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The Evolution of… Denim

From the stratospheric rise of LEVI’S to Britney and Justin’s inimitable AMAs moment, Aswan Magumbe dives deep on denim for BasementApproved’s Evolutions series.

Worn by many and offering versatility unlike any other fabric, denim has long been a wardrobe staple. From jackets to jeans, some of fashion’s greatest moments boast denim. Its ability to easily make its way onto the industry’s biggest stages and stars leave it a force to be reckoned with, but first, let’s go back to basics.

It probably comes as no surprise that denim’s first appearance in the world was in the country that has been a champion of fashion in all forms: France. The sturdy material, a durable cotton or cotton-blend twill textile, was developed for the purpose of work attire and providing both durability and comfort. 

However, the 1850s Gold Rush in San Francisco left many that worked in manufacturing and industrialisation desperate for better work clothing, which thankfully a man named Levi Strauss had the solution for. When Strauss heard about the lack of durable workwear for the coal miners, he hired a tailor named Jacob Davis to make them from tent canvas before switching to denim for its sturdiness. Three years later, Strauss and his brothers, Jonas and Louis quickly partnered to make what would become a merchandising empire with the Levi jeans.

Strauss never lived to see the company’s stellar growth in 1946, when the family decided to stop wholesaling and instead move to manufacturer clothing but maintained the partnership partnering with Davis to produce jeans under the Levi’s name. Soon after, the brand became a global phenomenon. Levi’s began operating worldwide in 1970 – the decade that detached denim from its association with workwear. However, it has become a hobby (especially in desert states in the US such as Arizona, California, and Nevada), if not people’s jobs, to regularly dig mines in the hopes of finding century-old denim. Levi’s denim belonging to silver miners of the 1800s have been found 200 years later and given an estimated value of between $30,000 and $100,000. Its impact remains undefeated, allowing for the Levi’s name to be celebrated throughout fashion, and help pave the way for other notable brands such as Lee, Diesel, Calvin Klein, and Wrangler. 

The use of denim as jeans became particularly popular in the South of America because of American cowboys, beginning around the 30s and lasting for decades to come. If you want to know where double denim originated, look no further. Denim became the perfect material to protect the cowboys when riding and to combat weather and work conditions. It quickly became a part of the Southern lifestyle and was often paired with leather embroidered boots and large-brimmed hats. The style is still donned throughout the US today and is used as a point of reference for projects within fashion. 

Not everyone will be grateful for the flared denim of the 60s, but its effects on fashion are undeniable. Taking off in the mid-60s, their amplification was aided by star duo Sonny and Cher in the US before it travelled globally as hippie and disco culture began to escalate and flourish. And their resemblance to straight-leg jeans made them a popular alternative. Musical legends like Dave Hill of Slade and the Jackson 5 brothers to fashion legend Mary Quant sported and curated their own renditions of flared bottoms, often using denim as its foundation. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before their succession that they began to fizzle out of style, and it appeared their momentum peaked in the late 70s. However, like most trends, it wouldn’t be long before they reappeared later in time to which they had their own revival more recently in the mid-2010s to present day.

From the 70s onwards, the material went through phase after phase, from fraying, fringing and patchwork, to bell bottoms and dungarees. Despite former US President Ronald Reagan’s controversial reign, his time in office during the 80s was heralded as a period where creativity was encouraged, and denim was a direct beneficiary of that. Of course, it wasn’t just restricted to the US and travelled worldwide where it was ingrained into many cultures. Herein lies a fabric with endless possibilities and no target audience.

Though denim was predominantly worn by men for a long time, Levi’s was quick to recognise that women also required the sturdiness in clothing that men had been allowed the privilege of. In 1934, Levi’s produced their first line of jeans for women which became known as ‘Lady Levi’s’, marking a bold step in the way denim was used in fashion. Around the 60s and 70s when women were leading a lot of social movement and fighting for equal rights having worked similar roles to men during the second world war (and as it came to an end), denim for women became a uniform in their rebellion; something that the fabric has become a symbol of since its introduction to the world. Beyonce’s recent Ivy Park collection is an example of this, having paid homage to the cowboys and cowgirls of her hometown of Houston, Texas. Denim was at the forefront; plastered with the Ivy Park logo and the classic adidas three-stripe – another motif that is no stranger to being paired with denim – to produce a modern-day twist on the fabric. 

RNB’s ‘One in a Million’, the late Aaliyah, spearheaded another denim trend when she sported baggy denim jeans for Tommy Hilfiger’s 1996 campaign, helping to revive the brand’s relevance and popularise Tommy Denim. Following in the steps of female style icons Salt-N-Pepa and then TLC, a young Destiny’s Child would wear variations of the same outfit backstage at a Tommy Hilfiger show, this time with the brand’s now infamous overalls; a marketing moved turned iconic fashion moment that would help in blurring the gender lines for denim. 

Without a doubt, music was a pioneer for denim’s catapult into the fashion realm. From apple bottoms to True Religion jeans, the obsession with denim, especially designer jeans, within the genre extended into different communities in the 80s, 90s and beyond. As expected, hip-hop was no exception. Who can talk about hip-hop and fashion without discussing the influence of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five? The group from South Bronx, New York would wear tight dark-wash jeans with fur waistcoats and animal prints in the 80s. Only a few years later, iconic trio Run DMC would frequently ditch their staple adidas tracksuits for fitted Levi’s jeans, porkpie hats and classic shelltoes. Jon Wexler, Global Director of Entertainment and Influencer Marketing at Adidas, said in an interview for i-D that the Queens-bred group wore this uniform as a response to a community leader’s labelling of those who wore Levi’s and Superstars as ‘felons’, and instead spun its meaning to encompass something positive.

We can’t forget one of fashion’s biggest denim moments: a young Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake wearing matching denim outfits at the 2001 American Music Awards. They took over fashion news globally and the impact it left on fashion has lasted just as long as quality denim does. The custom ensembles, created by costume designer Jezebel and a design team at Levi’s, consisted of a patchwork gown worn by Spears and Timberlake in a light-wash Canadian tuxedo. And twenty years later, it’s still a Halloween go-to.

Nowadays, it’s a given for jeans to have two pockets – four including the front, five if you’re lucky – but Levi’s produced a line of jeans (the Levi’s LVC 501XX) that became recognised as the ‘one-pocket denim’. Trying to find them now is like trying to secure a W on the Snkrs app and ending up paying resale prices, but the outcome tops it off. The denim often comes with a cinched waist at the back with a buckle and come in darker washes, challenging the norm of what constitutes a casual pair of jeans. The style was sold as part of their European line but as expected, circulated globally, and are now considered a rarity despite still being desired.

In Japan, there is a deep-rooted, philosophical approach to fabric and garment construction, and the same is taken with Japanese Denim, which is considered the best quality denim in the world. Spun on old shuttle looms and finished using premium dyes, the outcome is second to none. Though Tokyo is the capital of Japan, Kojima has been crowned the ‘denim capital’, where some of the world’s most proficient denim makers work and live. 

One of these manufacturers is Toshikiyo Hirata, the founder of Kapital Kountry. And it all lies in the genes; the heart and soul of the family-run brand are kept alive by his son and creative director Kiro Hirata, while Mr Hirata continues to cut patterns for their denim garments. 

Kapital has achieved global success and continues to be a key influence in the production of denim. Both Hirata men acknowledge that jeans originated in the US, but through their own experiences – Hirata Snr took a trip there as a karate instructor in the 80s where he discovered his love for denim, and Kiro studied art at a US college – they were able to fuse two loves to create what Kapital is known and loved for today: strong quality denim as an art canvas. A fascination with America’s history and a strong desire to make their own catalysed a nuclear reaction, which is what we see in the fashion to have come out of Japan. Maybe Daniel Caesar was onto something when he compared love to fabric that could last a lifetime. 

Japanese brand Evisu also made its mark on denim, literally. The denim specialists that define themselves as ‘an icon in the history of denim wear’ are easily recognisable by their signature seagull that paints the back of their jeans. However, their labour efforts extend beyond jeans into other forms of outerwear. 

Denim on its own is multifaceted because of its simplicity. There are many ways for it to be experimented with. Japanese designers Jun Takahashi of Undercover and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, who was a key source of inspiration for Margiela, both take on the role of masters of denim deconstruction. Known for their technicality in using minimalist methods such as upcycling to repurpose the material, puzzling its layers, or reworking traditional structures, the Japanese brands construct designs that many try and replicate but do so without success. This ability has prized them as true zeitgeists within fashion, and of this time.

Belgian designer Maison Margiela and Austrian artist Helmut Lang have notably taken note of these deconstructive traits and applied them to their own successful denim ranges such as garnishing jeans with exposed seams or combining traditional fabrics with unconventional materials, and clothes often mirroring architectural characteristics. Alongside the Japanese, the direct remnants of these designers’ footprints can be seen in other luxury fashion brands such as Off-White.

And here in the UK, denim was no stranger to the masses either. Despite its association with high fashion now, it was widely known as a working-class garment and worn by those who were perceived as socially disruptive. Archived pictures from forty years ago highlight this; straight leg jeans sported by Football lads with adidas Superstars at matches to tapered jeans worn by 70s Teddy Boys with Harrington jackets and Doc Martens or paired with heavy leather jackets by Rockers, denim has always been embedded in some of fashion’s best stories. Heritage brands like Vivienne Westwood, a British designer known for being nonconformist, was largely adored by Brits for her role in the creation of punk culture, and fashion. Within punk and rock culture the shredded look, certainly not specific to but frequently worn by the Punks and Rockers of the time, was constantly stylised by gunmetal chains and heavy, oversized leather jackets, or torn and distressed to grasp the essence of being a Rockstar and ‘true punk’. 

In 2005, under then-creative director, Hedi Slimane would also revolutionise menswear for Dior Homme in its Fall/Winter 2005 collection. The Dior Homme 19cm Dust Wash jeans are a rarity. Attempting to find them today is difficult, leaving only a finite trail of decade-old forum conversations. The jean was game-changing because of its slim-fit; not quite skinny (but too much so for the time) and not a straight leg, plus it was made especially for men. Worn by some of pop culture’s ‘most fashionable’ men like David Beckham and Kanye West, the jean was soon embraced as a holy grail. Still, the fashion house produces a wide range of slim-cut denim for their menswear, made exclusively in Italy and Japan.

After a punk revival in the early 2010s, denim became the perfect canvas for rocker chic. Having left Dior in 2007, Slimane was one of few to initiate this style, which was expected for the creative who often wove his love for rock’n’roll and its aesthetics with his own designs – even if it sometimes brought controversy to Saint Laurent, the esteemed fashion house he resided at as Creative Director from 2012 to 2016. Consequently, the brand’s leather jeans took some digesting but were a success due to Slimane’s ability to fuse two of his passions: youth subcultures and music and execute them to a high standard. It was a subtle yet effective way of bringing casualwear to the runway. Most importantly, it was a way for him to rehash personal childhood nostalgia and fulfil the edge he wished for his younger self to achieve. 

Not long after, Balmain introduced their sought-after Biker jeans in 2015. The outerwear garment, characterised by riveted kneepads, zipped pockets, and contrast stitching was a necessary game changer in how denim could be constructed in the 21st century and only something that could be envisioned by someone like Slimane. With the branding of Balmain engraved in its rear, it became a wardrobe must-have and nurtured a new sense of individualism for streetwear like the era that reigned 50 years before its introduction.

Denim trends from previous decades are constantly being regenerated; the wide-leg jeans and oversized denim jackets trend from the 90s is very much alive and thriving. Despite skinny jeans appearing to have garnered quite a bad rep in recent years, brands like 109 ALYX 9SM and Rick Owens have made them fashionable and relevant through customisation or coating them in resin or leather-like sheens to provide a more premium feel.

However, the denim game is constantly running with new and fresh ideas. In only its second year of business, Tremaine Emory of Denim Tears, excitedly signed a multi-year partnership with Levi’s this May. The pairing promises to herald Black stories and the relation of Blackness to cotton, as Emory conveys with his own brand and every other aspect of his career. What appears as a savvy business move truly is so much more; both parties desire for this partnership to dig deep into social injustices that have been especially awoken in the past two years. Cotton is integral in the creative production of the Black community but has wrenching historical ties with slavery, which both Emory and Levi’s aspired to turn into something socially constructive. With two drops released already this year (one in January and one in April), the ‘wearable art’ pieces come in five different washes and are emblazoned in wreath motifs inspired by the ones in Emory’s home. Though subject to quick selling times, they are destined to be denim classics.

Early in July, Human Made’s NIGO collaborated with Levi’s on a 100-piece collection. The capsule celebrated the producer-designer’s Japanese heritage by intertwining the typical Japanese selvedge denim into the classic Levi 501’s and 507XX Type 2 Trucker Jacket, inspired by one the artist had bought aged 16 in 1986. Both pieces come in Levi’s classic light-wash blue but have been distressed, bleached, and torn apart to mimic the style of denim that resonated most with the kind NIGO grew up with. The release is entirely sentimental to the self-proclaimed denim fanatic and was an opportunity to add new life to a classic fashion staple. 

According to, the global denim jean industry was worth $63.5 billion and is expected to grow to $87.4 billion by 2027. As it continues to trickle up into luxury fashion – take the Chrome Hearts collaboration with Levi’s as a prime example – the future of denim is looking richly dense. In the words of the late Yves Saint Laurent, “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity: all I hope for in my clothes.”

Denim continues to challenge the status quo. Its ability to be reformed, reworked, and rewritten into new narratives in fashion’s ever-changing timeline, undoubtedly leaves it as a fashion pioneer. Today, the quality may sag as brands try to keep up with their demand, but the sentiment remains strong. With every cycle, one can’t help but wonder what the next decade has in store for denim.