Tracing a Trend: Denim Explosion

The world has gone indigo blue, largely thanks to the Portuguese designers Marques'Almeida.

This is from the debut issue of Lenny (opens in new tab): Feminism, style, health, politics, friendship, and everything else from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Like it? Share it with a friend (opens in new tab).

There's that great scene in (opens in new tab)The Devil Wears Prada (opens in new tab) where Miranda Priestly, the ice-cold editrix of a major fashion magazine, explains to her new assistant, Andy, how the fashion cycle works. The frumpy blue sweater that Andy's wearing, Priestly explains, is in fact the product of a long chain stretching from gowns in beautiful shades of blue seen on the runways in past seasons to the bargain bin in a mall store.

Miranda's monologue is a response to Andy's condescending attitude toward fashion. As universal as fashion is (we all get dressed in the morning), few industries inspire such ire and disdain. Fashion is called frivolous, but only because it's associated with women and gay men; expensive cars are frivolous, but no one thinks less of straight men for reading Motor Trend. Couture is criticized for its breathtaking expense, but no one belittles an architecture buff for adoring a Mies van der Rohe design, even if he could never afford it.

Of course, there are a lot of ways that the fashion industry could improve itself: it could be much more inclusive and body-positive, to start. But at its purest form, when it's just a designer being inspired and creating something that speaks to you—whether it's an intricately beaded gown that looks like gossamer or a pair of denim trousers that are the exact reflection of the attitude you've wanted to carry all your life—well, that's magic.

And that's what we will be talking about in this column.

You may have noticed an increased presence of denim at your mall in the past few years. Before then, you had a selection of skinny jeans, super-skinny jeans, jeggings, and jorts (opens in new tab). Then came jeans with a more relaxed leg, jeans with a perfect square cut-out at the knee, and jeans in deep shades of indigo, followed by stylized denim jackets with details like carefully frayed edges or a raw seam. Then, it spread like wildfire: denim dresses, denim tops, denim trench coats. The world gone indigo blue.

The denim explosion is largely happening thanks to two young Portuguese designers, Marta Marques, 28, and Paulo Almeida, 29, who met at the storied Central Saint Martins design school in London and whose label Marques'Almeida is only four years old. "We had never worked with denim before," Marta said over the phone in August. "We were doing research and came across magazines from the late '90s, when we grew up, and it really resonated with us. We were teenagers [then]." The pair looked at street-style pictures of '90s teens and were inspired. "They aren't wearing designer pieces, they're wearing their boyfriend's jeans and a random shirt, and we thought it would be interesting to bring that aesthetic into a high-end catwalk."

Their first collection, shown during the Saint Martins graduate show in February 2011, featured overdyed, hand-frayed denim pieces: oversize dresses, frayed tops, and pants with rips so wide at the legs that they looked like denim leg warmers. Absolute genius.

Marques and Almeida kept going deeper and deeper into the denim world the following season. Soon there were structured jackets and ample trousers that were strangely upscale despite their down-to-earth origins, jackets and "jeans" made from raw silk and velvet that were still casual and cool. Though they were mostly working in the same fabric, their collections somehow never felt like "Denim, again?"

Many designers talk about their ideal women as dream-like creatures off on a holiday to Greece, being fed grapes by a muscular man while lounging on the deck of a yacht, but the Marques'Almeida woman is more like your older sister's cool friend, the confident woman you see ordering coffee one morning and become obsessed with. "One of the things that we've always said is that we feel detached to the whole world of fashion, it feels so pretend and so Photoshopped; a 14-year-old in heels and a cocktail dress," said Marta. Their commitment to authenticity is clear in their runway shows. Their models—though they may be skinny—are never waifs, never fragile, and instead have a self-assurance that surely helps sell their clothes. "Fuck, I would look really badass in those weird jeans and that asymmetrical shirt" is a thing I think often when looking at their designs.

It felt inevitable when Topshop came calling for a collaboration; for the store, the brand made little denim T-shirts, shift dresses, and its now-trademark jeans without a waistband and with frayed edges. The collaboration brought Marques'Almeida's style to a wider audience. A few months ago, they won the coveted LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers (opens in new tab), which earned them a boatload of extra cash, a mentorship from LVMH, and, of course, a stamp of approval in the fashion world (not that they needed it!). For young, independent designers who are truly doing something different, it can't get much better than that.

So next time you walk into Urban Outfitters or Zara and see the perfect denim piece that simultaneously reminds you of your best friend reenacting Spice Girls choreography with you in front of her bedroom mirror and also makes you feel like a "cool adult," give a little shout-out in your heart to Marta and Paulo. They're making your idealized self become a reality.

Laia Garcia is the associate editor of Lenny.

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