There was a time when even the most fashion-literate couldn’t bear to look at a pair of stiff, dull, everyday jeans. The pandemic pushed the once tight and rigid staple out of the way in favor of Gen Z’s baggy, slouchy styles. And many people stopped wearing jeans completely, swapping them for sweats or fun, printed pants with elastic waistbands from labels like Saks Potts and Paloma Wool.
This season, however, ushered in entirely new ideas about the American staple fabric, notably from a certain American in Paris. The Dallas-born Daniel Roseberry, Schiaparelli’s artistic director, injected the house’s surrealist DNA into an unlikely medium: upcycled denim jackets and jeans. Anatomy-inspired embroidery and gold jewelry—there was an ear, a single breast, eyes, and flowers!—adorned much of his fall 2021 couture collection, upending the long-held idea that jeans can’t be considered couture. “We went to the markets in Paris when they reopened, bought a dozen pairs of [’80s] Levi’s, dismembered them, and then reconstructed them,” Roseberry says. “It confirms that any time the really extreme Americanism is mixed with extreme provocativeness, Baroque gold and everything, people respond to it. I wanted to do something that was a surrender to joy, almost to the point of fetishization of the body and of the anatomy of couture itself.”
“I wanted to do something that was a surrender to joy.”
And who could forget Balenciaga’s bold return to couture, complete with a dash of denim? For creative director Demna Gvasalia’s debut fall 2021 couture collection for the brand, he cut jeans high, long, and rounded, pairing them with hoodies and V-neck sweaters. There was also a sculptural take on a Canadian tuxedo, with a jacket that was perched high off the shoulders, its sides dramatically folded one in front of the other.
Couture isn’t the only realm rethinking denim. Ready-to-wear designers, too, are looking at the humble pair of jeans through a new lens. At Chloé, Gabriela Hearst created denim sleeveless tops, trench coats, and mididresses, some of them offset with supple leather detailing, for a look that felt refreshingly brand-new for resort 2022. Hearst also applied her groundbreaking sustainably-minded thinking: deadstock with recycled wood buttons in lieu of metal, fabric treated with lasers instead of water.
There’s a huge demand for jeans that feel more environmentally conscious, which may be why so many labels are starting from scratch, upcycling, or otherwise reinventing the fabric. Take Ganni, which launched a new line of responsible denim in the fall. More than half the collection is part of the Jeans Redesign project, launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2019 by 80 denim experts in an effort to reduce waste and increase recyclability and traceability. Ditte Reffstrup, the label’s creative director, says, “Denim has this great ability to make you feel capable of anything when you wear it. I think that’s a mindset that resonates with the American woman.”
Given the new dressed-up aesthetic, it makes sense that designers who typically gravitate toward ball gowns and high-octane glamour are giving denim a chance. Carolina Herrera’s resort 2022 collection had dramatic denim in spades, from ruched puff-sleeve blouses to high-waisted wide-legs and A-line minis. Likewise, Etro’s resort 2022 collection drove home the OTT approach, with kaleidoscopic patchwork pieces and the kind of embroidery that might decorate your most well-traveled pair of vintage jeans.
Elza Wandler, the street-style-favorite handbag designer, launched denim for the first time for fall, calling the items “great styling pieces that can easily be dressed up for different occasions, from work to dinner.” Telsha Anderson, the owner of the boutique t.a. New York, predicts that directional denim, like the pink sets from Diesel that are exclusive to her boutique, is bound to sell out. “The fabrication, the color choices, and getting out of the box with skirts and dresses that still fall within the denim category” are all part of the novelty, she says. “People are looking for pieces that stand out.”
For many, the appeal of this new wave of fashion denim comes simply because they miss wearing jeans. Think about it: When was the last time you wore a standout pair of jeans, embellished denim, or even something as simple as a denim skirt that makes a bold statement, proportionally or otherwise? “I’m learning that denim is a part of my core style identity—recently revealed by having two kids under two right now, coupled with the pandemic. I realized it had been missing for me for nearly two years,” says Lisa Bühler, founder and CEO of the indie boutique and brand Lisa Says Gah, which introduced its first in-house denim line for fall. “I am happy to be back participating in ‘hard pants’ again.”
This article appears in the December/January 2021 issue of ELLE.