Celebrating nearly 150 years of denim culture

Feature Story

Organised by Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), the inaugural Hong Kong Denim Festival was a three-week cultural and design event to promote the promulgation of denim — the iconic material invented in 1873 by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss (and named after the Italian city of Genoa, where the cotton corduroy from which denim evolved was made).

This one-of-a-kind festival featured a dynamic series of activities including a denim bazaar, exhibitions, design workshops, seminars and presentations that embraced both the history and future of denim. Visitors from all walks of life were intrigued by the chronological development of the denim culture — mixing the nostalgia of the fabric with new techniques in manufacturing as well as fashion trends and styles.

This dual-location festival featured three distinct tracks: “King of Fashion: Denim” Exhibition, a Denim Bazaar and Sham Shui Po Downtown Denim. Together, they comprised a comprehensive timeline of the brands, manufacturers and talents that have shaped today’s denim culture.

To help visitors understand the evolution of trends in denim, HKDI Fashion Archive put together 10 pieces from brands including Christian Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Moschino and Comme des Garçons from the 1980s to the 2000s — led by Ms Elita Lam, Head of the HKDI’s Department of Fashion and Image Design and Director of its Fashion Archive.

Levi’s participation didn’t disappoint: it exhibited one of the oldest pairs of blue jeans in the world, made in Nevada in 1880. Also on show by Levi Strauss & Co. were the classic 501 Homer jeans (1917) worn by an Arizona miner every day for three years except on Sundays; and a pair belonging to the late Apple founder Steve Jobs from the 1980s.

Interview with Ms Elita Lam, Head of Department of Fashion and Image Design at HKDI and organiser of the Hong Kong Denim Festival

How did you source the pieces you exhibited at the Hong Kong Denim Festival? Were they difficult to find/select?

We sourced the pieces from various brands, local designers, artists and denim lovers. In the beginning, we were aiming at local brands with an historical background, such as Bang Bang, Apple, York, etc. We were lucky enough to get in touch with the founder of York who let us have signature items from the ’80s when we went to his shop in Prince Edward — the only one left.

Before the event, two project team members visited New York Denim Day where they met the Turkish artist Deniz Sagdıç and invited her to showcase her work at the HKDF. Advance Denim, a strategic partner, introduced to us a number of renowned overseas brands to participate, including Levi’s and G-Star.

ImagineX Group presented items from one of its brands, Scotch and Soda, at the exhibition, while Sidefame, another partner, gave us some items from one of its brands, 45R. An exhibitor introduced to us Chevignon, which also contributed exhibits. Other exhibitors included HKDI alumni with successful brands, including Koyo William and Luddite.

The selected items were mainly products with a story to tell. We spent several months consolidating and received very positive feedback and support from our industry partners, either in contributing items for the exhibition, or to workshops, seminars, souvenirs or sponsorships.

How influential do you think denim has been in the fashion world and do you foresee it continuing to be so for another century and a half?

Denim is an all-encompassing, bottom-up fashion. It was originally worn by workers (or Gold Rush miners in the 18th century). In the ’80s, many fashion brands started jeans lines, and there are now millions of denim lovers worldwide. Almost everyone has at least one pair at home.

What kind of feedback were you expecting from partners, brands and fabric sellers? And how do you think this first-of-its-kind event will help bring the industry closer together?

We received very positive feedback from designers, design associations, manufacturers, brands, students and staff. We were surprised to find that there are so many passionate denim designers in Hong Kong. During the event, the HKDF facilitated potential collaborations between various exhibitors. The workshops and seminars were fully booked a day after we opened for online registration. We drew more than 100,000 visitors throughout the three-week event.

The Hong Kong & Kowloon Textile Fabrics Wholesalers Association Ltd. was very supportive and it lined up fabric shops in Sham Shui Po to support the event. Renowned international fashion designer Vivienne Tam joined us in Sham Shui Po, where she met with students and young designers. We were inspired to continue our activities at the HKDF and host more fashion events in Sham Shui Po in the near future.