Unique Finishes Still Denim's Driving Force (Marketplace Update)


Ever notice how some pairs of wrinkled, sand-blasted jeans seem convincingly vintage and ultra-hip, while others look, well, a little ridiculous? That hard-won authenticity comes from a winning combination of the right technology and skilled designers and technicians. And when it comes to getting the look, cost and timing precisely correct, there's no room for error.

"Today, everybody's a jean connoisseur," says Patricia McCune, trend and fabric manager for Merriam, KS-based Lee Jeans. "Everyone knows what certain finishes are supposed to look like. And if it doesn't look exactly right, the customer will take one look at it and know."

Major players in denim are always on the lookout for ways to reduce supply chain lead times, all in an effort to deliver the latest finishes and processes to customers quickly. To survive in today's market, denim companies must find creative ways to give unprecedented response times to retailers when jeans with, let's say, sandblasted abrasions and customized wrinkling on the derriere wind up selling like hotcakes.

"We used to have so much more time to go through a development process, before it ever had to be in front of the consumer," says Joe Bugni, senior product manager for men's denim at Lee. "Now it's as if things are changing every six weeks."

Jeans makers point to continuous development as the key to getting their product on the floor when the time is right. "The challenge is to help our retailers, who plan five or six months ahead, to add new fits or finishes to their assortment while trying to work through what's already on their floor," says Janine Chilton Faust, men's creative design director at San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co.

Although the average time frame from ordering to shipping to retailers is about five months for most jeans makers, this lead time can be drastically cut if need be. Levi's "quick release" process entails, in part, working with finishers and mills in proximity to the distribution center or retailer to reduce shipping time. "If there are one or two items we feel we need to do something with quickly, we can get that out in a much shorter time frame - as quickly as six weeks or even less," says Faust, pointing to a special custom Levi's 501 jean co-branded with a New York City-based design team which went from concept to the floor in less than a month.

To further cut time out of the process, jeans makers are using mills that require shorter lead times, doing finishing in-house and obtaining up-front buy-in from retailers without having actual prototypes to show. "People are getting much more used to buying from concepts as opposed to being able to touch and feel a real sample," says Bugni. "Once you have that relationship with your retailers, you are able to cut a lot of time out where you would previously have been waiting for samples."

Lee depends on Mexican finishing plants for specific types of wet processing as well as grinding, hand sanding and tinting, but the company also is making wet process development an in-house priority. Lee does some denim and piece-dye finishing, washing and treatment development, including tinting, "destruction" details, nicking and authentic wash treatments, at its Kansas City, MO-based laundry.

Fabric inconsistencies coupled with various chemical processes can make results a bit unpredictable, which means that the technician's skill level is often the deciding factor in whether the desired effect is achieved. Bugni says this is a primary reason why Lee plans to increase in-house finishing. "If you are able to do all your own finishing and develop the expertise in-house, the money that you put into that is well spent," he says. "In the interim, our contractors were a huge help to us, and it gave us some time to be able to get that down internally, but we are definitely moving toward having more control over that in our own plants."

Benefits include getting product to retail more quickly, allowing for a quicker response to customer reactions, and having control over even the smallest details that can alter the look of a product. In addition, new finishes can be developed more easily when denim designers work face-to-face with technicians. "The chain of communication is a lot more direct, and we have a lot more control over the looks that we want to see, simply because they are our people, and there is less of a communication gap," says McCune.

Whether finishing is done offshore or domestically, denim designers are working right alongside finishing technicians to convey their ideas. "Finishing technology has come a long way in the past few years with hand sanding, blasting, rocks and enzymes all critical," says Faust. "Vintage finishing is continuing to grow in the market, and authenticity and quality can set you apart from others."

All this means that a designer's vision must be perfectly translated. This may entail manual use of sandpaper to create wrinkles in strategic spots - something that's easy to envision, but difficult to produce consistently.

To help with this process, Levi's designers and finish developers are in the field constantly to work directly with technical people. "Right now, I have a designer at the laundry who will go onto the floor and do some of the sanding himself just to get the right pattern as a visual target so the finishers can duplicate it," says Faust. "It's very hands-on."

Because the goal is to get brand new denim to look realistically worn, not cosmetically altered, working with finishers often calls for a lot of back-and-forth before the look hits the mark. Imperfections are invariably tough to describe, and a lot can get lost in translation, especially when working with overseas finishing houses via phone and e-mail and contending with language barriers.

"Manufacturers are striving for zero defects, and we then ask them to do something that looks damaged or defective," says McCune. She says at times prototypes come back with small abrasion spots that look as if they have been measured to ensure exact spacing, as if they'd just rolled off the same assembly line.

Designers at both Lee and Levi have just the thing to clear up misunderstandings - hundreds of pairs of vintage jeans to use as samples. They find most of them in thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets.

Kellwood Co., owner of the My Michelle juniors brand and a licensee for juniors fashion powerhouse XOXO, carefully handpicks its offshore jeans wear suppliers based on their skills in particular finishes and processes. This is especially important for fashion-forward styles that require manual processes, such as hand tattering.

"You need to know the limitations of what their wash house can and cannot do, understand their capacity and place the right process with the right people," says Kellwood's Perri Cohen, director of merchandising for both brands.

The bottom line is that the appearance of the finished product directly correlates with the investment and expertise put into it. "You need the right fabric combined with the right dye and finishing technology. And the more authentic or vintage looking you want to be, the more money you have to put into it," says Faust.

To take cost out of the process, you must closely inspect every step and component, and know when you can get away with substituting a hand sand with a sand blast or another less manual finish.

But investments in jeans wear technology and training are seen as solid bets because makers see no end in sight to consumer demand for an ever-increasing array of unique finishes and processes. "Variety in finishing is a long-term trend for sure," says Faust. "It's a critical component of denim and why people continue to buy it."

STACI KUSTERBECK is a free-lance writer based in Long Island, NY, who frequently covers business topics for trade and consumer magazines. 

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