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Co gets into no-stretch, raw denim with Francois Girbaud

Co gets into no-stretch, raw denim with Francois Girbaud
Francois Girbaud, center, works with Co designers Justin Kern and Stephanie Danan on denim. (Amanda Demme)

It's a match made in Franco-L.A. heaven.

Stephanie Danan and Justin Kern, designers of the emerging L.A.-based women's wear label Co, have partnered with French jeans vet Francois Girbaud of the now-defunct Marithe+Francois Girbaud to create their first denim.

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The styles break the basic rules of jeans selling: They don't have stretch, and they are made of completely raw, unwashed denim. But they stay true to Co's dressed-up sensibility with couture-inspired volume and a crisp fabrication.

The first of the offerings, for fall, are in stores now. They include high-waist, flared trousers slit at the backs of the ankles to reveal the heel of a great shoe and create a bit of sway when the wearer walks. A denim jacket gets a sophisticated spin with a sculpted peplum construction and shiny gold buttons down the front. In coming seasons, Co plans to introduce cropped denim sailor pants and denim knickers with ruffled accents.

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Danan, a former producer, and Kern, a former screenwriter and fashion model, launched Co in 2011. Since then, the label has earned a reputation for elegant, pared-down separates in the spirit of the Row, but more romantic. Business is on the rise, they say, with sales increasing 300% in the last year. And distribution of the collection has expanded to 74 stores worldwide, including Maxfield, Net-a-Porter, Barneys, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman.

In addition to denim — priced $375 to $450 — the designers are also introducing their first handbag this fall. It's a boxy, top-handle, raw leather style that comes in black or cognac for $1,100. The remainder of the collection is priced from about $695 to $3,500 or higher for furs.

Danan has known Girbaud since she was a 16-year-old growing up in Montreal. After pioneering stonewashing in the 1970s, his Marithe+Francois Girbaud brand went international. Danan's father, who owned a multi-label showroom, distributed it in North America, and Girbaud was a frequent guest at the family's dinner table.

The relationship was rekindled when Girbaud moved to Los Angeles two years ago. Andrew Rosen, the New York apparel investor who has a minority stake in Co, suggested Danan and Kern develop denim to grow their brand. And who better to help than Girbaud?

"At first, we were nervous because it was such a different way of designing, but thank God we had a major mentor," Danan says during a denim fitting with Girbaud on a recent afternoon, "ouis" and "nons" flying back and forth at Co's downtown L.A. Arts District studio. "The goal was not just to launch a denim line, which a lot of brands do, either based on a rock 'n' roll or worker aesthetic that is then sold separately [from the main collection]," Kern says. "We wanted to do a more sophisticated jean that's less casual that would be at home on the designer floor."

Girbaud was thrilled to work with two denim newbies. "No rules — that was interesting," he says.

"Everyone told us we couldn't sell jeans without stretch. But it makes women look like sausages. No stretch!" Danan says.

"Girls want to go back to the 1970s … using pliers to pull up their zippers because they were so strapped in," Kern insists.

Girbaud was also pleased that the designers wanted to use raw, unwashed denim, because it highlights his latest crusade to try to reverse the environmental damage stonewashing has wrought over the last 40 years.

"When I started in 1989 talking about saving water, nobody was interested," he says. "Now it's not just talking. We have to do it. The price of the water, the energy, we have to save. And all the people in the factories, we know permanganate [an oxidizing agent used in the washing and bleaching process] causes disease."

Then, he gets philosophical. "When we started in fashion in the 1960s, it was just a reaction against the system. We wanted to destroy everything — including jeans — and annoy adults. We didn't realize it was so negative."

"You also didn't realize jeans were going to become an everyday staple in every country on Earth," Kern offers.

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Now Girbaud is devoting his days to developing new techniques and machinery to wash and destroy denim, including laser printers that can do something he calls "watt wash."

"Basically, you can take a vintage Rose Bowl flea market jean, scan it into a computer and lasers can create the exact same wear and tear," Kern explains.

Girbaud nods. "That's the reason I moved to L.A. In France, in Europe, it's all about haute couture and luxury.... It's an old system.... But my real diamond is here, with Justin and Stephanie."

Kern returns the compliment: "We'll work on cut or shape, and when the samples are done, sometimes he has experimented with crazy ideas that are not really for us. But it allows him to see them."

(Case in point: The day I visited, Girbaud was experimenting with a sample pair of Kardashian-inspired jeans that had a bum pouch into which padded cups could be inserted. He got the idea from a product he came across while traveling recently in Japan, a "Hipperdle," designed to enhance the rear end.)

"When the jeans come in, they are all tricked out, and it's all about editing them back," Kern says. "We'll add this detail here and lose the bike reflecting there. But, oh man, his cuts are the best."

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