Revenge of the Analog: Explaining the Rise of Premium Denim
Innovations in the manufacturing sphere have permanently changed how denim is produced. From the projectile loom to laser-assisted fading, technological leaps forward have given manufacturers the ability to bring a finished product to market that looks virtually identical to either archived or more recent faded examples.
Innovations in the manufacturing sphere have permanently changed how denim is produced. From the projectile loom to laser-assisted fading, technological leaps forward have given manufacturers the ability to bring a finished product to market that looks virtually identical to either archived or more recent faded examples. The process is fast, reliable, and relatively inexpensive, and it’s how the vast majority of the denim on the market gets made. I may be a raw denim enthusiast, but I’m not going to argue that something has been lost in the industrial manufacturing process. Quite the contrary, I know that denim consumers want choice, and leaps forward in manufacturing technologies have given them more of everything. No matter what their budget, no matter what their build, they can find something that fits the bill and fits their waist. This is undeniably a good thing—but choice and convenience aren’t everybody’s cup of tea.
The Analog vs. The Digital
There is a growing number of denim consumers who, rather than embracing technology-driven innovation, have planted their feet in an a more hands-on denim experience. They’ve chosen the analog over the digital. The analog is tactile, intimate, slow, and inherently difficult. The digital is visual, impersonal, fast, and easy. For a brief moment, digital seemed poised to bulldoze the analog, but in the early aughts, the analog started to make a comeback. David Sax coined a term for this comeback: “the revenge of the analog”. Just when it looked like digital encroachments would become absolute, purists and enthusiasts began to carve out a territory of their own. In this growing space, the obsolete and the old-fashioned were privileged over the cutting edge and the new-fangled. They wanted an unmediated experience, even if it was slower and less comfortable. Where others saw shortcomings, the new breed of enthusiasts saw strengths. The revenge of the analog started with small communities of enthusiasts who had kept supposedly obsolete products like vinyl, typewriters, handmade leather goods, and mechanical watches on life support. These hipsters doggedly refused to enter the mainstream. Those on the fringes of the mainstream began to take notice, and the analog quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Take vinyl for example. In 2007, record labels shipped less than a million units per annum. Just eight years later, they were shipping upwards of 12 million units, with that number rising by 20% year after year. Over the same period, the number of independent bookstores grew by 50%, and other supposedly obsolete products of all kinds were making similar comebacks. Boardgame cafes, craft beer bars, sourdough and straight razors can all be plotted on the same trend line.
Authentic and Unmediated
The analog didn’t present a serious threat to the world of innovation, but it did present a different set of options for extremely picky counter-current consumers. For them, to truly innovate was to look backwards, not forwards. Rather than ease, they wanted discomfort and difficulty. They wanted to get their hands dirty, to wear their work on their sleeves. These were the years that saw the emergence of scores of premium denim brands that promised a more authentic and unmediated denim experience. The raw material was made on slower vintage looms; it was difficult to produce and to work with, so it wasn’t cheap to produce or to buy; it was only available through a handful of retailers, and often only in limited cuts; finally, it wasn’t easy to wear. It was stiff and uncooperative, demanding a considerable investment of time before it became comfortable. It would seem that the makers in this space would be fighting a losing battle with ready-to-wear mass-market denim. However, they had a value proposition of their own. They could offer something that fast fashion denim makers could not. They gave their customers the opportunity to participate in the process of finishing their garments. If the consumer wanted beautifully faded denim, they were now presented with two options. Either they could either buy it straight from the factory, or they could work for it themselves. As counter intuitive as it must have seemed, wide swaths of consumers were clearly interested in the latter. Rather than ready-made convenience, they preferred the raw, unfinished product. Rather than having their jeans faded for them by the factory, they wanted to do this work themselves—and they were willing to pay retailers a premium for this privilege. What they were paying for was the ability to turn a pair of jeans into a badge of honour. Like a carefully curated record collection or a library built one volume at a time, a pair of jeans (or, even better, a collection of them) could make a statement about the owner’s tastes and their lifestyle. Like tattoos (also enjoying a boost in popularity during this period), raw denim became an uncomfortable rite of passage.
The Experience is the Product
For good or for bad, the Digital Age offers almost unlimited connectivity and endless entertainment. Still, some need more. They want something immersive, something labour-intensive, something irreplaceable. A growing number of consumers are finding this in the circles of enthusiasm surrounding denim and workwear. For denim enthusiasts, jeans are more than just a product. They are an experience, with growing communities that make this experience a shared one. That the product is uncomfortable and the experience difficult and uncomfortable is a bit part of the appeal. Rather than being taken in intravenously, premium selvedge is savoured slowly and purposefully. Once again, the comparison between denim and vinyl are striking. Dropping the needle on a record is a listening experience. You can skip around from track to track, but most vinyl-loving audiophiles treat the album as a full experience in two parts: side A and side B. Denimheads see their denim similarly. If the denim is pre-faded either by laser or by hand, this is the equivalent of jumping ahead to the best song on the record without letting the record build to its climax. The wait makes the payoff more rewarding. Not everybody wants this experience, but those who do want it, really want it. Retailers and makers who respond to and satisfy this preference for experience over convenience create an airtight bond between themselves and their customers. They are viewed as far more than transactors. They are valued partners with shared values. Premium denim may only be an acute slice of the denim market, but the degree of loyalty the brands in this space receive in return more than repays the investment. It’s a difficult balancing act to sell an analog experience in a digital world, but the consumers are also balancing on the razor’s edge where the best of the seemingly opposed old and new worlds meet. Meet them in this space. It might just be the most exciting place to be in the world of menswear.