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The Rupp Report: Ever-fashionable Denim

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

In the early 1960s, a favorite aunt from the United States came to Switzerland bringing a gift of a pair of genuine Levi's blue jeans. They were dark blue with the typical smell of real denim jeans — and blue thumbs too. Those jeans put me on top of the list of cool boys in the neighborhood. And the quality of the 501 style was fantastic. However, in those days, blue jeans were a kind of outlaw apparel — only strange people had blue jeans, and, of course, most parents didn't like them at all. For the young people, the jeans were truly valuable if they were dark blue and had the name "Elvis" written on them with white chalk that was available in every schoolroom. Since that time, denim or blue jeans were and are part of my leisurewear wardrobe, even though the label has changed. And whenever they became washed out, it was time to change to a new pair of jeans.

Rope Dyeing
In the very early 1990s, Wolf Stromberg, an old friend, organized a memorable visit to Mount Vernon Mills Inc.'s plant in Trion, Ga., to see the plant and to interview then-President and COO Roger Chastain. This visit is still unforgettable for two reasons: on the one hand, Chastain and Plant Manager Don Henderson were lovely and charming hosts - and, in addition, Roger Chastain is a brilliant entertainer on the piano.

On the other hand, it was impressive to see the long way denim fabrics had to go before they were transformed into blue jeans. It started from a huge rope-dyeing installation, where the yarns first of all are green and then turn into the typical indigo blue after oxidation. It was sensational to see how much care the people in the dyehouse had to take to produce a first-class indigo-dyed yarn. After the dyeing, the ropes were stored in big tanks and then put on warp beams to be woven with the white weft. Hundreds of top-class weaving machines produced denim, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The end product was a deep blue indigo-dyed denim fabric, ready to become blue jeans for one of the famous brands known to all.

How To Differentiate?
Over the years, blue jeans have become an ever-fashionable commodity all over the world and the outlaw apparel image has gone, at least for a certain time. Every fashion label produces jeans, not only the classic labels such as Levi's®, Wrangler®, Lee® and others. Even the big department stores have introduced their own labels. In every creative office around the world, people asked the same question: How can we differentiate our product from our competitors? Pumice stones were the answer. Stonewashed jeans became the top seller around the world. It was unbelievable! They looked worse in the shops than earlier chucked-away jeans. And, one could ask, why is the industry working with hard quality standards if the apparel manufacturer is stonewashing the product? Until today, no one ever answered this question. Fashion, said everybody, is the dictator of the market.

At least the machinery manufacturers could build gigantic washing machines to be stuffed with pumice stones for the stonewashing. The problem was how to get rid of the sand in the machines after stonewashing. But that's another question.

But then, the markets had an identical problem: Everybody was selling stonewashed blue jeans. Once again, it was the same product in every shop. So the fashion industry started to virtually destroy the ready-made jeans. The fabrics were sanded, cut, even attacked with laser beams to be different. Good old denim, where have you gone?

Human Machines
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of the biggest vertical denim producers. The company is working for virtually every brand. Some 150 different models can be seen in the showroom. It was shocking to see that workers sanded the jeans by hand or using machines eight hours a day to produce high-fashion jeans. The whole room was covered with a dark blue color. The people were wearing protective masks; however, the dust was so fine that one couldn't be sure if they gave protection. Again, no answer.

Banned Products
This serious problem is getting attention from newspapers and TV reports these days: The denim sandblasting technique can provoke silicosis, an incurable illness. Nongovernmental organizations report that in many countries where these types of blue jeans are produced, workers are suffering from this fatal illness. The rumor has become so loud that the biggest retailers in Switzerland already have banned sandblasted jeans. Even big labels such as Levi's, H&M and C&A have announced they will stop purchasing sandblasted jeans.

Isn't it crazy, but wonderful: health before fashion. Happy New Year to all of Textile World's readers. And, to be sure, dark blue denim jeans do look wonderful.

December 28, 2010