We're all very aware of the active trend currently getting everyone in the denim industry talking (or panicking!) and it really is a talking point for good reason as active is enjoying a massive resurgence lately. But should a denim brand embrace this trend? If you're a purist/ heritage denim brand its not something that fits with your aesthetic but I bet your sales teams keep banging on about it, right? And if you're a womenswear or fashion led brand then you're all over it but wondering where to draw the line. When does denim stop and active start?
Jog jeans, jersey denim and high-stretch jegging fabrics are one thing but is there really a brand out there who is nailing the attitude and aesthetic, especially in the mens market? Well, let me introduce you to Phi and you can decide for yourself! These dudes are legit.
Phi Denim was started earlier this year by 4 guys: Yukiko Suzuki, Alexis Ratajczak, Vincent Rousson and Philippe Disdier. Whats really interesting about these guys is that they are denim obsessed but come from a technical, activewear background and I think this is what helps stand them apart as they are not just denim designers trying to jump on the activewear trend, they are activewear geeks who really know what they are talking about.
I chatted to Philippe about how the brand came about, his love of technology and the active world but mostly his obsession with all things indigo.
The first thing you'll notice about phi. is their very distinctive back pocket. Using what looks like traditional indigo kimono fabric alongside a very modern taped seam, this was my first question: "Talk me through the back pocket Phil!"
"It's made with Japanese selvedge black cotton from Nihon Mempu die cut and bonded with a special film. It's close to what we would see in the "Gore-Tex" outerwear world. I've been working in the active industry for nearly 17 years and I'm a big fan of the new technology around laser and bonding processes"
And what about the rest of the jean?
I am into the technical processes of designing. Thus when I want to bring this timeless and pure aspect to the denim, the modern construction was key to our story. Labelling is printed inside including the product name, serial numbers, sewers names.. The rivet and button are in copper with no branding. The final signature is this alchemy, this mix of different worlds and technologies: past, present and future.
Its clear from your design to see the active element you're bringing to denim but I wondered initially why you chose to bring this look to the denim world?
I discovered Japanese Denim during a business trip for technical fabrics around 7 years ago in Japan...It was really a shock to discover this pure world of craftmanship, indigo and respect... But at the same time its my style to be attracted towards vintage and the past. My idea was to remix ideas and create something different. My background is around sport and active wear, so I always mix them. Also, Indigo is one of the bases of our street wear culture. Kimono is just linked with Japananese culture and this quest for perfection. Japan is the right mix/balance between future and tradition/ history. And of course their passion to create pure products.
What do you think the relationship is now between denim and the active world. What with jog jeans and jeggings, active is becoming increasingly important...
In the technical activewear world we have achieved great and innovative design but I believe it's time to move forward in other areas such as denim. To me, new streetwear is about mixing codes and revisiting the past to create the future.
Gotcha, so around 7 years ago, when you stumbled across denim in Japan, what brands stood out to you? Who were you into?
In the past one French brand did a great job I think: Marithe+François Girbaud. Nike do a great job in mixing fashion with technical process and function. But on that first trip to Japan, Momotaro and Evisu were two of my favourites. They sign their pants using the back pocket and I think this is important because in a store they are the only one we can identify easily. Yet the process is low tech. But in general we don't want to identify ourselves like other brands. We want to be the right product level like Momotaro, Evisu, Visvim, Sophnet, Acronym and Cote & Ciel... all brands we respect.
So the back pocket was really important to you... where did the 'eureka moment' come from with your phi back pocket?
The focus is on pure materials: Japanese raw denim, re-used kimonos and technology. No branding outside... just a signature pocket for those that know our story. There is a lot of emotion involved when choosing the kimonos we used for the pockets. Each time we travel to Japan to source them its a lot of passion and thought.
Where do you go to find the indigo kimonos?
Most of the time it's during a trip in Japan...walking/discussing in some antique market in Tokyo, or directly with some people I met during some events. Yukiko helps us a lot in this research. We use only woven patterns called Kasuri at the moment, these are our favourite looks. We recently met an old craftsman who has been kind enough to share his knowledge. But the phi. project's sole aim is to mix the different worlds, not to just use kimonos.
And what's the next plan for phi. are you going to expand the range into different product categories?
We will stay in the Denim world because it's definitely our passion. But yes we are thinking about jackets and shirts. Tees are going to launch soon and a new fit for the pants.
What do you think makes phi. stand out?
All denim brands seem to have the same kind of story and products at the moment. We don't want to play in the same way. We want to inject something fresh and new instead of propose another vintage point of view. They just play with their name. This is why we decided to sign our product in a different way using a different toolbox. Revisiting and refreshing products.
So, if you are expanding, here's my next question: how has the response been to your brand? Where are you stocking and what markets are you most popular in so far?
Colette in Paris started stocking a few weeks ago. This is a really good step for us... We are just working at the moment on our e-shop. Some others are ready to work with our products in France and in Japan. But for the moment we build our products in limited qty and we are about to launch a new bulk round.
In recent years, the worlds of denim and activewear have started to blur, with the emergence of knit denims, performance capabilities such as moisture wicking, etc etc... what's your take on this: Is it a trend that you see progressing? Is it a purely aesthetic trend or is there more to it?
Yes its a big trend. Active lifestyle is a real need. Aesthetic and function are very closely linked. Denim must be more than vintage products, but should not to go too far and be too much. Denim must evolve but stay true! so the technicality and function must be integrated and invisible. Works maybe more in the yarns level.
Being from the active world there must be some crazy technical fabrics out there you're interested in.
I'm interested in hydrophobic yarns to explore engineered construction and to work as integrated body-mapping functions inside woven fabrics. I'm also into laminated yarns and finishes and also composite (layers)
So are there any mills you are particularly interested in? What fabrics are getting you excited at the moment?
I don't have enough connection with denim mills except using their own quality really. We are in contact with Collect, Nihon Mempu... and I'm not sure those have the right tools to push forward. For the moment we keep the denim quality pure and simple and add technicality by construction. But I would really love discussing about new tech coming from technical sports and activewear with some great mills. I worked with Toray and Amaterrace in the past, and now actually in Japan we are working with Pertex and Mitsui.. but in my sports/activewear life!