How Designer Jeans Broke Through the Mainstream

How History Has Shaped Our Jeans (Part 2)

As I argue in the first article about how history has shaped our jeans, the transition of riveted blue jeans into fashion started as early as the 1930s. But it was the ‘designer jeans’ of the 1970s that brought blue jeans to the masses and consolidated their position as a staple of mainstream fashion.

To understand how blue jeans made the leap into fashion, we need to look at their evolution from the 1930s to the 1970s. And, most importantly, we need to look at how that evolution was prompted by shifts in influence on women’s fashion between the US and Europe.

The four parts of the series about how history has shaped our jeans are:

From the Great Depression to the 1960s: French Couture Mixed With Denim

The French fashion scene has unquestionably been the most influential throughout history. In the US—the home of blue jeans—women’s fashion was dominated by the French up until the time of the Great Depression. But, during the 1930s, American fashion became more practical as a reflection of the times. And as a consequence of the outbreak of WWII, the supply of French couture was halted.

Several American designers seized this opportunity. One of them was Claire McCardell. With the zeitgeist of the time, she turned to more durable fabrics such as denim.

Regarded as one of the contributors to what’s been dubbed the ‘American Look’—a sportswear-focused fashion movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s—McCardell used denim to make styles like popover dresses for housewives.

It wasn’t haute couture—far from it—but it wasn’t riveted blue jeans either. These reasonably priced garments combined the elegance of women’s styles with the practicality of denim.

The 1930s also saw the introduction of blue jeans designed for women, such as Lady Levi’s, which were introduced in 1934. But the styling and look of the jeans weren’t changed, and these are not what we now define as ‘designer jeans.’ Before we get that, it first took European refinement of the original blue jean.

Revolution in the 1960s: The European Reinterpretation Blue Jeans

Starting with Dean and Brando in the 1950s, and cemented by the hippie movement of the late 1960s, wearing blue jeans for anything other than work was a conscious expression of anti-establishment. By the early 1970s, denim was everywhere. Five-pocket denim jeans had become part of the mainstream youth uniform; a unisex look that evolved around denim. But while the US was the bedrock of this style, it was Europeans who first challenged the look and design of blue jeans.

Pioneers of the European jeans fashion scene such as Chipie, Liberto, Adriano Goldschmied, Elio Fiorucci and François Girbaud began their seminal work revolutionising blue jeans already in the mid-1960s. They challenged the design, the styling and, importantly, they started washing the jeans.

In 1964, Girbaud had helped open the Western House boutique on the classy Avenue de la Grande Armée in central Paris. It was one of the first blue jeans retailers in the city—heck; it was one of the first in Europe. And, of course, the original jeans they sold were unwashed. But, as customers started asking for washed ones, Girbaud took some of the jeans to a laundrette—and later an industrial laundry—to wash them. As a result, the jeans flew out the door at twice the price. He soon discovered that pumice stone sped up the process and thus he became one of the first to stonewash jeans.

At the time, the original American makers were resistant to change the winning formula of their design. As Girbaud argues in Blue Blooded, “Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler saw jeans as commodities. They didn’t want to change even the tiniest detail of their five-pocket western style jeans.” Who can blame them; Levi’s alone was selling around a million pairs a year in the 1960s. It was much easier for Europeans to reinterpret the garment. But why?

As I’ve argued in part 1 of this series, blue jeans entered the European conscience in the years after WWII. Although some makers initially marketed jeans as workwear in Europe, trendsetters immediately adopted them as a fashion item. In other words, blue jeans leapfrogged from workwear directly to fashion when they were first introduced in Europe. This is one of the main reasons why it came more naturally for Europeans to take the lead in revolutionising the design of the garment.

Still, it wasn’t until the European reinterpretation of American blue jeans made it back across the Atlantic that designer jeans broke through the mainstream.

The Mid-1970s: Americans Commercialise European Designer Jeans

While all jeans are made by a designer, what differentiated the first designer jeans of the mid-1970s was that they bore the name of a designer who wasn’t primarily known for making blue jeans. By the early 1970s, the European predecessor of ‘designer jeans’ were sold in fashion stores in New York. The French Jeans Store on E 60th St was selling ‘MacKeen’ jeans for a whopping $65 a pair. Of course, American designers wanted a piece of that action.

Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt were the first American designer jeans to hit the market in the mid-1970s. They both focused on the mass women’s market and found inspiration in existing designs. It’s important to make clear that in those days, designers didn’t have all the treatment technologies that we have today at their disposal. The jeans were raw, rinsed or stonewashed. It was the design that differentiated them from the traditional five-pocket styles.

Klein was already a celebrity designer when he launched his first $50-designer jeans in Bloomingdale’s in 1976. Still, they flopped completely. With an up-front $1 million cash offer from Puritan Fashions’ Carl Rosen, plus another million each year for the duration of the contract, Klein was persuaded to give it another go the following year. The cut of the jeans was essentially a pair of Levi’s 501 with a lowered rise and a tapered leg. At $35 a pair, they sold 200,000 pairs in the first week after they launched.

But Carl Rosen wasn’t the only one who spotted the enormous potential for designer jeans. Warren Hirsh of the Murjani Group wanted to make women’s designer jeans for the masses. He was turned down by Pierre Cardin but struck a deal with Gloria Vanderbilt. The design was heavily inspired by Elio Fiorucci’s and, like the very first (unsuccessful) Calvins, they launched in 1976.

While Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler didn’t want to change their design in the ’60s, the Big Three jumped on the designer jeans bandwagon in ’70s. Levi’s in particular did a lot of ‘designer-inspired’ items, like suits for both sexes and psychedelic patterns. “A lot of it was cool, some of it not so cool,” denim expert Allan Kruse observes. The problem was that the public didn’t want designer jeans from the original makers, which meant Levi’s lost credibility. By the early ’80s, Levi’s had refocused on their red tab line, which they stuck with exclusively until the early ’90s and the reintroduction of orange tab.

From the Late-1970s Onwards: Jeans = Sex

What made designer jeans a success—which is what transformed blue jeans from a part of a uniform to a full-blown fashion craze—was advertising that was loaded with sexual undertones.

Already in 1978, a billboard on Times Square showed supermodel Patti Hansen on all fours wearing Calvin Klein jeans. Still, it is the 1980-campaign with then 15-year-old Brooke Shields we remember the best today. It ballooned sales of ‘Calvins’ more than sevenfold in only a year.

In 1981, the four Marciano brothers with roots in Morocco relocated from the French Riviera to Los Angeles to start the Guess brand. Their stonewashed jeans with zippered ankles were promoted by ads with ‘Guess Girls’ such as Claudia Schiffer and Anna Nicole Smith.

The immense success of the designer jeans brands, including several others who relied on similar tactics such Jordache and Jesus Jeans, proved that sex sells. Since then, the goal of most designer jeans has been to make the wearer look and feel sexy.

This concludes the second article about the history of jeans and how you can use it in sales situations. In the next episodes, I’ll discuss how the vintage denim scene was started.

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Sources: James Sullivan and Blue Blooded


1 thought on “How Designer Jeans Broke Through the Mainstream”

  1. Does anyone remember the predecessor of the Gap? I believe it was called You& You. I can even remember a jingle, but can’t find any information about it. They had the most amazing Levi’s collection in every size in the mid to late 1970s. Thank you!

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