear them religiously for six months. Once properly worn in, the pants are sent back to the company, which then washes and sells them, with breakers getting 20 percent of the selling price.

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Our jeans stick with us through thick and thin, through rips and tears, patches, repairs and heartbreaking stains. Our stories seep into them through the seams. Piero Turk is a long-time denim designer for brands like Edwin and Lee who also collects vintage jeans. He says it is the mended jeans in his collection that he likes best. “I love to think about who did this repair – the mother of the guy or whoever. If you had the same repairs done on men's wool pants, you would look like a homeless person, but on jeans, you look richer. They’re the personal life of that garment, these repairs.”

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Jean therapy: The history behind fashion's denim obsession