The Art of Denim

How Gilded Age designer Stefan Miljanic turns volcanic mud into the denim world's gold standard.

It’s not that Gilded Age designer Stefan Miljanic is a Luddite, but assembly-line efficiency isn’t really a priority in his work. Collecting mud on the side of a volcano? That’s integral. Miljanic relishes in the techniques of a bygone era; one with priorities rooted in meticulous, time-consuming craftsmanship. Of particular note: his denim (a selection of which happens to be on sale now at Gilt MAN). Each pair is made through a laborious process which spans multiple continents and incorporates elements of air, earth, and sea. We sat down with the designer to find out how and why 19th-century production methods fit into a technocentric world.

The process of making Gilded Age denim is involved, and ends up costing youand, therefore, the customermore. Why do you think it’s important to maintain what some might consider antiquated methods and standards of production?
As in other fields, and in life in general, there are a variety of ways to work, produce, and create. Why is it important for the car industry to come up with better performance using materials that require more skill and labor in the least time possible? Obviously there is a need and a market for that type of product. Gilded Age is geared toward a consumer that wants, seeks, and understands the quality of a product and appreciates the process, time, and effort made on our part to get that product to the market.

Your denim is made from natural indigo and volcanic mud dyes, all on 19th-century Japanese looms. How long does it take to make one pair of Gilded Age jeans, and how many people does it involve?
Some of the more complicated jeans that we have done I’d compare to the creation of a painting. For Spring 2011, we have done a jean that has seventeen different images printed on the denim. We had to go through the process of washing; then localized sanding and abrasion, localized painting and destruction, and finalizing with an authentic creation of 3-D effects on the images. This all comes after the patterns are cut and sewn. So, it certainly takes time. For one of these pairs, we had one individual complete the whole process from A to Z and it took ages. Those are the most artisanal jeans we’ve ever made. It was a trip back to the 19th century.

What prompted you to create and design a line that centers so intensely on this kind of meticulous production?
In today’s world, everything is digital and perfectly even and clean, totally devoid of flaws. When I walk the streets of New York, it’s not the modern glass towers that catch my eye; it’s often the small brownstones beautifully gilded, the iron fences and gates, the massive wooden doors. Those things that still stand and tell the story of when time and thought had been invested in a much bigger way to create something. Nowadays, one can make a call and book fifty thousand glass windows and one hundred thousand steel beams…and here comes the building.

Did you study Japanese denim production and dying techniques prior to starting Gilded Age? Has it been an ongoing process learning these techniques?
Japan had some luck or foresight to preserve its manufacturing base and artisanal know-how as opposed to us shifting and outsourcing everything and anything. My general interest in this predates Gilded Age.

Many denim brands flaunt their selvage status. Does this alone make a pair of jeans artisanal, and therefore worth coveting? Or is this just one part of a holistic process that people have honed in on?
We use the word selvage to describe the type of denim we use, and consider this to be just a small part of the process. Some brands come up with one jean in selvage denim and they make a big deal out of it, which makes it seem like a marketing gimmick.

How do you feel about the idea of pre-distressing?
In the same way a painter would approach a blank canvas. I consider jean-making more of an art form. That is why it is hard to get the most authentic expression in jeans. Not everyone can get it done right. On the other hand, there’s the thought that jeans should be left to the wearer to mold and shape and distress naturally.

What is it that you hope your customer will take away from Gilded Age?
We hope Gilded Age products entice you to learn about the history and function of making quality clothing. It’s a lifestyle with an educational point of view.

Gilded Age, on sale now at Gilt MAN.

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