by Vanessa Cort
THERE are many adjectives which can be used to describe fashionable clothing – stylish, conventional, avant-garde even whimsical – but who would have thought that ‘damaged’ would have been one of them.
Garments, particularly denim, which have been washed-out, frayed, ripped and otherwise ‘destroyed’ are now the popular look of fashion today.
And in a marketing move that is as adventurous as it is bold, this clothing is being sold to us for ‘top dollar’. When we buy our denim, the damage has already been done.
Over three decades ago, I sat opposite a young man on a New York subway train wearing denim which was slashed at the knees. At the time, all I could wonder was how on this winter’s day he was able to withstand the cold to his exposed knees and why he would even choose to wear pants he clearly tore himself.
Little did I know I was witnessing the revival of a fashion movement that would take the world by storm. Not only this, but also that people would pay for the privilege of having makers damage the clothing rather than do it themselves.
Upturning the whole concept of what is ‘proper’ clothing, ripped denim pants, skirts and even dresses have also moved out of the realm of the casual and are now being worn on more formal occasions.
This is in part due to the advent of spandex, which has revolutionised the fashion industry and when blended with denim, makes the formerly stiff and unyielding fabric body-fitting and comfortable.
Designers have been cashing in on something which probably began way back in poorer families where folks could not afford to throw away their denim even when it was worn out, often resorting to darning or patching the garment.
Now, in the age of trend, this sturdy fabric (originally portrayed by Levi Strauss as perfect for working men’s jeans) is ideal for the kind of ‘destruction’ which has conversely elevated it to the level of high fashion.
In fact, it is rare to see a denim item that does not show some evidence of damage, because even when bought in pristine condition the ‘unsuspecting’ garment is washed out, cut, torn and otherwise ‘mutilated’ by its owner, generally ending up looking like it has been around for years.
But perhaps the ‘writing was on the wall’ since the late 60s when bleached-out denim gave way to stone and acid-washed versions and the big brand names of the time – Levi, Wrangler and Lee – got involved.
Experts tell us that ripped jeans emerged in the ‘cultural punk movement of the seventies”, signifying rebellion. Sarah Rainey, writing for the British Daily Mail newspaper says, “…early punks tore apart consumer goods as an expression of their anger towards society, and denim became a key part of this political statement”.
Celebrity bands like the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop began appearing on stage in ripped jeans and Madonna, Bananarama and others made the trend popular among women.
When fans started ripping their jeans at home manufacturers caught on as did designers and now the denim market, worth an estimated 1.5 billion pounds annually in the UK, is made up in large part by what is termed ‘distressed’ styles.
Celebrities around the world have been photographed in damaged jeans, paying as much as 725 pounds for Gucci designs, while ‘regular’ shoppers have been able to buy more affordable options.
And the difference in cost also has to do with the method of ripping – hand or laser- and the fact that today’s denim is thicker and stiffer and far more difficult to rip at home.
So, industry pundits explain that hand-ripping is more intricate and ‘requires individual workers to design, rip and finish each pair which can take several hours”.
But whatever the method, careful preparation goes into how and even where the garment is ripped. So, while it may appear haphazard, a lot more goes into making the damage than you may think.