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What does 'Premium' denim mean?

By May-Anne Oltmans

30 Oct 2015

Fairs

“The denim industry loves the word premium, but it seems as if the exact definition of the word is becoming even more vague,” said Andrew Olah, founder of the international denim trade fair Kingpins, at the start of a seminar held during the most recent edition of the event. According to Olah, the word premium does not only refer to the final product nowadays, but has been expanded to include the production process as well. “ One cannot just consider the proceeds when manufacturing premium denim today without taking into account the social and environmental consequences,” stated Olah. The idea appears to be legitimate, but is premium denim indeed always sustainable?

Kingpins seminar: premium denim is sustainable denim

Olah invited four experts from the industry to share their opinions on premium denim. Among them were Alberto Candiani, global manager from the Italian denim mill Candiani and Panos Sofianos, creative director at Tejidos Royo. When Olah asks the panel how they define premium denim, they mention things like 'craftsmanship, innovation and materials of good quality' all playing a role. Increasingly, however, the concept of premium jeans is linked to sustainability. The production of one pair of jeans requires 11.000 litres of water, and surprisingly all panel members agree that their industry is not very sustainable. Which is why they believe that all companies should take every opportunity to ensure that their manufacturing practices become more sustainable.

“The label premium extends beyond the product itself. For us, it means that we try not to waste energy and aim to work with fabrics that are clean,” says Fabio Covolan, marketing manager for the Brazilian mill Textil Canatiba. “We believe that denim that is sold in Europe should also be produced in Europe. That way, you do not have to transport it as far,” adds Fredrik Folkesson, product manager at Tiger of Sweden. A few other examples of things that mills can do to be more sustainable include investing in technologies that enable the recycling of fabrics and working with organic cotton. The message seems to be clear: denim can only be categorised as premium if it is produced in a fair and sustainable manner. “We need to pay attention to what has happened to our denim before it ended up in a store,” says Miguel Sanchez, head of global product line special dyes at Archroma. But do the other denim mills present at Kingpins share their viewpoint? FashionUnited investigated.

“How can denim ever be completely sustainable?”

According to Halis Cirit, who is responsible for the marketing department at the Turkish mill Dynamo Fabrics, the perception of what is premium and what is not depends on the garment´s branding. “When a person would buy a pair of jeans with a very special washing, it still was not considered premium if it was not branded: it is all about marketing.” Cirit believes that sustainability does not have much to do with premium products. “Naturally we can make sustainable fabrics if there is demand. Yet, most companies seem to be focused mainly on price, which eventually leads them to buying regular denim.” Philip Pickles, who works as an agent in the UK for the Thai company Atlantic Mills, agrees that premium and sustainability do not necessarily have to go hand in hand. “When I have to decide if denim deserves a premium label, I will consider material use, attention for detail, washing and fit.” But Pickles does acknowledge the increasing importance of sustainability for the industry in general. “Especially the usage of water in this sector poses a problem.” Pickles agrees with Cirit: the price tag that is attached to sustainable denim puts it out of reach for many companies. “I do not know the exact difference in price, but I do know that there simply is not much interest for organic cotton at the moment.”

When asked what premium denim means to him, sustainability does not immediately spring to mind for Atthaphon Sirikajornkij. Instead, the creative director of Absolute Denim believes that the raw material used will eventually determine if a pair of jeans is premium or not. The price of a garment does not always have to play a role either. “Take Uniqlo´s jeans: they are very good quality,” says Sirikajornkij. In fact, when talking about sustainability, he is rather skeptical: “Only four or five years ago the topic was not important at all. We do notice that our customers are starting to find it more important, but that is also connected to laws which have become stricter.” Sirikajornkij does not know what amount of Absolute Denim´s total production is made of organic cotton. Moreover, he doubts if denim can ever be completely sustainable: “When do we say that something is 100 percent sustainable? The production of denim always requires indigo, which contains chemicals.”

“Sustainable denim targets a niche market”

Unlike many other denim mills that FashionUnited has spoken to, Arvind prioritises sustainability when it comes to premium products. “A premium product is not only made out of materials that are of very high quality, but is also produced ethically,” says Vertika Verma, manager of design at Arvind. For example, the mill has an organic line which is completely hand-made. “All fabrics are hand dyed, handspun and handwoven, which creates employment opportunities for Indian artisans” she explains. However, the organic collection constitutes a small part of the total production at the mill. “Since everything has to be done manually it is impossible to produce large quantities. The product still targets a niche market,” clarifies Verma.

Although the Kingpins seminar emphasised that premium denim is increasingly linked to a sustainable production process, many denim mills face a different reality. Before a mill can produce sustainably, the company needs to invest in new technologies that save water or allows for the recycling of fibres. Additionally, many mills still perceive sustainable denim as a risky endeavor as the demand for cheaper, regular denim still is the most important part of their business. The number of mills that are trying to improve their work practices is increasing, but for the time being most of them agree that premium denim does not necessarily equal sustainable denim.

Photo Credit: Simon Trel Photography