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The Women in Denim

I was so happy to meet Anne Oudard, a sustainable denim designer and consultant, as we were able to share our hopes and dreams for our beloved denim industry. Anne is also one of the co-founders of Women in Denim, focused on driving these conversations that will shape the future of the industry. Anne had a very interesting perspective on gender and sustainability, so I had a few questions for her.

What are the challenges you face when trying to push sustainable concepts forward with your clients?

Depending on the type of client I see two main challenges.

When I work with young small brands, they are already well aware of the environmental and ethical issues and they are very determined to set up sustainable practices. The main challenge I have to face is to get access to existing sustainable solutions. Minimum order quantities for fabrics is a huge restriction, and it’s the same for manufacturing quantities… it makes my head in to know that the solution is right here but I can’t get it unless we make thousands of pieces! (How sustainable is that, by the way?)

On another hand, when working with big established brands, changing habits is a real piece of work! They do want to make things better but they have so many processes in place, they are so used to making things the old way, season after season. It’s all about guiding them safely, step by step, towards better practices.

What is the first problem area you’d like to see tackled in the industry? Do you have any thoughts on how it could be tackled?

Every season, during trade events, new innovations are presented. The majority of them are aimed at saving energy, water, chemicals, raw materials, etc… all we hear now is sustainability!

So how come sustainable jeans are so few on shop floors?

It ain’t because the customers don’t want it. Last year, the fashion search platform Lyst saw an increase of 193% for sustainable jeans entries. Sustainability sells, so why aren’t all denim brands going for it?

Some might say it is because it costs more, which I’m not sure is still relevant. Studies show that sustainability can pay for itself. The energy and water usage of conventional productions are costly too and modern washing facilities are all saying that the investment is worth it.

Same for recycled cotton. Mills re-integrating their cotton waste into their yarns are saving materials and ultimately money.

On the retailers’ side, excuse my French but I think ignorance is the major brake. Multi-product brands don’t always have a designer dedicated to denim specifically and employees don’t necessarily have time to stay updated on innovations. As a freelancer, I spend a lot of time reading articles and reports. I invest hours into finding alternatives that actually work. Denim is a complex industry that requires skilled professionals doing the research and guiding brands towards better practices without falling into greenwashing traps.

I was very intrigued when you mentioned women have been more in tune with driving the sustainability agenda forward. I was wondering if you’d be able to share more of your thoughts on this and perhaps why it is important we ensure women are a part of these conversations and decision-making processes?

I see a deep interconnection between social justice and climate justice, and gender representation and sustainability are intertwined.

In the denim industry, environmental issues have opened a whole new field of innovation. This extra room has given women a great opportunity to lead the change with a fresher vision. Denim isn’t just a boys club of raw selvage geeks anymore! The growing importance of sustainability is broadening the horizons towards a more inclusive reflection.

In my personal experience, making better jeans gave my career a much deeper purpose and it made me grow. Finding new ways of washing jeans or sourcing recycled fibers, fits with my values. Lately, I was invited by women of the industry to participate in online talks and project presentations. I am very excited to see all these initiatives pushing towards a more collaborative industry, sharing resources and ideas. We are all part of the solution.

I noticed how male-dominated the industry was when I first entered, but have you felt being a female has affected any of the clients or work that you receive?

I landed in the denim industry 10 years ago and I’ve always felt very welcome. It’s definitely one of the most relaxed sectors in the fashion industry!

This being said…Yes, it is a male-dominated industry. The vast majority of leading positions are occupied by men. Most of the speakers during professional events and conferences are men and although I’ve seen real efforts to encourage female representation, we still have a long way to go.

Jeans have infiltrated every social class and gender, they are totally universal and it is hard to believe that the industry is still so male-dominated.

Aside from the general patriarchal domination, I see an explanation in the history of jeans: they were made by men, for men. Workers, miners, cowboys, bikers… Jeans were created to be super strong and with that comes a viral image. For a while, women were wearing men’s jeans. My mom’s first jeans were the same ones as her twin brother’s. She told me that, back in the 70s, jeans were still pretty controversial and to her, they represented freedom and gender equality but they were not made for her!

When in the 80s and 90s jeans were designed specifically for women, they were super sexualized! Men designers were transposing their vision of femininity into women’s jeans. They were designed according to their fantasized ideal of what a woman should look like.

Nowadays, there are many female denim designers but most of the business owners and executives are men. They are still dictating the rules.

In cinema, there’s a concept called the male gaze for scenes seen through the eyes of men. This vision has been spread out on such a scale that it became the norm. If we satisfy ourselves with this kind of vision only we miss out on so much more creativity and we fail at representing diversity.

Encouraging multiple visions, from people with various perspectives, is where I’d like to see the industry go towards.

Is this where the Women in Denim was born? Can you tell us more about the future goals for the Women in Denim?

Last year at Bluezone, my friend Lucie Germser, who works as a consultant for the show, organized a panel discussion called The Women in Denim. Lucie and Sabine Kühln (from Sportswear international) asked women of the industry to come on stage and share their experiences. We were about a dozen and after the talk, we all stayed together for a while. We couldn’t stop talking! It felt really good to be all together! That’s how we decided we should carry on the conversation and start the The Women in Denim community.

The goals of The Women in Denim are many. It is aimed at supporting and empowering each other, sharing advice, and info. We also know that we are the privileged ones in this industry and we have at heart to empower all the women in denim. 80% of garment workers are women. We need to support them and make sure their voices are heard too.

Every member of the community is encouraged to organize local events. Our friend Barbara Gnutti will be hosting a gathering in Milan this fall while Lucie is working on a photography book to raise funds for a charity supporting women and orphans in Madagascar.

In the next months (when we can travel safely again) we are planning Women in Denim meetings in Istanbul and then maybe one in Dhaka.

We share updates on all events and initiatives on our social media (Instagram and LinkedIn) and through our newsletter (to subscribe, email me with name and company All women working in the denim industry are very welcome to join us! Thank you Anne for sharing your experiences as a female sustainable designer with us! I am always intrigued to hear the different challenges sustainable designers face when trying to encourage the brands they work with to adopt their suggested methods, as I always hear different answers. The same goes for what they’d like to see going forward.

“Denim is a complex industry that requires skilled professionals doing the research and guiding brands towards better practices without falling into greenwashing traps.”

I couldn’t agree more with Anne here. We are lucky to have some very smart people in our industry that are willing to share their knowledge and collaborate to make our blue world green. The Women In Denim initiative is one that I am a huge fan of for this reason, as they create a space to drive conversations and share successes. If you were creating a new innovation that would benefit the entire industry, would you be willing to share the details? We know how good we are at collaborating in the denim industry, so let’s help each other get to where we want to be because hey, that’s what collaboration is all about!

I hope you enjoyed this week’s interview and come back next week for more #DiligentDenim. In the meantime, STAY DILIGENT FRIENDS!


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