If you've ever wondered what there could possibly be left to say about blue jeans that hasn't been said before, you clearly haven't met Alessandro Vigano. The man behind this season's Wrangler collections can talk about denim till the cowboys come home, and then some. In a relic-scattered meeting room at the legendary Cone Mills denim plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, he proved it, moving from Great Depression-era sharecroppers to 21st century laser technology in the name of jeans, without so much as pausing for breath.
Cone Mills, which was founded in the late 19th century, was where the company that became Wrangler first had its denim made in 1904, and where everybody else soon followed (Levi's first used Cone denim in 1915). Because of the foresight of its founders, and its proximity to Carolina's cotton fields and the Europe-facing ports of the East Coast, Cone became America's premium manufacturer of denim early on. As such, it's the ultimate embodiment of the mission Vigano was given when appointed as design director in 2008 (after stints at D&G and Napapijri): to refocus Wrangler's message on its denim roots. As of last Spring, Vigano also decided that Wrangler's premium line, Blue Bell, should not only use Cone denim as its fabric, but that the garments should also be manufactured in the US too.
"It costs more than if you make it in Turkey or somewhere like this, and of course the lead times are much longer, but I think it's worth it. Nobody else has the heritage and experience. Japanese denim only really started after the 1950s, but for example, Blue Bell/Wrangler started in 1904. If you go here, you take time to feel it for yourself, to understand what it means to really make denim, from the yarn to the fabric and then the people and the company, you understand."
The decades-old machines and sheer number of hands-on processes and quality checks we witnessed when allowed onto the Cone factory floor did rather support Vigano's case. So did the archive collection he used as inspiration, and had laid out in the meeting room for us to coo at. "Found" is what they call an astonishing set of denim pieces, dating from the 1920s to the 1950s, repaired over generations and found undamaged in a deserted tobacco farming family's house six years ago. It's a a denim freak's wet dream. Vigano highlighted exquisite standouts like the "Big Favorite" denim jacket from 1930, with cord collar and pocket and awesome lining - then explained how they'd influenced his Blue Bell designs for this season.
That was the power of denim's past covered. Next, Vigano spoke about its immediate future - how he took inspiration from adman-turned-L.A. artist David Buckingham, whose faded, scrap-metal art, made from bits of old machinery found in the California desert, struck him as the ideal pop art parallel for the season. Then, Vigano explained how he opted to use lasers ("much better for the environment than sandblasters, which is what people normally use") to create the fades and finishes on the latest jeans and jackets for Wrangler's main line. Lasers were also used to put elaborate but subtle patterns (folk art shapes; a map of Seattle) onto some of their jeans. Customers can even pick their own design and have it lasered on, in accordance with the brand's "Mark Your Territory" motto. Between his obsession with innovation and his respect for tradition, Vigano has clearly marked his own: denim. Which is probably why Armani Jeans nabbed him from Wrangler not long after we met - and all the more reason to salute this, his final season with the granddaddy of all denim names.