Green in a Blue World
When does a fad become fundamental? When it comes to the clothes we wear the answer is now – if not yesterday. We all know that fashion thrives on the next big trend; it’s the nature of the beast. But due to the fact that in the last few years the industry, under intense scrutiny, has had to reconcile itself to the harsh truth that it is heavily polluting, when it comes to cases like Candiani Denim – a family-run mill founded in 1938 and known for its eco-friendly product – one is allowed a little burst of hope.
In the landscape of the Ticino Park, 40 km north of Milan, the home of Candiani Denim is spread into two different plants that cover a total of some 170,000 sq m. Everything here looks as tidy as possible: perfectly groomed grass, boxwoods and bushes of geranium, the effect is like a set design for a Jacques Tati movie. And like all good old stories of Italian enterprises, you’ll find no discontinuity between family and business: the Candiani’s still cultivate a habit of taking a stroll around the headquarters, everyday, after breakfast and after dinner.
But what makes this a peculiar case is that much before the conversation on sustainability started, the company was there already. “We are obsessed with efficiency, and efficiency is the precursor of sustainability,” says Alberto Candiani via email. At 37 years old, Alberto is the fourth generation in the family business. As proof of the mentality that exemplifies Candiani, he often brings up a little story about his father, Gianluigi: “He will probably tell you [the mill] is never clean enough and would spot a spider web from 50 metres…”
Such attention to detail goes some way to explaining why, season after season it is pushing boundaries. But even more crucial to its low-impact approach has been the environment where the mill is located. “You have to consider that all our investments were made in the town of Robecchetto, which is included in a national nature reserve. The region, the institutions, have given us severe restrictions in terms of environmental impact, ” explains Alberto. Consequently, the production has been designed according to ‘reduce’, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ concepts, and also implements closed-loop systems. It’s an ethos that includes, for instance, the reuse of water from the finishing department in the dyeing process, dyestuff and colour that are never discarded, and the recycling of 100% of cotton waste – 50% getting made into new yarns and 50% used for insulation and soundproofing for the construction and automotive industries.
Turning 80 a couple of years ago, Candiani’s anniversary came with the introduction of an ingenious fabric, named Re-Gen, which won the ITMA Sustainable Innovation Award in 2019. Labelled by the organization as a ‘circular denim’, its design makes full use of the company’s interpretation of a circular economy: 50% of the denim is made of RefibraTM branded lyocell fibres by Lenzing, which uses cotton-cutting scraps from garment production, while the other 50% comes from post-industrial recycled Candiani fibres.
It might sound intimidating, but that’s the thing with sustainability – it’s much more about research, engineering and innovation than it is about greenwashing. “Many in the fashion business have felt uncomfortable when the word infiltrated it, because it’s not about improvisation: first you need to know what is the real meaning of sustainable or green,” says Candiani’s marketing director, Simon Giuliani, when I met him in the showroom just outside the main plants. The showroom’s aim is to welcome clients and designers in the effort to carry out an educational mission that the company feels is not just much needed but urgent.
Candiani is the largest denim mill in Europe and one of the only vertically integrated. Starting off as a small producer of workwear fabrics for the local market, it began to focus on denim from the 60s. But it’s Candiani’s third generation, Gianluigi, which transformed the company into a premium denim mill. By at least the 90s, jeans have gone a long way from a durable workwear item to fashionable garment – passing through the hands of the likes of François Girbaud, Elio Fiorucci, and Giorgio Armani. Gianluigi elaborated the formula for stretch denim uniting performance and quality, which would make jeans more comfortable without becoming droopy and add a fit without losing the authentic denim look. This gave Candiani the advantage to stay in Italy when – around 2010 – many companies were pushed by the saturation of the market to outsource their production to countries like Bangladesh, India, and China. The lack of regulations in such places has been highlighted by documentaries The True Cost or River Blue, the latter focusing on “one iconic consumer product” that is considered the most impactful in the whole textile industry: blue jeans.
“The first time I visited big jeans manufacturing facilities in Asia, I understood that 21st century denim is still a commodity and not many would really care about it. It’s a ‘whatever item’, taken for granted by most of the global population,” says Alberto. “Here we only make ‘premium’ denim, which is certainly not related to the commodity one, but I had to investigate and find out what is happening with the billions of units that are currently flooding the market.”
At Candiani’s Ticino Park site, things look quite different. “Innovation and sustainability go hand in hand,’ muses Simon. Here they have developed dyeing technologies that allow them to save on water, energy, and chemical auxiliaries. “What we aim to teach our clients is that these technologies can help you reach the result you want, while saving on environmental costs,” he explains. “We design our fabrics according to the final look they want to get.” So, for a no-fade or clean look they developed a nitrogen dyeing technology, called N-Denim, able to achieve a very deep penetration of the colour in the yarn, that reduces the number of dyeing baths from seven to two and avoids hydrosulphites and fixation agents. “But if you want the typically washed-denim look, the vintage vibe, there is an easy-fade technology.” Simon is referring to Indigo Juice, which keeps the pigment very superficial on the yarn, so that when jeans are washed in the laundry it takes only a fraction of water, chemicals, and energy. An additional technology used at Candiani is a patented one called Kitotex, which uses chitosan – a natural polymer obtained from the exoskeletons of crustacean – for the dyeing and finishing process. It allows for substantial reductions in chemicals (-70%), water (-50%) and energy (-30%), giving the opportunity to fully replace PVA and other harmful substances.
In 2013, Candiani’s headquarters created its own development entre, aiming to supply clients with tailor-made wash recipes in order for them to get the best from each fabric – one similar was opened in Los Angeles in 2016 for the US market. Today, the clients Candiani supplies can be recognised by ‘Rivetto d’Oro’ (a golden rivet) and among them there are Atelier & Repairs, Ace Rivington, MATiAS, Benzak Denim Developers, Denham, Closed, Dondup, Care Label, C.O.F. Studio (Circle of Friends), and Blue of a Kind.
“Often the good thing [about] a family business is not being driven by numbers, but by long-terms goals,” adds Giuliani. “Our denim might cost three times the price than the one produced in Bangladesh, but the point is to make clients and final consumers understand the difference: some 30 years ago quality and price were directly correlated, but today the perception of values has been radically subverted. Nevertheless, what happened with food – we all know how to tell when it is good or not – can happen with clothing.”
Candiani Denim’s latest innovation is 100% biodegradable, stretch denim, which demonstrates that better denim can already be done. So, can a responsible response in the fashion industry definitely make a difference? “It will have to make a difference,” says Alberto. “Fashion – as it is – will no longer be sustainable for the simple reason it’s based on overproductions generating tonnes of landfill. I might say something crazy, but I claim we shall first of all produce less and then produce it better.”
by Marta Galli