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How Contemporary Designers Are Putting a New Spin on Ancient Natural Indigo

The centuries-old pigment is being used in a lot more than just denim.

11.11 overshirt, Stòffa chore coat, Post Imperial T-shirt Mr Porter, Stòffa, Post Imperial

Indigo is one of the oldest dyes in existence. It’s central to craft traditions across the world, celebrated both for its intense depth of color and tendency to fade over time, creating a unique patina on everything from kimonos to raw denim.

John Elliott’s new capsule collection celebrates this versatility by combining American sportswear with traditional Japanese craft in a series of shibori dyed sweatshirts and tees. Shibori is a resist-dye technique that involves hand folding and tying garments before dip-dyeing in natural indigo to produce unique patterns—a more artful, and technically challenging, form of tie-dye. Elliott’s pieces are hand-dyed in Japan using medium-weight French terry and cotton jersey and are being sold to benefit the designer’s continuing partnership with UCLA Health, which provides scholarships for students entering the UCLA Medical School (to date, the initiative has raised over $100,000).

The shibori technique is one of many craft traditions developed using indigo. Another Japanese practice, katazome, uses a rice paste to stencil designs onto cloth; its cousins include Indonesian batik and Nigerian adire dyeing. Such crafts abound because indigo (or its cousin, woad) has been used by people across the world for centuries. The craft traditions of Europe, Asia and Africa were already well established when the quintessential modern indigo product, denim jeans, arrived from America.

While each culture has its own particulars, indigo has been a sartorial common ground for centuries. Perhaps this explains why designers are returning to these ages-old crafts now—they have a way of elevating even the simplest wardrobe basics. Here are eight of the best ways contemporary designers have showcased natural indigo.

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