3D Denim is the Most Ethical, Sustainable Denim in the World

The world loves denim. It is one of the leading lights of the apparel industry; in 2019 the global denim market was valued at US$90 billion. The denim ‘look’, and particularly the look of jeans, is timeless; it is indivisible from the image of icons such as Elvis and Springsteen, yet also associated with modern-day trendsetters such as Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. The world loves its denim.

But despite this popularity, consumers are increasingly conscious that the material raises ethical and sustainability concerns. The primary component of denim is cotton; cotton supply chains worldwide have been linked to questionable practices, and raised serious concerns in terms of sustainability. Notably, the amount of water required to create a single pair of jeans is immense. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has determined that over 20,000 liters of water are required to create just 2.2kg of cotton – that is, the equivalent of a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, more or less.

Digi Denim jacket designs, by Paras Gupta

Denim manufacturers are taking this to heart. Levi Strauss & Company has, for instance, initiated a Better Cotton initiative, committing to using sustainable cotton and vastly reducing the water consumption required to grow this cotton. Similarly, H&M has partnered with the WWF to implement a water stewardship program, focused on making better use of water resources, and of building awareness of such issues more widely. Clothing manufacturers are working to transform cotton, and denim, into a more ethical material.

Yet Paras Gupta, creator of Digi Denim, decided to go a step further: he has created a 3D denim collection, that uses no water or natural resources whatsoever. Paras was kind enough to speak with us to detail his creation of the most ethical denim in the world, and his use of Substance in bringing this project to life.

Introduction

I am a denim consultant and visual artist, and I’ve been working in the denim industry for several years now. I’ve worked with denim mills, garment manufacturing units and export houses. Denim has always been my first love. I come from a design background – I studied Textile Design with a specialization in denim.

I also started working in 3D four months ago. 3D has always fascinated me, and I was curious to learn about and understand this world. It’s exciting to see how 3D allows you to create a whole new second world virtually – this, in fact, is the reason I named my studio Second Space.

So, when I started doing 3D it was a natural choice to combine my knowledge of denim with the skills of 3D. My aim was to create a real-time denim in a virtual world. When I made my first pair of digital denim jeans, I struggled to make them appear as authentic as ‘real-world’ jeans. This pushed me to seek out the appropriate tools with which I could create that perfect denim virtually – and this is how I found out about Substance. When I tried the Substance tools they imbued my pair of jeans with life. I’ve developed so many pairs of ‘real-life’ jeans, and I’ve learned that denim is all about details. The Substance tools really helped to bring out the details and smallest intricacies, which made these Digi Denims look as realistic as actual jeans. Creating washes virtually, as well as adding faded and worn-out effects, was all possible through Substance.

Denim never fails to surprise me. There’s so much to create with denim. The possibilities are endless. Every pair of denim speaks about the unique personality of its wearer, and that’s what I totally love about this fabric. I love denim as it allows me to be experimental; there’s also a lot of science behind this unique fabric. Denim, for me, is like art. As an artist, you might pour your heart and soul onto that blank canvas to create that masterpiece – and before it has been processed denim is, similarly, also a blank canvas; working with it, you are the artist who can decide upon the processes, washes, surface detailing and worn-out effects.

The Challenges of 3D Denim

To be very honest, creating denim in 3D is extremely difficult, in comparison with other fabrics. If you’re talking about other fabrics, it’s more related to creating that perfect-looking textile material in 3D, and then it is good to be used in your 3D models; there isn’t really much texturing required. But with denim that isn’t the case. It’s only after the material has been created and applied to a 3D model that the main work starts. You have to create perfect wash textures and seam highlights. Denim is created through a complete wash cycle using chemicals, laser and enzymes; all these separate elements combine to bring out the texture and look of authentic denim. Creating a pair of 3D denim jeans is a real challenge as you have to create each of the wash cycle details and effects in 3D, and you cannot miss out any single detail, whether that be whiskers, puckering, seam highlights, tagging, wash effects, destruction, and so on.

Digi Denim is a completely ‘waterless’ denim. The conventional process of denim washing involves pre-treatments, enzyme washes, bleaching, neutralizing, softening and much more, and every stage of this process requires a huge consumption of water – thousands of liters of water. But for my Digi Denim I carried out the wash treatments virtually, by texturing with Substance Painter. We’re removing the wash treatment entirely, removing this consumption of water entirely. Therefore, it is ‘waterless denim’.

The Overall Advantages of Digital Denim

There are three main advantages to creating denim in 3D:

First, as mentioned, the digitization of denim contributes to sustainable practices. Using digital design tools, countless pairs of jeans can be made without wasting any material and natural resources, creating products with a low level of waste and environmental impact.

Second, 3D virtual samples reduce costs and lead times for products. Typically, in the textile industry, you need to create physical samples for each of the products you are trying to sell. Digi Denim provides a huge reduction in costing and overall lead time.

Third, this promotes brand engagement. Digital collections can be shown in hyper-real 3D, facilitating instant access and interaction with clients. Digi Denim lets you skip the photoshoot process, as the final product is curated and shot in real time, in a virtual world.

Processes and Workflow

Material Creation

To curate the Digi Denim collection, the initial step was to create the material. I used Substance Alchemist to create the 3D denim material by photographing the denim fabrics that were available to me.

Original photograph of denim material

I used bitmaps to create the material in Substance Alchemist. Through Substance Alchemist I was able to create a real-time 3D material which was essentially indistinguishable from real fabric.

Final 3D developed fabric

Alpha Creation

To make the collection appear more realistic and detailed, I created alphas of all the details and areas of denim jeans, including areas such as the coin pocket, waistband, inseam, side seam, back pockets, and so on.

Coin pocket alpha (above)

Fly alpha

Fly seam

Left pocket alpha

To create these alphas I used high resolution photographed images of my favorite pair of jeans. In denims the seam highlights and the texture are the keys to creating an authentic pair of 3D jeans.

Whisker Alpha Creation

Whiskers, or crease lines, are frequently added to jeans to give them a naturally aged, used look. In denims, this dry process forms an integral part of curation. These whiskers are either made manually, using abrasion or chemical methods, or created using laser tools.

To create this collection I have used the exact same laser whisker pattern which is used to create laser whiskers in ‘real life’. The file used is compatible with both laser whisker production, and the creation of whisker alphas for 3D texturing.

3D Modeling

After this, I began creating the 3D mesh of my denim jeans using CLO. The 3D model created with this software generates a precise pattern which can be used for physical sampling.

Texturing

After creation of all the assets, I imported them into Substance Painter to begin the texturing process.

The whole process included:

a) Inserting fabric material
b) Applying alphas at seams and creating details
c) Applying the laser whisker alpha
d) Creating the wash fade-out effect
e) Creating the overall wash effect
f) Inserting print artwork

a) Inserting fabric material (above)

b) Applying alphas at seams and creating detail

c) Applying the laser whisker alpha

d) Creating the wash fade-out effect

e) Creating the overall wash effect

f) Inserting print artwork

Final 3D outcome after texturing

Working in the Substance Toolset

Of course, Substance is one of my favorite 3D programs; it brings soul to my models. I use Substance Painter in each and every 3D project I design; it forms an integral part of my process and I absolutely love its features. It’s very difficult to choose a favorite feature… but in terms of my work requirements, I love the grunge maps and texture brushes in Substance Painter. These features help to provide the wash effects and those small details required to make the denim model realistic.

Since I’m from the apparel industry, and I mainly create clothing in 3D, I’d love to see more clothing detail features like seam highlights, puckering details and other minute stitching effects in Substance. This would provide an easier workflow, and a reduction in the need to create alphas for every single detail. I’ve been practicing Substance on a daily basis, but I still feel there’s a lot to learn about this amazing software and its unique features and workflow.

In the future I have plans to expand my studio and provide complete virtual sampling solutions for the apparel industry. I also have plans to do digital runways in the future. In addition, I am to provide these sustainable digital methods more widely and contribute towards sustainability and conservation of our natural resources.