by Sass Brown        The premium denim market has been trending towards artisanal denim for quite some time now. However, what masquerades in advertising campaigns as hand distressed denim, too often translates to abysmal working conditions and production scale sand blasting, not individual hand deconstruction.  The sight of lines of workers wearing protective clothing and welding helmets, or simple bandanas tied around their face, in factories already steamy from hot washing and dying processes, armed with high velocity sand blasting machines, the grit creating a constant rain, breaking down to silica particles, and responsible for lung disease, hardly constitutes fair trade.  Nor does it gel with the TV imagery of the boyfriend lovingly toiling away with his hand tools to replicate the years of wear in his favorite pair of jeans, as a gift to his girlfriend.

The Clean Clothes Campaign recently targeted denim manufacturers in a high profile campaign designed to raise awareness about the process of sandblasting in jeans production, and spotlight those that refuse to stop using this destructive practice.  Turkey recently enacted a countrywide ban on sandblasting after 46 former operators contracted silicosis.   Several manufacturers have also recently denounced its use and banned it in the production of their own jeans, including Levi’s and H&M.  However, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana steadfastly hold onto the practice, with what the Clean Clothes Campaign describes as “total indifference” to their campaign.  Dolce and Gabbana raised particular ire when they returned a call from the Clean Clothes Campaign notifying them of their intent to target the company, with D&G reportedly saying “thanks for the information (but) it did not interest them”.

There are some artisan jeans however, that are just that, hand made, each one unique.  Denim at this level of the market is truly luxury,

produced mostly in Japan and Italy, and sold exclusively through high-end retailers such as Colette, Paris.  Dutch brand Denham is one such label, with an extensive line of hand constructed denim jeans individually hand sewn by artisans, in their production facilities in Hiroshima, Japan.  As it says on their website “Made in Japan with 100% artistry, love, passion and NO shoes.”  This is a place where denim finishing is considered an art, where the knowledge base to perfectly deconstruct a pair of jeans is highly prized, not downgraded in a conveyor belt mentality of quantity versus quality.  This is a company that ‘worships tradition’ while embodying the rebel attitude of James Dean or a young Marlon Brando.  Their women’s Boyfriend jean for example, is made in strictly limited numbers, and ‘leaked’ to a highly select group of global retailers. Their production facility is the antithesis of a sweatshop, clean, Zen, and bright, where jeans are hand finished and constructed not in the factory piece work system, where individual sewers do only one small repetitive task, so as to achieve maximum speed.  Denham jeans are constructed holey by individual sewers.

The latest addition to the custom denim market is 3X1, so called after the standard right-hand twill weave construction specific to typical denim.  Based in New York, they are taking luxury jeans to the next level, with total customization, for the denim connoisseur.  Scott Morrison, a veteran from Paper Denim & Cloth, Earnest Sewn and Evisu, founded this unique retail store, showroom space and production facility in Soho, New York, as a reaction to economies of scale, and simply as a place to do one thing “really, really well”. The studio style environment beautifully merges with the old loft style building in New York’s Soho, and incorporates a custom tailor shop, and a textile merchant (all be it specializing in denim), all in one.  A customer can order jeans on the premises from a multitude of styles, fits, denim, finish, studs and stitch color, with over a hundred different denims to choose from, and endless permutations of cut, fit, finish and material.   Capacity production is twenty-five pairs of hand made, made to order jeans a day.  This is truly denim as a luxury item, not to mention an antithetical statement to global branding, with no name and only a discreet selvedge tab folded inside the back right pocket.

The use of vegetable dyes, natural indigo and water cleaning systems go a long way to improving a product that is responsible for major pollution, as well as labor violations.  In a world where water is beginning to be valued as a non renewable natural resource, that is being depleted at an alarming rate by agri-farming and bottled water companies, the embedded water content in a pair of jeans is alarmingly high. Traditionally made of cotton, a water hungry crop, the calculated embedded water content, the amount of water used to make a product from production of the raw materials, in an average pair of jeans, is 10,850 liters, that is approximately equal to 72 1/3 bathtubs full of water!  With 450 million pairs of jeans sold annually in the US alone, that adds up to approximately 4.8 trillion liters of water, or roughly the equivalent of half of California’s entire yearly urban water demand!

Conventional cotton farming has long been responsible for upwards of twenty-five percent of all insecticide use worldwide, yet the denim market has been slow to embrace the use of organic cotton.  The rules for organic cotton production, spinning and weaving are strict.  It takes a farmer three full years to turn around a conventional cotton crop to an organic one, to ensure that all pesticides have been eradicated from the groundwater, and the soil where the plant is grown.  In which time the farmer looses the scale of cotton production only achievable through the use of pesticides and insecticides, while not yet able to gain organic prices for his crop; an expensive endeavor for a farmer who needs outside support to see them through this ‘transitional’ stage.  All spinning, dying and finishing then needs to be wholly separated from conventional cotton, for fear of contamination.

Nudie Jeans from Sweden are one of a few companies however that produce a full range of one hundred percent organic cotton jeans, along with blended organic and conventional denim, and recycled denim fiber. They also utilize potato starch and pre-reduced indigo in place of chemical alternatives. Working exclusively with natural indigo instead of the hydrosulfite synthetic version, which allows them to biodegrade the exhausted dye-baths through simple waste disposal systems, instead of polluting the environment.  Proponents of the superior qualities of genuine indigo dye, as true denim elitists, they recognize the ancient and epic history of this ancient practice dating back to Pharaonic times.

Denham recently launched a range of Virgin jeans made from paper selvedge.  Consisting of fifty percent recycled Japanese paper pulp and fifty percent indigo cotton, the jeans are designed to be worn in more quickly, and have an ultra lightweight feel.  They come packaged in a zip up denim laundry bag and are accompanied by a bar of Cathartic soap made of natural enzymes, and formulated to preserve the paper selvedge.

Italian label, Naked Ape Eco Clothing, so named to represent our natural, naked, non-polluting past, work only with natural and wholly organic fibers, certified by a laundry list of accredited certification bodies, including Ecocert, USDA and the Soil Association.  This is not a brand that does things by halves, their entire collection of denim and cotton twill; unisex pants are made from organic cotton.  The full collection includes super skinny chino’s and carrot tops; how the Italians refer to low crotch styles, in a wide range of neutrals, pastels and brights, and include a full range of fits, cuts, washes and finishes, in a down to earth, democratic package.

UK brand Monkee Genes was born in 2006 by Road Team.  With a twenty-five year heritage in the denim industry, the founders were

bored with the conventional denim market, and decided to produce their own change by founding the company, and invigorating it with a fresh, vibrant and youthful direction.  Monkee Genes produce one hundred percent certified organic denim and cotton Jeans with a retro twist, innovative fits and styles, all in classic denim and vibrant cotton sateen.   With an Indie Jean rebellious heart, their motto is No blood.   No sweat.  No tears.  The brand focus on the Fair Trade aspect of production, and were the first and only jeans manufacturer to be awarded the soil Associations Global Organic Textile Standard, requiring that all factory working standards are considered as important environmental factors.

Haikure is a brand new Italian denim label on the market from this fall, winter season.  The label name is based on the tradition of restrictive Japanese poetry – Haiku, combined with the endings of the words; nature, future and pure. This lifestyle brand proposes exclusive, elegant and refined denim garments, entirely created by means of eco-sustainable materials and processing.  Each pair of jeans carries a QR label, which allows you to track all the production information of each individual pair of jeans through the use of any camera equipped mobile device, and an internet connection.  With detailed information from the certification of the organic cotton, to the production of each trim and treatment, the brand aim at complete transparency, in a market that has traditionally been anything but.

Denim jeans have become the great social leveler, with their history stemming from work wear, they are democratic by their nature, despite the price tag that comes with premium denim. Comparing the denim market to the mainstream fashion industry is a bit like comparing dog years to human years – the denim market has 7 new trends for every regular fashion season.    At least now the latest trend seems to be sustainable denim!  So now there is no reason to sacrifice style or fit to dress with conscience in the latest denim trend.

You can sign the Clean Clothes Campaign’s petition to tell D&G, Armani and Cavalli to stop using sandblasting at