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What Jeans mean is now more important than what they are


What jeans mean is now more important than what they are.
McKenzie Wark explains.

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The 1960s saw a great proliferation of pop culture, as incomes rose throughout the developed world and more and more people went looking for something on which to spend their disposable income. This was both a good time and a bad time for mass manufacturers of a clothing item like blue jeans. Rising incomes meant more purchasing power and a bigger market, but it also meant rising costs. While the production of the fabric lends itself to automation and to economies of scale, some parts of the cutting and assembling of garments do not.
To make matters worse, the 1960s also saw an explosion of small-scale manufacturers and retailers who took advantage of the vast expansion of pop culture to market a bewildering array of ever-changing styles. Big manufacturers often found it hard to keep up. The aura of style created around the blue jean by Hollywood and Western pop culture did not end at the borders of the US. The names Levi Strauss and Wrangler found their way onto the behinds of people living far from the badlands of American life from which the garments allegedly arose.

The proliferation of pop culture, with its unpredictable style shifts, its valuing of cheap materials, its multiple-entry points for new expressions of style, was a difficult time for the mass manufacturers. Such a basic garment was easily copied, even counterfeited, in the developing world. Moving production there might have lowered costs, but it also created an industry that could quickly duplicate such a basic commodity.

One response was to absorb jeans fully into the bottom end of the fashion system, with annual variations in styles, with decorative stitching, choice of colour, distinctive ranges for men and women, extremes of cut such as the flare and even the zipper on the back - a shortlived innovation of the 1970s. The point of these changes was the effort by the big manufacturers to stay one jump ahead of imitators. Ironically, just as big firms like Levi Strauss benefited from the circulation of images, so their imitators benefited from the advertising campaigns, which promoted the idea of the garment as much as any particular brand. Hence the continual efforts to distinguish products made by the leading brands.

Another change ushered in during the 1970s was the adoption of the garment by formerly high-status designers much further up the old fashion chain. The mass manufacturers had trouble adapting to the unpredictable tastes of pop culture before cheaper imitators caught up. But things were getting just as hard for the more up-market designers, who once had a secure lock on élite tastes.

The high-fashion houses responded by licensing their own names to less-than-the-best-quality goods, including designer jeans. And so, in the 1980s, jeans appeared with the names of European design houses on them. These garments often had little to do with the designers who owned the trade mark, which would simply be licensed to a mass manufacturer. The design houses came to depend on licensing fees - particularly for perfumes but also for products like jeans - to offset the rising cost of exclusive lines and the extravagant marketing they required. The production of élite-design products became less a business in itself and more a way of generating a mass market for the brand. One might not be able to afford an Armani suit or Versaci dress, but there might be a subsidiary line marketed as a cheaper alternative.

While the élite brands cashed in on the value of the sign that is their label by moving it discreetly down market, pop culture was also throwing up its own kind of style élite. It isn’t just the subcultural credibility of Levi Strauss that can be copied: so too can the aura of style of a high-fashion house. Designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan built names for themselves in ready-to-wear clothing that could then be marketed as a sign of certain kind of style and taste, which in turn could be branded onto the seat of a pair of jeans.

The designer jean also incorporates a third phenomena - the mass marketers who decided to differentiate their product by setting up several apparently distinct labels, each with their own house style and target market, but sharing the same manufacturing, distribution and accounting systems. So besides the high-class label moving down market and the streetwise label moving up in the world, there is the mass-market label moving sideways. The Gap and Banana Republic are basically variations on the same corporate structure, but tailored to different niches in the world of brands.

In all of these cases, what you will find are basic garments that all meet at least minimum standards of quality and durability, but are in many ways interchangeable. What distinguishes them is not their material qualities, but the signs stitched onto the back pocket, the environments in which they might be sold, and the marketing campaigns that define the range of possible meanings for the sign. This is the paradox of the ‘postmodern’ fashion world.

The same proliferation of communication that made possible the pop-media world of culture and consumption also enables a fragmented production system. The cotton might come from wherever the exchange rate and the weather is favourable this season. The fabric might be made in a newly industrializing country with high levels of capital and skilled labour, if perhaps rather fewer environmental constraints. The cutting and stitching might be relegated to sweatshops in a less-developed part of the world. The designers, on the other hand, might be close to the New York garment district, where you can also find skilled garment makers who can run up experimental batches for the new-season range. The advertising firm who has the company’s account might be nearby on Madison Avenue where suppliers of image-making skills, from hair stylists to photographers, are clustered.

The point of the whole process is to make a basic garment as cheaply as possible and attach it to a sign that conveys just exactly the right range of meanings to just exactly the right range of consumers, who will be happy to walk around with that sign on their backsides.

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(c) McKenzie Wark lectures in media studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, and is the author of Virtual Geography (Indiana) and The Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin).
Copyright Jeans and Denim - Jeans Manufacturer 2008 (c)