the new documentary charting denim’s legacy, from the gold rush to calvin klein

In 'Blue Gold,' director Christian D. Bruun tells the story of denim, with help from Grandmaster Caz, Marky Ramone, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Apr 3 2017, 5:20pm

still from 'blue gold'

When Raf Simons revealed his eagerly anticipated Calvin Klein debut in February, the designer forged the iconic American brand's future by looking back at a cornerstone of its archive: denim. His first Calvin campaign featured models gazing at Andy Warhols and Sterling Rubys in deep blue jeans; indigo-dyed ensembles followed on the runway. This choice wasn't simply a nod to house history, it was also a wider gesture to the country Simons now calls home. Denim is the thread uniting our nation. Somehow, it's at once quotidian and mythic — a symbol that's shared by subcultural tribes from Southern California hippies to NYC's punks and hip-hop pioneers. Which is precisely what Blue Gold, a new documentary about denim, demonstrates.

Directed by Christian D. Bruun, Blue Gold explores denim's development over the past 200 years, beginning in late 19th-century Nevada during the Gold Rush. Bruun unpacks how cultural conduits like film, television, and advertising shape the mythology of jeans by connecting the garment back to the frontier's authentic, rugged individualism. He then traces denim's shift from Western ranches to international runways in a series of interviews with Calvin Klein (naturally), Tommy Hilfiger, the late Elio Fiorucci, and Diesel founder Renzo Rosso.

These titans of contemporary fashion are joined by a diverse cast of talking heads: Marky Ramone, American History professor Bryant Simon, Grandmaster Caz, Bruce Lee's daughter Shannon, Trash and Vaudeville manager Jimmy Webb, Lynn Downey (a historian at the Levi Strauss archive), Yo-Yo Ma, Curator in Charge of the Metropolitan Museum's Photography Department Jeff Rosenheim, biker Zack Vargas, and Sandeep Agarwal a denim industry expert based in India, among countless others. Bruun also follows vintage denim hunter Eric Schrader around the world — from Boise, Idaho to Tokyo, Japan — on his quest for quality.

The resulting story is remarkably in-depth and endlessly fascinating. Bruun uses the blue jean as a lens for capturing a dynamic portrait of the past and future. We caught up with him to find out how.

When did you first become interested in denim?
I always loved jeans, but I only had one pair at a time in the 80s and 90s. The fact that I knew jeans, when I was growing up, as cowboy pants, always gave them that cool hint of something American — related to films and the American West. But music was a big point of entry for me. Especially early rap music — Grandmaster Flash, Casanova Fly (DJ Caz), Sugarhill Gang — that was some of the first modern use of jeans I ever saw. I didn't discover those guys until about 1981, and at the time, a lot of music in Europe was not about jeans. It was New Romantics, early techno — it was more artificial and theatrical. So it wasn't really until Bruce Springsteen wore Levi's on [the cover of] Born in the USA that authentic, old-school jeans hit MTV and the whole world wore 501s again.

What first got you thinking about using denim as a cultural-historical lens on the world?When I realized the enormous value in vintage jeans. I set out find out what that value is and why the entire world has chosen jeans as our most common item to wear. Not only do jeans tell a story about every decade and cultural fluctuation since the late 1800s, they also tell a story about the globalization of Americana. On one hand, [jeans] are so basic and harmless and normal. At the same time, they still signal change and rebellion — they are still considered dangerous in some places in the world. In the US, you could not wear jeans in school or church up until the 1970s. That kind of sentiment is now being experienced in other parts of the globe. Today, wearing jeans really makes you a citizen of the world.

The film also contains a vast amount of information about denim production, globalization, and the garment industry's environmental impact. Was there any aspect that you weren't able to include in the film, or wanted to go more in-depth about?
I tried to balance the almost unlimited wealth of stories, research, and ideas that came my way to get to the bottom of what makes jeans great — and makes them different. The amount of material I gathered was overwhelming, and I wish I had more time to really go into the history of all the details that make vintage jeans so coveted.

I also knew I wanted to talk about the responsibility that comes with making something that we all hold so dear. To deal seriously with the human rights aspects of manufacturing clothes, and the environmental damage and impact would require a separate film. But I felt it needed to be included, and wanted a reminder in the film that we all need to care about who makes our clothes and how. Hopefully this can open up for more transparency in the textile industry and remind us, the consumers, that our choices have an impact. This is something that I care deeply about.

There was material to make 10 one-hour episodes about the evolution of jeans through every decade of the last 100 years. A lot of this will be released online in episodic form over the next 6-12 months.

What were the most surprising discoveries you made about denim?
In Chinese, Spanish, Danish, and other languages, jeans are still called "cowboy pants" to this day. Yet cowboys never wore them. But they still represent the notion of the American frontier, freedom to roam the open range. That's because Hollywood had their version of cowboys mistakenly wear jeans. And then the rodeo stars wanted to look like John Wayne — so the story is kind of backwards. Later, that freedom was transferred to rebels like Marlon Brando by replacing the horse with a motorcycle.

What does the future hold for denim?
In the film, [musician and designer] Keanan Duffty says, "It's like Michael Myers from Halloween; every time you think it's dead, it's back!" I think jeans will always be with us, as people like Adriano Goldschmied are constantly reinventing them with new technologies to make them more comfortable, fit better, and more sustainable. I think a lot of the future lies in that constant reinvention, as well as the return to the authentic.

'Blue Gold: American Jeans' will be released on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray on April 4, by Gravitas Ventures. More information here.


Text Emily Manning