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Cover story

New Frontiers


Vivienne Rohner

Denim’s allure is both universal and broad. After all, what other fabric lends itself so seamlessly to almost any sartorial situation – from a dawn hike to dinner – and with such modest, reassured aplomb? KATE FINNIGAN charts the rise and rise of fashion’s favorite renegade, and deciphers the styles and cuts to update your SS20 look. Modeled by Vivienne Rohner

Photography David LuraschiStyling Helen Broadfoot
Cover Stories

The new-season collections may be acquainting us with the joy of short suits, mini-minis and the return of the waistcoat, but one recurring theme, seen throughout the collections, is in fact already a staple in all our wardrobes. From Givenchy to Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta to Khaite, fashion is kicking off the brand-new decade with the most democratizing fabric of them all: denim.

Could anything else feel so right for now? Adaptable to so many environments, occasions and moods, denim can be practical or edgy, easy or rigorous. It can make you feel rebellious. Or help you feel secure. Over time – and it will last a long time – the fabric begins to mold itself to the shape of your body, like a second skin. A fabric bespoke to you in fit and mood? No wonder we can’t do without it.

Part of the appeal of denim is in the multiple identities it can take on. This season, designers honed in on ideas of denim past, referencing its beginnings in the American West and evolving that spirit into something new. Earthy tones, sturdy natural fabrics – cotton, leather, suede, wool – anticipated new dawns, new frontiers. It’s an old mood that suits us now.

Saint Laurent’s seasonal take on denim has never looked more fun. Or the Wild West more polished. A mix of fashion-editor chic and rodeo spirit, the Saint Laurent spring look is all about a tailored shirt under a faded denim jacket with leather shorts and knee-high boots, or sleek pants with polished brogues. Adding sharp tailoring to denim and leather – or using denim and leather in tailoring – is how city slickers elevate this look.

Denim can be practical or edgy, EASY or rigorous. It can make you feel REBELLIOUS. Or help you feel SECURE

In New York, Khaite founder Cate Holstein indulged her nostalgia for Americana – evoked by a visit to her grandmother’s house in Woodstock, Vermont – with slouchy suede pants, raw-hemmed blue jeans and tartan shirts unbuttoned to a deep V (shirt buttons are mere decoration this season). Meanwhile, Alexander Wang’s runway show was a tribute to the greats of modern American fashion design – Donna Karan, Calvin Klein – but it was the homage to Ralph Lauren that really hit home. Straight-legged jeans with a red flannel deep-cuffed hem and a leather-collared denim shirt capture the rugged elegance of the West that Lauren made his own, opening it up to another generation, another audience. The strength is in its simplicity.

Others wanted to harness some of that idea, too. Acne Studios’ collection for the season is a celebration of the Swedish landscape, but there are a significant number of detailing motifs from the American West, too: the buckles on belts and, of course, in the cult cowboy boots. Acne’s creative director, Jonny Johansson, says it is because he’s always been drawn to people who immerse themselves in nature and live off the land. “It’s about their lifestyle and the way they clothe themselves and how the two are connected. It’s a sort of escapism, which I think is particularly essential in this day and age. The ‘cowboy’ detailing throughout the collection comes from that curiosity.” Look out for Acne’s sustainable Recrafted capsule – a collection of sun-bleached denim separates in pale and pastel shades that are pure vintage nostalgia – made from leftover fabric and garments, as well as organic materials, which will be available at NET-A-PORTER this spring.

It’s been around 100 years since women first started wearing denim. The trend began at the guest ranches of the American West that became popular after the First World War. These ranches offered a kind of agro-tourism, which allowed affluent, urban folk to live out their rustic or cowboy-tinged fantasies. Women wore denim jeans – until then a workwear garment for cattle ranchers – to get into the spirit of the working environment. They loved them so much, they took that spirit away with them in their suitcases.

In 1934, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe visited one of these ranches in New Mexico, called Ghost Ranch. She was so captivated by the light and the landscape that she later renovated a simple abode nearby and lived there for the rest of her life. Use O’Keeffe’s distinctive style of dress, focusing on plain, sturdy natural fabrics – usually black or white and clean workwear lines – as inspiration to take you through this season. She wore denim while painting, saying of her blue jeans: “I rather think they are our only national costume.” O’Keeffe favoured silk, cotton and wool, even in the war years, when synthetic fabrics were being pushed. Hers was a minimalist, utilitarian take on Western style that is timeless and perfect for today.

Surely O’Keeffe would have worn double denim (perhaps in natural off-white), a look that no true style follower has ever found verboten. Doubters only had to see the Bottega Veneta catwalk to believe in it again; in rigid, utilitarian denim, creative director Daniel Lee crafted a two-piece with attitude.

Off the runway, FRESH jean silhouettes of now pay tribute to TIMELESS, original STYLES

Off the runway, fresh jean silhouettes of now pay tribute to timeless, original styles. High rise continues to dominate (well, we’re not going to give it up easily now we’ve got it back), in both straight- and wide-legged styles, in a crop – see eco-brand E.L.V. Denim’s The Twin style – or a length that hits the floor. “Denim doesn’t always have to be your classic five-pocket design,” says Marcus Wainwright of Rag & Bone, who presented multiple cuts of relaxed denim for the brand’s return to the New York catwalk this season. “We’re playing around more with different shapes, such as the super-wide leg and the flare, as well as unexpected colors and wash techniques that make your jeans more versatile and add something special to your wardrobe.”

Pleated fronts, cinched waists and structured silhouettes cater to what Karen Phelps of LA-based denim (and NET SUSTAIN) label Goldsign calls “more of a ready-to-wear approach to denim”. The Curve jean has a structured, architectural feel and looks stand-out with a simple tank top, bodysuit or an artisan knit. Denim in natural tones of pearl and camel recall strong sunlight on stucco buildings and sand-blown streets. Think of it as your new New Mexico mood.

Simplicity of fabric, silhouette and styling are the key to making this look work for now. Not over-done, not over-thought, the new New Mexico mood is about denim on denim, or denim against soft leather and fringed suede. It’s about washed-out plaid shirts, earthy-toned sweaters in chunky wools and simple woven tops tucked into a high-waisted jean. And it’s about boots with everything.