Slow denim is a fast fashion backlash, cooked up by over-it artisans inspired to make jeans that last — and have a minimal environmental footprint. The product of an extensive, meticulous process, a single pair of jeans can take one person a full day to develop. By contrast, workers in Bangladesh make up to 80 pairs of mass-market jeans per day, according to the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights. The popularity of slow denim, which necessitates care, quality materials and sustainable practices, is on the upswing. Already a prevalent trend in Europe it’s, ahem, slowly catching on in the States.
What makes this stuff “slow”?
They’re styles designed and created with attention to detail, eco-conscious processes and longevity of wear in mind — as opposed to capitalizing on current trends at ultra-low price points.
Who makes it?
Jeans by London-based Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, which textile industry veteran Bilgehan “Han” Ates launched in April 2016, are among the best examples. “I wanted to find a way to make better jeans that people would buy less frequently, with a lessened environmental impact,” he says.
How is it made?
Ates currently staffs a nine-person team that turns out a new pair every 3.5 hours, using a pared-down method that gives new meaning to transparency: “To make a pair of jeans, we only need selvedge or organic denim, cotton pocket bags and copper hardware, including rivets,” he says.
Sounds exhausting. Is this really necessary?
According to a report by Project Just, an online responsible shopping guide, it takes 11,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of traditional jeans — that includes the water needed to grow the cotton for the denim and also the water used to wash and dye the jeans during the finishing process. Jeans also typically feature synthetic indigo, which is derived from toxic chemicals, and require sandblasting, a pollution-causing technique that’s damaging to denim artisans.
But traditional jeans are better than they used to be, right?
Compared to other brands, Levi’s has made impressive progress, said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just. Its recent innovations eliminate the use of unnecessary water throughout the production process, saving 1 billion liters of water since its launch in 2011. Meanwhile, others have recently begun using organic and recycled materials, maintaining traceability in their supply chains, and paying their workers living wages. They’re also watching their water consumption and water pollution, using natural indigo, and finding alternatives to chemical-heavy distressing techniques.
Slow denim must be pricey, though.
It’s costly to introduce processes to set production cycles — and that’s reflected on price tags. Shoppers of L’Exception, a Paris-based shop that specializes in high-end French brands, are “willing to pay €200- €300 ($214 -$321) for slow denim because it’s special, exclusive and has a story,” said shop owner Régis Pennel. But so far, Americans — many of whom are used to paying Forever 21 prices — have been, well, slow to warm up to the idea.
A season from now, will this be a thing?
For Darkhorse Lane Ateliers, business has been growing since Day 1 — and Ates says that he’s recently noticed more international interest from shoppers in USA, Australia, Scandinavia and Japan. What’s more, other slow denim brands, including London-based Story Mfg., have reported seeing high demand. After all, says Jessica Navas, chief planning officer at Erwin Penland, “A terrific pair of jeans will always be the very essence of cool chic.”