Originally created 02/10/00

Old is new again



Think you've seen the last of grunge? Of jeans so ripped up and dirty they hardly hang on a body? Think again. Grunge is back and will be for some time during the next millennium.

"Beating up the fabric" -- abrading it, tearing it, putting holes in it and destroying it through any and all means available -- "has been talked about in fashion circles since Gucci's Tom Ford reintroduced the look," says Norman Karr, who heads Jeanswear Communications in New York. "Splatter and patched jeans are also big."

From his New York office, Mr. Karr said denim has been given a new "freshness" to attract new customers without abandoning its basic appeal to the traditional denim crowd. "It's lighter in weight, more visual, darker and `dirtier,' which means that it has been given colored filling and tinting, plus more textures through slubbing, crosshatching and blasting, to bring out more character and color."

At the spring 2000 New York runway shows in September, designer Calvin Klein made everyone sit up and take notice when he announced that jeans that look trashed are in demand.

Mr. Klein reportedly said that dirty denim (trashed with fake stains, not real dirt) will play a major role in his spring 2000 line.

Such big-time jeans manufacturers as Levi Strauss & Co., the Lee Co. and even Tommy Hilfiger bought the idea. All are pushing dirty, greasy-looking, ripped-up jeans.

The dirty-as-hip look has paid off big time for a Henderson, Ky., company since 1987. That was the year that Bart Sights graduated from Centre College in Danville, Ky., and needed a job. And his father, Dale Sights, had just left his job at a Henderson bank. Dale Sights heard that a hot new look in jeans, called "stone-washed," was the coming thing. The family owned an industrial laundry that Bart Sights' grandfather had co-founded in 1960.

Dale Sights, now Sights Denim's chief executive officer, put up about $10,000 for a load of pumice to be used in the old industrial washer and dryer in an old warehouse.

First to come aboard as a regular customer was the children's clothing maker Osh Kosh B'Gosh.

Of the 150,000 pieces of clothing (including denim jackets, shorts, skirts, the works) Sights Denim now processes each week, about 90,000 are given the look of grease-monkey chic.

Small rooms in the company's Design Center are filled with jeans products in all states of disrepair. Here is a room for Lee Jeans, another for Guess, still another for Calvin Klein. And there are rooms for such giants as Levi Strauss & Co. and Tommy Hilfiger.

Designers from these companies come regularly to look over the destruction the Sightses and their employees have created and give their "Yea" or "Nay" to the product.

Much of the damage is done by sandblasting in the company's Abrasion Center. Sandpaper is savagely ground into the thighs and knees of the jeans. Still another worker is responsible for creating crease lines near the crotch and at the back of the knees. To tear up the hems, waist or fly, razors are used.

After all that destruction, the jeans are plopped into sophisticated washing machines for the addition of those tints that make them look loaded with grease, oil spots and dirt.

"Sometimes the dirty look of the jeans is so real you can't believe it," Bart Sights said.

He likes to tell the story of how his team of quality-control inspectors found a batch of jeans that looked so bad they thought the machine had fouled up.

"But," he said, "it wasn't the machine at all. They came out looking exactly the way Levi's had ordered them to look."

But will they sell, these frayed-out, ripped-up jeans that look like the kind even a garage mechanic's wife might throw in the garbage? You can bet your dark-blue, unwashed, plain-pocket denims they will.

The Sightses have been betting they would sell since they formed their company in 1987. And they've been so right about it that The Wall Street Journal devoted a page one story to the Henderson company on Oct. 12.

In it, the business journal predicted that the dirtied-up Calvin Klein jeans, for instance, will sell for as much as $78, or as much as $20 more than a decent-looking pair of unblemished Calvin Klein jeans.