Yves Saint Laurent once said, “I wish I had invented blue jeans.” From Kate Moss in her Calvins, to Farrah Fawcett sporting wide-leg flared jeans in Charlie’s Angels - denim undoubtedly plays a huge part in fashion and film history. In my opinion, it's very rare to get it wrong (though, as with every trend, there are some denim moments we would rather forget - sorry, Britney and Justin).
But denim has been getting bad press of late, perhaps rightly so. People are waking up to the fact that denim produced in the conventional way – the kind of workaday blue jeans and denim jackets that most of us buy – is wreaking havoc on the planet.
It's the constituent parts that are under scrutiny. The majority of jeans are made from non-organic, non-sustainable cotton, the growth of which involves toxic pesticides that poison the eco-system and cause serious illness in cotton farmers, who themselves are often exploited and underpaid. Since 1995, thousands of Indian cotton pickers have committed suicide. Campaigners say a contributing factor may be the high price of genetically modified cotton seeds flooding the market, which is piling pressure on poorly paid farmers, forcing many into a cycle of unmanageable debt.
As someone who wears denim most days to work, I wanted to revisit the history of this fabric. Originally produced as workwear for cattle wranglers, silver miners and labourers in the American west, durability runs in denim's DNA. Those workers weren’t buying a new pair of denim overalls every month. A pair of jeans made with natural fibres would have lasted years and been repaired again and again. You would wear them out, patch them up and pass them on.
We should have that same attitude to our denim today. In the UK alone, they say three out of five clothing purchases end up in landfill within the same year, and are only worn once or a handful of times. We need to reevaluate the durability of our jeans and utilise how many wears we can get out of them. After all, a pair of jeans is arguably the most personal garment a person can wear. Over time, they take the shape of the body, becoming a second skin. Nothing feels as good as pulling on your oldest jeans, worn to their softest state (and perfectly moulded to your bum). There is simply no other fabric or garment that can be worn in, patched up and still look great.
Sustainability, after all, is about having a different mindset. Wearing a pair of jeans in itself is not a bad thing. Buying new denim all the time, or impulse-buying on-trend denim styles that have been bleached, over-dyed, studded, zipped and shipped across the seas ten different times over the course of their young lifetime, is what will do lasting damage to the planet. Look again at your jeans and think, this could be the most long-lasting item of clothing I own.
As you may have heard, denim also uses a criminal amount of water. Many estimate that it can take more than 15,000 litres of water to grow the cotton to make a single pair of jeans which, based on the average of two litres per day, is what you would drink over the course of 20 years! The dyeing process is also extremely polluting to the environment, with large denim factories often dumping quantities of toxic chemicals directly into the water supply, destroying wildlife and spoiling drinking water.
For the last two years I’ve worn one of three denim dress coats that I made from sustainable Mother of Pearl denim. I can honestly say they look better now than the day I first made them and I can see them outlasting my career. We use the same sustainable denim fibres for our jeans. They are made in Turkey, from organic cotton also grown in Turkey - a decision taken to reduce our carbon footprint. We also like ecru denim, which is un-dyed, as its natural colour is beautiful.
Rather than saying no to denim, we should adjust our idea about what taking care of our wardrobe means. It doesn’t mean dry-cleaning and washing all the time. I very rarely wash any of my denim. If you have a spillage, spot clean with an old toothbrush. To kill off bacteria, pop your jeans in a cotton bag in the freezer. (Trust me on this, slotting your 501s next to the frozen peas is a great way to remove germs and odours, and freezing also works for potential moth eggs on cashmere and other knitwear.) When you find a hole, mend it. Some brands, such as Levi's and Nudie Jeans, offer free repairs on their denim and others, such as ELV Denim and Redone, recycle or upcycle old pairs to close the production loop.
Lastly, as well as buying one pair of fab jeans and wearing them until they fall apart, try and buy from sustainable brands. I admire what Boyish is doing - founder Jordan Nodarse truly cares about making a difference to the planet and its people (Boyish jeans use one third the amount of water associated with regular denim, and all waste water is recycled). Buying from brands that care means your money goes into making positive change and not just some businessman's deep pockets.