Answers to All Your Questions About the Indigo Invitational Fade Competition

Remember a few years ago, when denim fade competitions were all the rage?

There was the Heavyweight Denim Championships 2 from 2013-2015, followed by the Denim World Championships (which Denimhunters was involved with).

After that, I personally lost a bit of interest in fade competitions. That’s until a few weeks back when I received an email from a fellow denimhead, suggesting I should do a story on the new competition on the block, the Indigo Invitational.

I’d seen the fade competition on Instagram around the time it started (June 1, 2019), but to be completely honest, in between work, being holiday over the summer, and having a second child, I hadn’t spent too much time researching it.

What I had seen was that the competition is sponsored by some people I know and respect, including Iron Heart and Self Edge.

I got in touch with the founder, Bryan Szabo aka @denimstrummer, a Canadian living in Budapest with a lot of initiative. And he was willing to answer all my questions.

Professionally, Bryan is a writer. In his spare time, he’s a rock star. Always in jeans, of course.
Tell us a little bit about yourself

I was born, raised, and educated in Western Canada. I made it to my early thirties without seeing much outside of Canada.

I’d been studying for most of my adult life, teaching dance and selling books in between university classes. When I finished my M.A. in 2011, I sold my house, sold my car, packed all of my books in boxes, and came to Europe with a pocket full of cash.

I tramped all over the continent and, after a few months on the road, I arrived in Budapest. I’d been here a few weeks when a Norwegian woman turned my head in a bar.

When I went back to Canada, we stayed in touch and, a few years later, I left my home and native for good and settled here in Hungary with her. We got married last year, and we’ll be here in BP until she’s finished her doctorate (a few more years).

By day, I’m an editor and ghostwriter. By night, I’m a musician (one half of CODIAC, an Americana cover band). In the hours between, I’m doing deep dives into the raw denim scene, trying to educate myself as much as possible.

How did you get into raw denim?

There were really two key moments.

In my late twenties, I was wearing True Religion, 7 For All Mankind, Gas, and Gsus denim. I was spending a fair amount, but the pre-faded pairs would almost immediately start falling apart.

My favourite pair was on its last legs, so I started researching sturdier denim. I didn’t look into it too deeply, so I ended up with a pair of Nudies. I loved the experience of breaking them in, but I wasn’t crazy about the Average Joe fit.

On the day I started travelling, I bought a pair of Naked & Famous from a shop in Vancouver. They were the only pair of jeans I brought with me, so the fades (and the smell) were intense when I got back to Canada and put them in the wash for the first time.

I was wearing these jeans in Calgary and browsing in a denim shop when a clerk struck up a conversation with me about raw denim. He mentioned Japanese denim and pointed to one of the other clerks who was wearing a pair darker and thicker than anything I’d ever seen before. “Iron Hearts,” he said. “The best denim you can buy.”

@kill_your_jeans is wearing these Iron Hearts in the Indigo Invitational.

I went home and started researching and, not long after, I bought my first pair (my 634s are still at the centre of my rotation).

I had still only scratched the surface, though. When I started running the competition, I was probably familiar with 6-8 of the Japanese raw brands and a few of the American ones. The Indigo Invitational has really pulled me headfirst down the rabbit hole. 

Tell me about the competition. What is the Indigo Invitational?

The Indigo Invitational is a year-long international fade contest that welcomes all comers, all weights, and all brands.

There’s no registration or administration fee of any kind. The only barrier to entry is an unworn pair of raw denim and a willingness to send monthly fit pic updates so we have trackable fade progress.

We want all fades to be the natural result of heavy use and daily wear. Competitors can wash or soak their jeans as often as they like, but we’re not allowing any kind of artificial fading (no abrasives or bleaches of any kind).

We fired the starting pistol on June 1st with more than 100 competitors.

How did you get the idea?

I can’t say the idea was entirely my own. The Indigo Invitational was born in the Raw Denim Facebook group.

Before I joined the group, the idea of a fade contest had been floated a few times in threads and posts, but nobody had taken the initiative. All it needed was one little push to get the ball rolling.

The Raw Denim group on Facebook.

I felt that a fade contest was not just something that the community was willing to do—it was something it needed to do.

When I first joined the group, I noticed that almost all of the pictures people were posting were of brand-new raw denim. I had expected more of a focus on fade progress, but I wasn’t really seeing much of that.

When I asked why this was, some of the members talked about their deep rotation and the difficulty of getting fades when you’re working on four to five pairs at a time. Some of the members of the group have dozens of pairs—one of them has well over a hundred pairs, many of them sitting in storage, unworn with the tags still on.

As fade-producing enthusiasts will tell you, the only way to get great fades is to wear the hell out of a single pair, to beat the indigo out of them day in and day out. This produces the kind of beautiful fades that have drawn so many of us into this scene. If I wanted to see fades like this in the group, I had to find a way to push people to shorten their rotation and focus on a single pair. The Indigo Invitational is how I’ve done that.

@blue_collar_style is wearing these 33 oz. monster jeans from SOSO.
How does the Indigo Invitational compare to some of the other denim fade contests out there?

When I looked at some of the other fade contests, I didn’t really see anything like the competition I wanted to run.

Most of them fall into one of two categories: either there is a fee for entry or competitors are expected to all purchase and fade the same pair.

The organizers and competitors may be deeply passionate about denim and fades, but prima facie, the contests seem to be either a for-profit enterprise or a way of driving product sales for a particular brand or stockist.

The Indigo Invitational will always be free for competitors, and we’ll never tell them what brand they should wear. There are just two of us running this competition, and we’ve both donated our time. Dave Dickinson, a long-time friend and a recently converted denim enthusiast, is helping me with the administration. His advice and companionship on this journey has been invaluable. 

Are fade contests still relevant? Do they still have a place in this scene?

Absolutely! For the enthusiasts that I admire, fades are at the very heart of their passion for denim. Workwear or heritage clothing is meant to be worn out, not just worn. A fade contest incentivizes rugged daily wear.

Bryan’s Clints when new.

I’m competing in a pair of Indigofera Clint Winlocks, and I spent this summer actively seeking out opportunities to get dirty and sweaty in my jeans. I rode horses and jumped in the ocean. I cleaned out a barn, woodshed, and basement, and I got my jeans filthy in the process.

A fade competition like the Indigo Invitational gives faders a very good reason to beat the stuffing out of a pair. Without the competition, most of our faders would have probably spent the summer rolling through their rotation. With prizes on the line, they’re pushing harder for those fades than they might otherwise.

Are you seeing a common thread among the competitors?

That’s an interesting question. It’s tough to draw a bead on the personalities. All we’ve really got to go on is their photographs and their comments in the group.

We haven’t placed any limits on the conversations on the competition page (other than asking people to be respectful), but posts in the group seem to follow an unwritten rule: denim only. 

Competitors might have passions other than denim or strong opinions on, say, politics, but these never seem to come up. This is probably for the best.

But there are definitely aesthetic similarities.

There’s something of a raw denim uniform (leather boots and belt, tees or flannels, and leather accessories). Most of the competitors (myself included) wear this uniform, or some variation of it, but you’d start a brawl if you told a bunch of denimheads that they all dress the same.

We’re a detail-oriented bunch. The enthusiast can spot the difference between a pair of Iron Hearts and a pair of Flat Heads from across the street. We all seem to sweat the small stuff.

The competitors are also a pretty experienced bunch.

I can count the number of competitors who are on their first pair of raw denim on one hand (my mother being one of them). Fading is a trial and error process, and almost everybody has been through it multiple times with multiple brands.

Everybody seems to have their own recipe for fades, and, while people are keen to talk about how they’re wearing and fading their denim, very few of the competitors have asked the kind of initiate questions that we have all asked and answered at some point.

What, in your mind, makes a good fader?

It’s early days, but the competitors who have separated themselves from the pack seem to be those who spend every waking (and occasionally sleeping) hour in their jeans.

Those who work office jobs and can only wear their denim on the weekend are a step or two behind those who spend 100+ hours per week in their jeans.

When this competition began, I was amazed at how quickly some of the Thai competitors are able to produce fades (the heat and the humidity help a great deal), but we also have a competitor who lives close to the arctic circle, and he has, in a remarkably short time, produced some of the best fades in the competition.

Climate certainly makes a difference, but more than this is the willingness to get out there and be active—essentially, to work in your workwear. The top-tier competitors are paying the cost to be the boss.

Fader @drereyes1′s Léon Denim jeans.
What are your goals for the competition?

For the time being, I’m really focused on keeping the competitors engaged. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so getting people to that six-month mark, when the finish line will start to come into focus, is absolutely crucial.

We started with more than 100 competitors, and I’ll be thrilled if we cross the finish line with 75+ faders. We’ll be judging in three stages, and I want to make that judging process as transparent as possible. We’ll have three podium finishers and two spot prizes, and we need to be able to justify our judges’ decisions. 

I’m in the process of working out a competition tee that should be available for competitors as we cross the half-way mark at the end of the year. I want the collaboration to be meaningful (not just another tee that gets stuffed in the back of the closet), so I’m working with some amazing people deeply embedded in the scene to produce a quality piece that we can all be proud to wear. I’m hoping that there are more collaborations of this kind on the horizon, but that will depend on how the tee collaboration shakes out.

We’re already starting to think about next year’s competition, which will start in fall of 2020. As long as the final stages of the competition are handled smoothly and fairly, I’m expecting that a lot of the competitors will return for year two.

With the way the fades are progressing, there are going to be some incredible pairs in our top 20, so I’m hoping that we’ll be able to use some of these incredible fade stories to drive new competitors to the Indigo Invitational next year. I’d like to see us start year two with 150+ competitors and between ten and fifteen sponsors.

Intense stacking on @karl__bentley‘s SOSO jeans.
How many sponsors do you have this year?

Ten. Redcast Heritage and SOSO Brothers joined as sponsors when the competition was only a few days old. Since then we’ve added Iron Heart, Self Edge, Pigeon Tree, Ruttloff, Freenote, Timeless Leather, Leon, and the Vault.

That’s quite a list. What do you think the sponsors are getting out of the competition? 

For some of the newer brands, it’s increased visibility.

Every competitor needed a brand new pair of raw denim. That meant that sponsors had access to a pool of 100+ competitors who were all in the market for jeans. Some brands recognized this opportunity and offered discounts. Two fledgeling raw brands even sponsored competitors with a free pair. The more eyes they can get on their brand, the better.

Our sponsors are definitely getting something out of the competition, but, at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s why they’ve signed on. It’s only partially a business decision.

Based on my conversations with them, they are all as passionate as I am about denim. Presumably, they were enthusiasts first, and then they turned that passion into a business. They’ve joined the competition as sponsors because they believe in what the Indigo Invitational stands for. They recognize that we’re doing something different, and they want to play a part in that.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

My pleasure, Thomas.

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Hi, my name is Thomas, I'm a storyteller. I started Denimhunters in 2011. Today, I help companies in the denim industry market themselves with stories that excite, engage and convert customers.

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