Discover the multifaceted story of denim with the Denim World Tour, a series of articles dedicated to the history of denim around the world.
After our opening feature on Italian denim, the following piece focuses on the history of denim on the rest of the European continent. From its disputed origins to current production trends as well as the influence of ready-to-wear on its evolution, the history of denim is firmly anchored in Europe.
The Origins of Denim
According to legend, the history of denim is linked to the French city of Nîmes, which gave it its name.
At the end of the 17th century, Nîmes experienced a major economic boom thanks to its textile industry, with the capacity of its factories making it the leading French city for the production of hosiery, wool drape, and shawls, which were exported throughout Europe. At first known for its silk production, the local industry soon specialized in a fabric called “serge de Nîmes” (Nîmes twill). This twill weave was developed by shepherds in the Cévennes mountains who needed a robust fabric for their working conditions. Dyed with indigo, it was originally made of wool and silk, materials that were in plentiful supply in the mountains.
When denim first arrived in Britain, it was made entirely of cotton, leading historians to question the link between Nîmes twill and modern denim. Another theory links its origins to Genoa denim, which was composed of a mixture of cotton and linen, with the word jean possibly coming from the Old English name for the city, Jeane. This robust blue fabric was used to clothe sailors and peasants.
During the 18th century, price increases in wool and easy access to cotton led manufacturers to diversify their textiles, with Nîmes twill possibly also evolving toward a cotton composition.
When denim production took off in the United States, denim was woven from one white and one colored thread, like the cloth of the Cévennes shepherds, while jean cloth was made using two colored threads.
While no accurate chronology of denim exists, Nîmes twill is an important part of the city’s history.
Denim and France
The history of denim is closely linked to that of ready-to-wear. In the late 1980s, Helmut Lang was one of the first designers to propose a minimalist jean, anticipating the purist mood that came to define the 1990s. Stripped of seams and patches, Lang’s version of the jean was defined by a flawless cut, high waist and tapered leg as well as quality materials.
If jeans are often presented as a universal basic, the reality is more nuanced, with the garment adapting to each culture and its standards of beauty. French jeans differ from American or Japanese jeans. While Japanese jeans have a straight cut, for instance, French jeans are worn as a second skin, suggestively revealing the body.
From France to Europe and the rest of the world, denim today has become a wardrobe staple, regardless of gender, occasion or social class.
French Denim Brands
Despite being a small producer of jeans, France today boasts several home-grown denim brands focused on quality, sourcing, and a low-impact, ultra-local production. Compositions are diversifying with a focus on linen and hemp and no longer relying solely on cotton.
These committed companies have different approaches, ranging from family-owned brands that rely on the expertise of generations of tailors specialized in denim, to Made-in-France labels specializing in linen jeans and other players that import GOTS-certified organic cotton to blend with European wool. The production is local and includes the spinning stage in certain cases. The finishing is also done with a responsible approach, for example by using less water.
In 1850, hemp made up 75% of textile production. Today, linen and hemp are increasingly used as an alternative to cotton.
MARMARA Original® is produced from the finest French hemp fibers that are grown without irrigation, herbicides or phytosanitary input. Production is located near the sea with its mild and humid climate. Thanks to its sustainable processes, MARMARA Original® is the first certified sustainable cottonized hemp fiber.
During the retting process, the brand teams up with the farmers to ensure the straws receive the right level of retting to deliver the best fineness for spinning, while during the industrial process, it blends lots to ensure a consistent quality and color.
France is the world’s leading linen producer. However, the last French spinning mill closed in 2005 and spinning was relocated to Spain, Italy and Poland.
In 2018, the project “Linpossible” was created to encourage collective conditions for the return of a linen spinning mill in France and ultimately reboot France’s linen industry.
Blue Seed Cotton
Blue Seed cotton is a hybrid, non-GMO cotton developed by the Italian denim producer Candiani. This exclusive variety is a cross between a non-GMO cotton that grows at high altitude and a cotton with extra-long fibers. The result combines the qualities of both varieties, producing a long, resistant fiber that requires less water and chemicals than conventional cotton.
The plants are already growing successfully in Spain, Greece and the United States.
According to Candiani, the high quality of the fibers allows them to be mixed with short-fiber cottons from post-consumer recycling.
Portugal’s Textile Industry
Portugal has one of the strongest textile industries in Europe. It is an important part of its economy, representing around 15% of total exports. Of the total textiles produced in Portugal, 40% are exported to the United States.
Spinning mills and factories are mainly located in the country’s north, around the cities of Braga and Porto. The production processes are unique and highly efficient, combining traditional craftsmanship with the latest innovations. Responsible practices are also key, from both a social and environmental point of view.
The following major denim players from Europe are exhibitors at Première Vision: Troficolor Denim Makers (Portugal), and Tavex Evlox (Spain). Among the French exhibitors, several have a denim offer including Velcorex Since 1828, Verne & Clet, and Balas Textile.