In 1972, singer Albert Hammond had a top ten hit with his single and subsequent album titled “It Never Rains in Southern California.” The words refer to a land where glamor rules and 80ºF (around 27ºC) temps are the norm. Los Angeles might be home to celebrities, sun and sand but the state is paying dearly for all that unending sunshine.

The California drought, especially in Los Angeles, which is essentially irrigated desert, has affected every area of life from the state’s massive farming industry all the way down to the average citizen. Homeowners are given state incentives to take “one song” showers. They are paid to rip out their lawns and plant cacti instead and Angelenos, never folks to shy away from cosmetic “procedures,” have even taken to painting their brown, dead lawns green.

A thirsty industry
But there’s another quiet victim suffering at the hands of the parched land. California’s denim industry represents a full 75% of the world’s premium denim, employees about 200,000 people and accounts for nearly 10% of the $18 billion generated by the LA fashion trade alone. Unfortunately, denim needs a lot of water. It takes, after all, 1800 gallons of water to create one pair of jeans. That’s one thirsty industry.

Oscar Quintero’s family runs Blue Creations of California, Inc., an industrial wash house that services clients as diverse as Volcom, Gap, 7 For All Mankind and True Religion, to name only a few. Blue Creations has been forced to reduce their water consumption by 36% or face overages. This has made the company not only turn away certain, water-hungry jobs, but it’s also upped their investment in alternatives such as ozone technology. “Over the past three to four years,” says Quintero, “we have saved around 40-50% each year by using our ozone machine [which conserve water, gas and electricity]. It was a big expense but we are looking into purchasing a second one to help reduce water use even further.”
Hiut Denim's 'No Wash Club' (photo: Douglas Cringean)
Hiut Denim's 'No Wash Club' (photo: Douglas Cringean)

With ozone machines starting at $60,000 and running all the way up to $150,000, it’s not that easy for Los Angeles’ hundreds of denim manufacturers and wash houses to cut back on water consumption. And, according to some, ozone is hardly a godsend. “Ozone does save water, but it’s very inconsistent,” says Jazteri of Seamless Studio, Inc., an LA denim wash developer whose top client is currently Diesel USA. “Ozone presents a lot of shading problems and a bad chemical odor in addition to the price.”

No washing
Seamless Studio combats the problem by using only two washing machines, which generate 12 thousand units every two weeks. “I develop washes that don’t use a lot of water,” says Jazteri, “plus a lot of resin rinses and dry processes to make up the look of the garments.”
Still, other smaller denim companies, such as Welsh brand Hiut, do their part by advocating that Angelenos and, indeed, every customer to join their No Wash Club, which leaves your jeans dry for a full six months or longer. A Hiut company statement says: “At the end of six months you will have shaped your jeans into a unique pair of jeans that only you could have made. After that first wash, you will have one of the most beautiful pair of jeans you will have ever owned. Each crease, each line, will have been put there by you. You will have lessened the impact on the environment simply by abstaining from washing them.” No washing, they say, saves nearly 140 liters every six months.

The fashion dilemma
Whatever the answer, be it painting your grass green, switching to pricey ozone machines, inventing dry rinses or simply wearing your jeans, unwashed till they stand up on their own, California’s drought and its affect on the denim industry is not going away. As concerns grow about production leaving the state in favor of, say, Mexico, folks like Quintero fear that, one day, it might simply be impossible to produce denim in California. “We are all for saving water,” he says, “but they don’t take into account the amount of water we have saved over the past five years before the drought policy was ever even put into place by Governor Jerry Brown. We are faced with two considerations: reducing the amount of work we are able to take on so we can meet stringent water budgets and investing in newer, more efficient machinery.”
Of all the denim trends and innovations, the California drought might just be the industry’s toughest fashion dilemma yet.