Is there a demand for American denim

Jeans in sustainable : Blueing is not

"Feel it. This is jelt denim, which Lee invented in 1925. The yarn is twisted more, making the fabric light but durable like a heavier one. The modern thing is that we used recycled denim for the weft. So much more storytelling is possible! ”Michael Kampe enthusiastically strokes his trouser leg. After working at Diesel, Scotch & Soda and Hugo Boss, the Hamburg native is Creative Director for Europe and the Middle East at the US jeans brand Lee.

He came to Berlin from the European headquarters in Antwerp to present the label's new sustainability strategy for streetwear at the Berlin fashion fair Seek in mid-January. Along with Levis and Wrangler, Lee is one of the big three in the jeans business and, like them, markets himself as an important part of US history. Last year, Lee celebrated his 130th birthday by relaunching old pants to commemorate its origins in Kansas. Levis used to meet the needs of miners, Wrangler that of cowboys. Lee, too, sticks to the image of having dressed the American workers, although the label stopped producing workwear in the 1970s. Today Lee sells his jeans very close to the people through the supermarket chain Walmart.

If the pants land on the compost, there will soon be nothing left of them

Michael Kampe grabs the next pair of jeans from the stand and turns the inside of the white pants outwards. Instructions on how to unscrew the buttons are printed on the pocket pouch. “The rest of the pants can simply be composted. In a few weeks there would be nothing left, ”he explains. "Back to Nature" is the name of the four pieces that represent the maximum of sustainable production in Lee's campaign. Everything is biodegradable without residue, undyed, no stretch, no rivets. There are two pants and two jackets that take up the design of the classic rider jacket, as worn by Marilyn Monroe on the set of "The Misfits" in 1961.

But thought through, it doesn't really make sense to throw clothes on the compost heap. There are better ways to deal with the resource. It would be timely to secure the raw material and to reduce the use of water, energy and chemicals.

So the story does not get round, also because Lee uses recycling in his production, but does not have a really circular system to offer, as for example the Dutch label Mud Jeans is showing with its leasing and recycling concept.

The mass product with its extreme surface treatment is particularly criticized. The production of a single pair of jeans consumes up to 10,000 liters of water. For the used look, sandblasting is used, which destroys the lungs of the underpaid workers. Hundreds of chemicals are used to protect the cotton monocultures and for the complex dyeing processes.

Lee is running late on sustainability

In the past ten years, many young companies have shown how it can be done better with organic cotton or linen and hemp, recycled fibers, with fair production, fewer or no chemicals and lasers instead of sandblasting. The new possibilities and the increasing demand leave even the big brands no choice but to participate. The Öko-Test report last year showed how difficult it is despite all the progress. Only one in 20 jeans in the test was recommended.

So Lee is running late on sustainability. While Lee makes general declarations of intent for the well-being of the environment and people in a kind of manifesto, this year competitors like Levis take stock of specific goals that they set for 2020 years ago. Greenhorn Lee simply lists all the points where the label applies in terms of sustainability, without quantifying or becoming really transparent. Like the Indigood foam dyeing process, which Wrangler, part of the same group of companies as Lee, introduced last year. No water, 89 percent fewer chemicals and 65 percent less electricity are required for this. To date, only a fraction of Lee's products have been treated this way. The brand announces specific goals for the end of the year after consulting with experts and stakeholders and initial experience in the business of sustainability.

Despite his underdeveloped strategy, Lee has a good chance of surviving in the market. The three American jeans brands have the kind of authenticity that other labels dream of. Traditional brands are particularly popular in times of crisis because they promise a safe choice. And people who are overwhelmed by the sustainability problem would rather trust than check. As a friend of the little people, Michael Kampe takes on a friendly tone: “I am happy that we got that on the chain at the right time, to have the structure at the right time, not only to show the story, but also to translate this story into Product. We don't want to be aloof, we want to say: Hey, we only started sustainability in 2020, but come on this journey with us. "

It goes without saying that Lee won't catch up with younger labels, where sustainability is the brand essence, anytime soon. As part of the huge parent company VF Corporation, Lee and Wrangler were sidelined when the booming outdoor segment promised higher sales with brands like The Northface and Timberland. It wasn't until 2018, with the spin-off as an independent listed company, Kontoor Brands, that it seemed possible for Lee and Wrangler to develop long-term strategies.

The hottest young designers recorded an installation for Lee

So it is probably the courage of desperation that Lee chose Copenhagen Fashion Week as the location for the official presentation of his initiative. The “Copenhagen International Fashion Fair” takes a pioneering role in sustainability and wants to get the industry moving with its “Sustainability Action” plan.

Lee was there partner for the project area "A.R.T.", which translated means something like change, repair, transform. Visitors were able to upcycle unused stock with the help of experts and the hottest young designers in the field of sustainability, Bethany Williams and Duran Lantink, played an installation with avant-garde designs that they had also created from Lee's stock.

Lee limits this cooperation to the Copenhagen Fashion Week and its fashion-savvy audience. The collaboration with Lantink and Williams, who combine sustainability with social issues, could well have been a modern interpretation of Lee's company philosophy "Innovations for the working people".

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