New brands are cropping up everywhere right now, many of them through various crowd sourcing web sites which I covered in an earlier piece, which on the surface of things brings much more choice to the market. However, if so many of the new brands use the same kind of denim, make basic five pocket jeans and publish a back-story which looks like it has been created by an Americana heritage blurb generator (I wish such a thing existed), are they really bringing choice or is it just more of the same? Perhaps this gives rise to the more difficult question of just how difficult is it to maintain originality when what you produce is the most ubiquitous garment in the world ?
There are many ways which some of the new brands don’t help themselves, using the same materials is one and producing a brand concept text full of buzz words are the most common, but there also seems to be a tendency to overstate the “manliness” of their products too. Pictures of men with beards performing manual labour in a rural setting, wearing their 13oz Cone Mills denim, American made, badass denim is getting a little old and tired, as is the model of the urban hipster and his ironic recreation of the bearded working man but wearing more fitted denim and ballet plimsolls…perhaps with an uber cool band tee under his flannel. In my experience, these are not denim customers, these are denim stereotypes.
The problem for companies new and old is that today’s denim customer wants many contradictory things, all presented in the same product. They want traditional styles inspired by vintage jeans, but they also want contemporary cuts with vintage detailing, they want something familiar and dependable, but they also want something a little different and innovative, they want their jeans to be the finest quality, ethically produced and made using the finest materials but they also want them at a (perceived) good price point, this is a tall order to achieve for anyone but it isn’t the biggest issue. The biggest issue arises when you try to give the customer what it is that they say they want and you find that you don’t really want it, what a customer says that they want and what they actually want does actually wildly differ.
At NoKipple we produced a jean which ticked all the boxes of what the customers told us they wanted, we expected it to be a runaway success, it wasn’t. The reason that it wasn’t a huge success was very simple, it lacked familiarity in terms of what it was, where it came from and who it was made by, and familiarity is a much underestimated commodity. I am actually a big believer that as much of the early success of Japanese jeans came as much from the fact that they looked exactly like Levi’s as it did from their quality, it’s not enough to give the customer exactly what they say they want, you also have to make them feel like it’s something familiar which they have always wanted and can now attain, but better, this is the essence of what drives product innovation.
It’s a very human feeling to want what we have to be better than what we used to have, whilst still holding onto a sense of nostalgia for the past. Would anyone trade their Playstation 4 for a Sega Master System? Would anyone Trade their 60″, ultra slim LED television with built in Freeview and Netflix for a 14″ black and white portable television with no remote control? Of course you wouldn’t, so why do we hark back to the past with our clothing? Well, there is a saying of “they don’t make them like they used to”, and with jeans that is distinctly true as the older looms and sewing machines, plus the highly skilled machinists of yesteryear produced a far more robust product. However, it is exactly this nostalgia which limits exactly how creative you can be with making jeans and it is this limiting which leads to the uniformity of so much denim produced today. In short, constraints imposed by what is considered desirable in denim are the cause of lacking originality. So the next time you hear someone (probably me), complain about new brands all looking the same you need to ask that person what they would do differently, and then point out that if they did that then no-one would buy it anyway.