This fall, blue jeans have been pantsed. The familiar five-pocket silhouette remains, but the range of indigo hues that were once the definition of premium denim is being pushed aside by a riot of pattern and color that includes florals and forest foliage, paisleys and plaids, houndstooth checks and photo-realistic effects — either printed on or laser-burned off. The fabric of the working class has become something more akin to an artist's canvas.
"I call it 'cocktail denim,'" says Paige Adams-Geller, founder and creative director of Paige Denim. "It's denim that can be dressed down or dressed up and worn to a cocktail party or a black-tie event."
Her fall women's collection is abloom with examples: jeans printed with black-leaf-print patterns, decorated with polka dots, embellished with feathers, wallpapered with pale blue flower buds (a collaboration with Liberty) and shot through with houndstooth checks. (Prices range from $169 to $199, in line with the label's similar but unadorned offerings.)
"There's definitely been innovation in digital printing technology that's enabled us to do special prints that actually look like photographs on the denim," Adams-Geller said. "I have some digitally printed pieces in the spring collection that put an over-dye [treatment] over a photo print, the kind of things that make denim a lot more exciting."
Other technological advances have made it possible to apply leather-like coatings to stretch denim or to laser-burn designs, including patterns and photographic images, into the cotton twill fabric.
But Adams-Geller and others point out that technology isn't causing the denim industry's current print-and-pattern-palooza as much as it is making it easier to achieve. The twin engines driving the trend, they say, are strong customer demand and the denim industry's equally strong survival instinct.
Those efforts seem to be bearing some fruit. Premium denim sales (jeans priced $50 and up) increased 27.5% to $3.28 billion for the 12 months ending in June 2012, compared with the overall denim market, which increased just 2.5% to $15.8 billion in U.S. sales in the same period, according to market research firm NPD Group.
Jean makers "did almost everything anyone could possibly think of in indigo," said Jeff Shafer, Agave Denim's founder and creative director. "Every shade, every coating, and at some point the consumer was like: 'Show me something different!' And it's amazing how fast color[ed denim] came up."
Shafer said that once the consumer had broken the color barrier (it was women first; men have barely started to warm to alterna-hues), "their minds seemed to be open to anything, whether it was dip-dyed denim, bright colors, metallics or prints.
"So now we're doing jacquards," Shafer said. "Hudson's got stripes, and the big challenge is how different designers are going to interpret the trend for their own customers so it doesn't look just like another one of the 31 flavors."
Agave Denim touches on the trend with offerings that include a women's stretch-jean denim with a leather-like coating ($194) and two suited-up versions of the men's five-pocket pant — one in a yarn-dyed plaid pattern ($235) and another that adds an indigo and gray herringbone pattern and pinstripe to selvage denim ($350).
Tim Kaeding, a veteran of the industry (7 for All Mankind, Gap) who co-founded the women's line Mother Denim, says he knew that eye-popping photo-printed garments would resonate at the cash register after an early experiment sold out.
"Day in Paradise was a Hawaii print we did a year ago," Kaeding said. "We had a picture of Hawaii that we doctored up — we had flowers at the bottom and there were mountains and sky — and when people first saw it they were like: 'What is that — are you crazy?' but people responded to it so well that we'd sold out even before we shipped it."
This season, Mother is serving up a number of new pieces, including a photo-print floral (Magical Forest, $295) and a pair of jeans covered with embroidery of tiny whimsical creatures (Les Baladins du Nouveau Monde, $275).
"And the beauty of this," Kaeding said, "is that … we're all doing it on five-pockets because people are comfortable with it and they're used to it."
A fact that Kaeding, Shafer and Adams-Geller say has created a huge opportunity for the Los Angeles-based premium denim brands.
The denim industry "has the capability of really making this trend go somewhere," Kaeding says. "High-end designers can do it, but they're doing it on beautiful silk and flowy pants and you kind of go: 'Yeah, that's cool, but do I want to wear it every day?' People wanting to wear jeans every day is the reality. ... It's like if your house was burning down and you had to take one pair of pants with you it's probably going to be a jean."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times