Sean Penn's Mexican love child
- Oct 4, 2004
- Reaction score
Thought denim-heads would enjoy the article.
VEDELAGO, Italy "” Giovanni Petrin remembers well his first efforts at beating up jeans.
David Yoder/Polaris, for The New York Times
In a manufacturing technique not recommended for do-it-yourselfers, stone-washed denim tumbles out of washer. The stone is actually pumice.
Italian industrialists had visited Japan years ago to observe how the Japanese washed denim garments with small stones. "So we took white stones from riverbeds here in the Veneto," said Mr. Petrin, referring to the northern Italian region where his jeans factory is situated. "It destroyed the washing machines, and the jeans."
Only after the Italians learned that the Japanese used pumice did the trick work.
Now sales of jeans with the used, worn or beat-up look are booming on both sides of the Atlantic, making battered jeans a case study of the push and pull of global competition, and wrapping Europeans and Americans in more jeans than ever before. They have fanciful American brand names like Diesel, Replay and Seven for all Mankind, but in fact, the real driving forces behind these names are all Europeans, and now they are asserting their design influence as the premium and elite niches of the jeans market are exploding.
At the heart of this phenomenon are the artificially aged garments laboriously engineered by Europeans like Mr. Petrin, a compact bearded man of 55, the chief executive of Martelli Lavorazioni Tessili.
"The Italians, and in large part Martelli, took it to an art form," said Joe Ieraci, owner of the Blue Hound, a denim consulting firm, describing Martelli's techniques for distressing denim.
Martelli posted $140 million of revenue in 2005 not by making any of these jeans, but by providing the skills and technology to transform them from new to old-looking. It was largely thanks to those like Mr. Petrin, who helped build the new "old" look by combining fresh styling with innovative manufacturing skills (he has a small secret here), that weathered jeans became the object of desire in America's $15 billion jeans market.
Martelli, uncontested in Europe, has competitors only in the United States and in Japan. Earlier this year, the company, which has four factories in Italy, signed an agreement to build a plant in Morocco with local partners. Last year, the company opened a factory in Turkey. In Romania, Martelli already turns around about 30,000 pairs of jeans a day at its own plant.
Mr. Petrin was recently on the verge of signing a deal for a joint venture in California that fell through only after the American partner unilaterally raised the cost of Martelli's investment. He has discussed, though unsuccessfully, cooperation with an American competitor, Sights Denim Systems, of Henderson, Ky. America is too big to neglect, he says.
Today, about two-thirds of Martelli's production is at its Italian factories and a third elsewhere. Mr. Petrin says he can see the day coming when the relationship will reverse, and only design and research and development will remain in Italy. While Italians hold virtually all the jobs designing and marketing Martelli's jeans, only a smattering of Italians remain on the shop floor.
But the real secret to Martelli's success?
Indeed, the real challenge for several years for Martelli has been to find the hands to do the work. Now, most of the 175 workers in one of Martelli's hand-crafting factories are Chinese, legal immigrants whom Mr. Petrin praises for their patience and dexterity. He attracted them to work for him after meeting by chance a Chinese fabric dyer.
"We tried Romanians, and we tried Africans," he said, "None were as good as the Chinese."
Mr. Petrin has visited China, which also is by far the biggest jeans market in the world.
With its 9,000 employees, Martelli takes jeans manufactured in low-wage countries like Morocco or Turkey and then stylizes them for upmarket clients like Gucci, Armani or Tommy Hilfiger, who sell the finished product.
Mr. Petrin's client list includes designers like Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, but also mass-market brands like Levi Strauss, the world's biggest jeans maker, the Lee and Wrangler brands of the VP Corporation, Gap and Zara.
A stroll through Mr. Petrin's factories, which turn out 120,000 items every day, is an encounter with the automated destruction of jeans. In their main factory, with 900 workers, huge washing machines tumble jeans with pumice gravel; workers in face masks slip jeans legs over inflated balloons, which then move robotlike between sets of abrasive plastic brushes that scrub the denim to give it a worn look. Other workers brush creases into the jeans that, because they fan out from the fly, are called whiskers.
The work elsewhere is more labor-intensive. Here, workers apply discoloring chemicals with brushes; there, they use hand-held guns to blast jets of quartz sand. Assembly line workers hold the edges and cuffs of jeans to spinning abrasive pegs that wear them down or make holes in them.
Some apply embroidered designs, others rhinestones, still others stitch patches over holes they have just cut. Even though most of the jeans look thoroughly ruined by the time they leave his factory, Mr. Petrin says: "If they ruin a pair, they pay for them."
While the American market for high-end jeans represents only about 3 to 4 percent of the total market, it is growing at 40 to 50 percent annually, according to Mark Massura, a strategic planner at Cotton Incorporated, a trade group.
"It's a small part, but it's the fastest-growing part of the market," he said.
Part of the market's dynamism comes from a constant exchange between Europe and Los Angeles, where, paradoxically, many of the leading entrepreneurs are Italian or French. Adriano Goldschmied, a pioneer in the premium jeans field who started Diesel, Replay and now AG jeans, has moved to California from Italy.
Some, like the Frenchman Paul Guez, who started Sasson, have been in the United States for decades; others, like JÃrÃ´me Dahan, who started Seven Jeans, are more recent arrivals from France.
The British designer John Galliano, of Dior, pioneered the use of denim in apparel like ball gowns, said Kathryn Gordy Novakovic, a trend analyst at Cotton Incorporated. Brands like Diesel, she said, "have always been pioneers."
"At a time when everybody was spending $30 for a pair of jeans, Diesel was selling for $98," she said.
With the explosion of brands, well over 300 by one estimate, has come also a proliferation of jeans boutiques in America, like Atrium, which has a store on lower Broadway, or Metropark, which started in California in 2004 and hopes to have 25 boutiques nationwide by the end of this year.
And new marketing approaches for premium jeans, which sell for $60 and up, as well as elite jeans, which go for more than $130, are also proliferating: limited editions; and accompanying accessories, like a Levi's model with a built-in iPod docking station that retails for about $200. Levi's is introducing that approach in Europe before bringing it to the United States.
One threat to jeans bashers like Mr. Petrin is, of course, a recent fashion trend toward cleaner jeans. "While I still think that abrasions, washing out and other details are relevant," said Deirdre Maloney, an owner of Brand Pimps and Media Whores, a fashion consulting firm in New York, by e-mail. "I think holes and rips will be on hiatus from the market for a couple of seasons."
Mr. Petrin is not fazed. He shows visitors Martelli's collection of jeans, some from the late 1800's, some acquired over the years from Japanese collectors noted for scouring the United States in search of antique jeans.
Some of those in Mr. Petrin's collection have sold for as much as $38,000, and look as if they'd been through the Gold Rush twice.
In another factory, a quarter-hour drive from the largest, nearly 200 workers busily brush, poke, slather with chemicals and generally mishandle jeans. Even a hole has to be made properly. "The size, the shape and location have to be right," Mr. Petrin said. Hand-processing, which can take six hours or more, drives up production costs to almost $100 a pair.
"Remember that when you see the retail price of premium jeans," he said.