As I write this, there’s no way I could know if your style icon is Sofia Coppola or Victoria Beckham. If you splurge at Asos or Mr Porter. I don’t know how old you are. But there’s one thing I would happily place a bet on: I’d wager a tenner you’re wearing jeans.
This isn’t some great fashion insight. Jeans are worn by everyone – young and old, male, female, squeezed middle or top 1%. According to new book Denim Dudes, which looks at the street style and global business of denim, around 50% of the world is wearing a pair of jeans at any one time, and almost 4bn pairs are produced every year. The denim market, it’s estimated, is worth close to £50bn. In Topshop, they sell seven denim items every second.
But here’s something new: high fashion has joined the rest of us this season – denim was a catwalk trend for the first time in a decade. It began at Prada’s spring 2015 menswear show. The flashy Miami swimming pool set was a red herring, a fashion insider joke: the collection was wonderfully downbeat, full of 70s-style jeans with stitching highlighting pockets and boot-cut shapes, teamed with bobbly jumpers and flat sandals. Dolce Gabbana embellished their women’s jeans with rhinestones. Louis Vuitton’s denim was neat, tidy and a tiny bit bourgeois. Gucci’s was sun-bleached or on neat shirt-waisters with giant pockets. Burberry, meanwhile, brought the denim jacket – that stalwart of alternative culture – on to the catwalk at both their men’s and women’s shows. Denim has gone posh.
Expensive denim has been a thing for a while, of course – a pair of jeans can cost less than £20 at Uniqlo or close to £300 from Citizens of Humanity – and it has its own subculture where devotees can waffle on earnestly about weights and washes of Japanese denim for days at a time. But the difference this season is context. Denim has moved from the streetwear sphere to the rarefied world of the catwalk, a place more at home with sequins than selvedge.
Cynically, this signals that designers want a bit of that £50bn market. But it also shows that, for this season, they aren’t just thinking about clothes for a life we aspire to – one of cocktail parties, jet-set getaways and high-powered meetings in office towers – but also the one we actually live.
While the shows nailed the trend to the mast, you could see its roots in the front row. For a few seasons now, fashion editors once seen in cocktail dresses before noon have been spotted in Junya Watanabe patchwork jeans and flats – much more practical for the long days and myriad locations that make up fashion month. Reality doesn’t bite right now, it rules.
“The overall aesthetic at the moment is more casual,” says Lydia King, buying manager for contemporary, casualwear and streetwear at Selfridges, where Watanabe’s jeans were a bestseller. “T-shirts and sweatshirts have gone designer [in previous seasons]. Denim is the next logical step.” Elgar Johnson, fashion director of Man About Town magazine, agrees. “It’s refreshing to see denim on the catwalk because it works as a counterpoint to anything too ‘fashion’: denim is the sensible friend who wants you to look good, not stupid.”
Because of its history, denim has always been inextricably linked to workwear and leisure time. It has a no-nonsense authenticity and a youthful carelessness. Since Levi Strauss popularised jeans as workwear in the 1870s, denim has always stood for hard-working people, the flipside of the precious fabrics such as satin or lace that the rich wore. And from the 50s onwards, it’s been the blue flag of teenagers fighting against the suits and white gloves of their parents. These two qualities, and the tension between them, are manna from heaven for fashion designers who are always on the hunt for resonant references. Add gold-plated off-duty Hollywood cool in the shape of James Dean in Lee jeans and Marilyn Monroe in Levi’s, and a whole checklist of associations is mentally ticked off whenever a pair of jeans comes down the catwalk.
Amy Leverton, the author of Denim Dudes and head of denim and youth at trend forecasting agency WGSN, believes it’s the sense of authenticity that chimes right now, particularly in menswear. “The roots are in workwear; it’s rugged and durable, and can ⇾ be traced back to the guys who built the US, cowboys and farmers,” she says. “In the last few years, fashion has moved to the idea of a more rugged man. It’s not all about the indie boy in skinny jeans any more.”
Leverton believes high fashion brands are using denim to plug into nostalgia – a “remember this?” moment. It’s an idea that is omnipresent in popular culture. “Denim touches a lot of people’s lives and they can identify with it instantly,” she says. “At Prada, for example, it looks fresh but also familiar. That’s the secret to good design, isn’t it? It taps into consumers’ psyche.”
This is something that makes sense when you think that many of these collections – Prada, Louis Vuitton, Stella McCartney, Chloé – mix denim with the other big trend of the season, the 70s. In truth, it’s hard to do the 70s without doing denim; it was the decade when denim first became a proper fashion choice and truly infiltrated popular culture. Icons of the decade loved denim – Yves Saint Laurent wished he had designed jeans, declaring, “They have expression, modesty, sex appeal and simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes”, while Andy Warhol said he’d like to die wearing a pair.
Flared jeans were the look of that decade and are part of this spring’s revival. Alexa Chung’s collaboration with AG – inspired by 70s It-couple George Harrison and Pattie Boyd – includes the Revolution style: a hip-hugging jean with a kick flare. It’s already on its way to being the fashion-insider favourite this summer.
Things are a bit different in 2015. The anonymity of the five-pocket jean – something that no doubt appealed to Warhol, a man obsessed with the tastes of the multitude – is no longer the thing. Now, it’s about making something that is hugely familiar into something new. Denim dresses, coats, culottes and boots all featured heavily in the spring collections. Commercially, this is the key mix to make people stump up for denim with four-figure price tags. Net-a-porter have also collaborated with Levi’s for the first time, to create three pairs of exclusive customised 501s, and matchesfashion.com has relaunched its Denim Studio to focus on designer brands. Damien Paul, head of menswear at the site, thinks it’s all about a change of context – taking denim away from the classic jeans. “What’s so interesting this season is that designers are thinking about denim more broadly, and using it in different ways,” he says. “I loved the roomy, gently oversized shapes at Yohji Yamamoto, Craig Green and Christophe Lemaire, who all showed head-to-toe denim looks.”
Marques Almeida could win the prize for modern denim innovation. It is not an exaggeration to say that this tiny London label, founded by Portuguese couple Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida in 2011, changed denim’s place in fashion. Their graduate collection was almost entirely made from the fabric. It came as baggy dresses, crop tops, shift dresses and even legwarmers. The shredded edges and boxy shapes felt new, but the real game changer? Not a pair of jeans in sight.
“It took us four seasons to do jeans,” Marques laughs. “It’s more about an attitude that denim represents. It has influenced everything else we do – a concern with street style rather than preciousness.” Their cool over chic way of thinking – and price points attainable for bright young London things like themselves – has scored the duo a devoted tribe of fans including Rihanna and Rita Ora, as well as half of London’s fashion industry. There’s also been a Topshop collaboration, not to mention a British Fashion award in 2014.
Their influence has rippled up to bigger brands and, arguably, that’s what we’re seeing this season. “It’s hard for us to track when the trend hit,” Marques says, “but we definitely feel part of it, and that’s great. We knew there was a freshness to denim because it hadn’t been on the catwalk for a few years. Fashion at the time felt very unattainable and this was something we could talk about because we had lived in denim since we were teenagers.”
The familiar fabric is to be embraced in new ways this season. Remember that next time you pull on your favourite pair of jeans. You might wear them every day but right now, by doing that, you’re the height of fashion.