Immortalised by Neil Diamond, while jeans are often associated with the USA, denim actually originates from the city of Nîmes - and now a small company has started making jeans in the birthplace of denim.
From a history degree and internet marketing career in Paris to singlehandedly trying to revive Nîmes’ denim heritage, Guillaume Sagot has his work cut out for him.
The young nîmois had always been fascinated by the town’s textile history, and in particular its claim to fame as the home of denim - “de Nîmes”. In 2014, at the age of 28 years, he made a childhood dream come true by creating Les Ateliers de Nîmes, paying tribute to the city’s textile heritage and legendary canvas.
With the aim of “ramenons le denim à la maison” (“bringing denim home”) and in partnership with his two associates, Anthony Dubos and Clément Payen, Sagot has set himself the challenge of reviving the city’s former savoir-faire, or know-how. The brand is developing hand-crafted, high-end jeans for men and women, 100% made in France from top-quality fabrics. While denim itself is no longer produced in France, Sagot currently sources his from Venice and Milan, and then hand-cuts the jeans himself in his studio in Nîmes following his own paper patterns. The pieces are then sent to Marseille and Paris for stitching, before returning to Nîmes for finishing by Sagot, including inserting brass rivets and adding the distinctive Ateliers de Nîmes leather patch.
“I had to start completely from scratch, as there’s no-one left in Nîmes who can make jeans,” says Sagot. “I do most of the work myself by hand - I had a loom built (which is now on display in the new shop) and a retired weaver taught me how to use it, while a tailor in Marseille instructed me how to make jeans.”
The term ‘denim’ derives from the French serge de Nîmes, meaning ‘serge (a sturdy fabric) from Nîmes. The town once had a booming textile industry, and in the 18th and 19th centuries was home to large textile factories producing cotton, wool and silk fabrics and garments. Many of these fabrics were exported to North America, including serge de Nîmes, which caught the eye of businessman Levi Strauss in the 1860s. He bought it originally for the canopies of gold prospectors’ covered wagons, but later repurposed it to create workwear – and the rest is history.
At the turn of the 20th century, textile production in the city slowed down, with denim production moving to cheaper locations in Europe and then Asia, and then vanishing from the region altogether. Today over 80% of denim is produced in Asia, while the few denim mills left in Europe and North America are closing as demand for top-quality denim falls, with synthetic fibres, such as polyester, blended with cotton to reduce costs.
There is little left in the city to testify to Nîmes’ once thriving textile industry, but Sagot and his partners remains upbeat. Their ambition is to produce jeans entirely made in Nîmes – and to launch a denim museum in Nîmes in the future.
The company is on track to achieve these aims, with a series of exciting developments over the next few months. Sagot has just opened his own shop in the centre of Nîmes, showcasing his loom and a display of archive photos showing denim production in Nîmes in former times.
Meanwhile, with the ultimate aim of bringing everything – fabric production, cutting, stitching and finishing – back to Nîmes, Les Ateliers launched a successful crowd-funding exercise earlier this year, resulting in the purchase of two vintage looms dating from the 1950s. Originally made in Ypres in Belgium and used for weaving denim in the original jean manufacturing area in northern Italy, the looms have not been used for years, but are being given a new lease of life by a specialist technician - the last remaining person in Europe familiar with these looms. After training in Italy, Sagot starts weaving his own denim in October, aiming to produce around 30 metres of 90cm-wide fabric a day in a spacious new studio. With weaving no longer taught in France, finding staff is a major challenge, but Sagot is confident all will work out and he’ll be producing his own jeans in-house before too long.
Meanwhile word is getting out – Les Ateliers de Nîmes have been featured in local, national and international press, including the New York Times, Monocle, Bonnegueule, BBC World, France 3 and M6. A partnership with students of the city’s Lycée Ernest Hemingway created a collection of denim-based fashions exhibited around town, while another marketing initiative, in conjunction with Château Beaubois, sees a limited-edition red wine showcasing a stunning hand-made denim label created by Les Ateliers. Only 1,000 bottles have been produced, with all profits going to the Ateliers’ heritage efforts.
In addition to the Ateliers’ Nîmes shop, the men’s and ladies’ jeans collections are available in various high-end boutiques in France and Switzerland, and online. Jackets and bags are planned for 2019, with made-to-measure jeans on the horizon. Jeans start at €120 per pair, and as Sagot explains, “our jeans are for people who really appreciate good denim, want jeans that last and are distinctive. Each pair is hand-made, so you know that the jeans you are wearing are completely unique – and you’re contributing to the revival of one of the world’s most famous textiles in its own birthplace.”
LES ATELIERS DE NÎMES
2 Rue Auguste Pellet