True blues

The Ten­nessee in­digo fields be­hind nat­u­ral-dyed denim

Wallpaper - - March - Pho­tog­ra­phy: Farhad Sa­mari Writer: Paul Trynka

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lossy plants with dis­tinc­tive pur­ple-green stalks and knots of com­pact ma­genta flow­ers crowd to­gether in a sprawl­ing field out­side Nashville. Mos­qui­tos dart around in the Ten­nessee dawn as a huge ma­chine harvests a crop of nat­u­ral in­digo. It’s a gath­er­ing not seen in this area for over a cen­tury, a sign of how Amer­ica, the nat­u­ral home of denim, is map­ping out a sus­tain­able mass-mar­ket fu­ture us­ing small-scale, ar­ti­sanal ideas.

While the in­digo plant was once prized by the pharaohs, Ja­panese em­per­ors and ad­min­is­tra­tors of the Bri­tish Raj, by the early 20th cen­tury, the nat­u­ral dye it pro­duces was sup­planted by a syn­thetic sub­sti­tute. Syn­thetic in­digo is now used to dye around a bil­lion pairs of jeans ev­ery year. But the pres­ence of these plants in Ten­nessee is not a mere func­tion of nos­tal­gia: it’s in­spired by con­tem­po­rary con­cerns, says the woman re­spon­si­ble. New York na­tive and Cor­nell grad­u­ate Sarah Bel­los stud­ied re­source man­age­ment be­fore be­com­ing fas­ci­nated by the idea of us­ing sus­tain­able plant dyes in the fash­ion in­dus­try. She launched Stony Creek Col­ors in 2012 with the aim of re-es­tab­lish­ing large-scale use of nat­u­ral in­digo in the US.

The syn­thetic in­digo used to dye nearly all of to­day’s denim is de­rived from petroleum, in­volv­ing un­pleas­ant pre­cur­sors in­clud­ing cyanide and formalde­hyde. Bel­los aims to move things for­ward by turn­ing back the clock: ‘Cre­at­ing valu­able and use­ful chem­i­cals from plants as op­posed to petroleum is way more sus­tain­able. We’re help­ing farmers and the soil.’

This huge field is farmed by An­son Woodall, one of sev­eral farmers who sup­ply Stony Creek. He ex­plains that ‘in­digo is our new cash crop, whereas in 2016 it was tobacco.’ Al­though medium-scale pro­duc­tion of nat­u­ral in­digo has con­tin­ued in the Far East, these fields in Ten­nessee – planted with Ja­panese in­digo (per­si­caria tinc­to­ria), plus other va­ri­eties in­clud­ing in­digofera tinc­to­ria, for re­search pur­poses – are part of a push to turn plant-based in­digo from a craft hobby to an in­dus­trial con­cern in the US. ‘The real chal­lenge is

to scale up,’ says Bel­los, ‘to show that nat­u­ral in­digo can be pro­duced con­sis­tently, and at the vol­ume to be used in the denim in­dus­try. But also with trace­abil­ity, so you can visit the farm where it’s grown.’

In­digo is ex­tracted from its plant leaves us­ing warm water, rather like tea, with the re­sult­ing liq­uid re­duced in huge vats. The fac­tory is in­fused with a warm, leafy smell, along with a smoky hint of tobacco: a be­nign start for an evoca­tive sub­stance that adds a unique com­plex­ity to the denim it ends up dye­ing.

Given that Levi Strauss was the com­pany that first cre­ated blue jeans as we know them, it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that one of the first pair of jeans dyed with Stony Creek nat­u­ral in­digo is a painstak­ing replica of an 1880 pair in its archives – the XX model that pre­dates the 501. The cut and con­struc­tion of the replica mim­ics pre­cisely that of the orig­i­nal pair, nick­named ‘Stumpy’. The most chal­leng­ing as­pect of the re­vival was repli­cat­ing the orig­i­nal yarn. Paul O’neill, se­nior de­signer at Levi’s Vin­tage Cloth­ing, worked in col­lab­o­ra­tion with lead­ing yarn ex­pert Allen Lit­tle, di­rec­tor of prod­uct de­vel­op­ment at in­no­va­tive fab­ric mill Cone Denim. The nat­u­ral in­digo was a vi­tal fin­ish­ing touch. ‘The colours and the shad­ing are quite unique,’ says O’neill. With their com­plex, al­most pur­ple hue, the Levi’s 1880 jeans show one in­ter­pre­ta­tion of nat­u­ral in­digo, but the pos­si­ble vari­a­tions are in­fi­nite. Stony Creek re­search chemist Sum­mer Ar­rowood some­times turns up for work in a dis­tinctly mod­ern pair of Gustin jeans (a San Fran­cisco-based brand founded eight years ago), with a heav­ier, more turquoise denim. Many other brands will launch jeans dyed with Stony Creek’s in­digo over the next year, while mills in Asia and Europe have also com­mit­ted to us­ing the dis­tinc­tive dye. It’s im­pos­si­ble to gen­er­alise about the fi­nal look of all the prod­ucts that use Stony Creek in­digo, but over­all this is denim that will ‘crock’ more slowly, de­mand­ing hard work be­fore they wear in – which is prob­a­bly the one retro as­pect of the whole process.

Sarah Bel­los’ vi­sion of denim as a prod­uct that epit­o­mises a mod­ern Amer­ica, rather than the myth­i­cal coun­try of the past, is gath­er­ing mo­men­tum. Many new Us-based bou­tique la­bels, from Tel­la­son and Imo­gene + Wil­lie to 3six­teen and one-man op­er­a­tion Roy Slaper, have built up a com­mit­ted fol­low­ing over the last decade, while in­dus­try gi­ant Levi Strauss seems to have ex­e­cuted a sig­nif­i­cant turn­around. Still, there is pres­sure from cheaper im­ports, which has re­sulted in Cone clos­ing its US denim mill in North Carolina and

mov­ing pro­duc­tion to Mex­ico. The way for­ward, sug­gests denim in­dus­try vet­eran Mau­r­izio Donadi, is to think small, even if pro­duc­tion is large-scale.

Donadi is the newly-ap­pointed cre­ative di­rec­torat-large at AG, the La-based la­bel founded by denim pi­o­neers Adri­ano Gold­schmied and Yul Ku in 2000. Donadi loves the iconic five-pocket blue jean, but points out how one can be­come ‘a pris­oner of that story’. AG has never been a slave to her­itage, but Donadi sees the brand em­body­ing denim in the widest pos­si­ble sense: ‘There’s the world of the five-pocket blue jean and there’s another world called denim, a much big­ger world. What in­trigues me is how many blues one can cre­ate. That’s part of us, of na­ture, the colour of the sky, of re­flec­tions on water. What we’re work­ing on is not a denim project. It’s a blue project!’

Donadi es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion with Diesel, Levi Strauss and Ge­or­gio Ar­mani, be­fore joining Ku’s la­bel (Gold­schmied left in 2004 to pur­sue other ven­tures). He sees the fu­ture of AG in global terms, in­cor­po­rat­ing Euro­pean or even Ja­panese vi­sions of denim. But, as with Stony Creek’s colours, he thinks of AG’S denim as rooted deep in Amer­ica. It’s ‘cooked up’ close to home, he ex­plains. In fact, it’s cooked up at Koos Man­u­fac­tur­ing, a huge cut­ting-edge op­er­a­tion on the out­skirts of LA. The com­pany was founded by Ku in 1985 and he’s been pro­duc­ing jeans for a va­ri­ety of brands here ever since. As big as this mod­ern, airy fac­tory is, it’s in­ti­mate, with fab­rics cut in small quan­ti­ties to en­sure pre­ci­sion; like­wise, it can work up ex­per­i­men­tal washes, then repli­cate them on a large scale. It’s this in­ti­mate con­trol that adds the magic, says Donadi: ‘We made a promise to this area, to be in­no­va­tive – and also to re­ally be present. Not to walk away, not to out­source.’

In a sim­i­lar way that Bel­los is up­scal­ing a craft in­dus­try to vol­ume pro­duc­tion, Donadi sees him­self cook­ing up prod­ucts for AG on a hu­man scale. His dream is ‘to be an ar­ti­san, to have the sen­si­bil­ity of a small com­pany.’ For both com­pa­nies, the ul­ti­mate aim can be de­scribed as sus­tain­abil­ity; for Bel­los, it’s the fact that the dye used is unadul­ter­ated, and can be traced back to a field in Ten­nessee; for Donadi, it’s the no­tion of a sim­ple T-shirt that isn’t dis­pos­able and can last three years or more. Yet in both cases, it’s the vol­ume as­pect, that this qual­ity is avail­able to ev­ery­one, that’s cru­cial to the magic. As Donadi puts it, the aim is daunt­ing, but pro­found: ‘We have to be small and big at the same time.’

‘We made a promise to the denim in­dus­try to be in­no­va­tive. Not to walk away, not to out­source’

from top to bot­tom, in­digo plants grow­ing at an­son woodall’s farm in ten­nessee; the in­digo plants are loaded onto a truck and soaked with water be­fore be­ing trans­ferred to the pro­cess­ing plant; stony creek col­ors founder sarah bel­los in front of in­digo re­duc­tion tanks at the com­pany’s fac­tory in spring­field, ten­nessee op­po­site, nat­u­ral in­digo pig­ment

clock­wise from top left, nat­u­ral in­digo pig­ment; a fil­ter press catches the in­digo solids; ag’s cre­ative di­rec­tor-at-large mau­r­izio donadi with ag founder yul ku; cook­ing up denim colours at koos man­u­fac­tur­ing, the largest all-through denim man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity in west coast amer­ica; pro­cess­ing a test batch at the stony creek lab­o­ra­tory in goodlettsville, ten­nessee

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