Why skinny jeans will never die

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If there’s a denim style for every decade – the 70s had wide-leg pants, while the 80s and acid wash are forever linked – the past decade has undoubtedly been synonymous with skinny jeans.

But the style has recently fallen out of favor: Earlier this year, Gen-Z TikTok users declared skinny jeans decidedly out of style, sending countless millennials into a tailspin. For the fashion industry, the online debate was nothing new: skinny jeans have steadily disappeared from the catwalks and headlines predicted the death of skinny jeans for at least five years.

Previous predictions for the style’s demise were premature, but consumers have finally begun to switch to wider styles, trend forecasters say. The reasons range from a revival of the looser ’90s to the pandemic demand for comfortable clothing.

Unlike bell bottoms and acid wash denim, many brands are betting that skinny jeans will have a long life in consumers’ closets, even if they never regain their ‘it’ denim status. The style has become a staple in many shoppers’ wardrobes and is likely to remain a core item sold by retailers at all price points, even as they focus their marketing budget on newer, warmer trends.

Rather, the discussion about skinny jeans tells a bigger story about how trends in fashion rise and fall. In categories like denim, which is essentially a commodity embraced by almost every consumer, trends help shape a brand’s offering, but they don’t often lead to a top-to-bottom shake-up. This year, WGSN expects skinny jeans to make up 35 percent of US denim sales, compared to 10 percent for straight leg and 15 percent for wide leg.

In other words, it’s rare for a trend to ever actually ‘die’.

“The term trend is thrown around loosely and people often associate it with a hyped fashion moment,” said Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion content at WGSN. “But really, there are all kinds of trends and a lot of them are much more of an ongoing movement.”

At Levi’s, for example, skinny jeans make up 50 to 60 percent of women’s jeans sales, says Jennifer Sey, Levi’s brand president. At Paige, a premium denim label, skinny jeans made up 75 percent of sales a few years ago; Even in the last days of the trend, style still contributes 35 percent of sales, said co-founder and creative director Paige Adams-Geller.

“There will always be skinny jeans in our collection, as long as the customer keeps voting for it,” said Adams-Geller.

That doesn’t mean fashion can ignore shifts in the denim market, no matter how slow. Jeans are a fundamental piece of fashion that serves as a “building block” for other trends, Muston said. Skinny jeans paired well with other popular items from the 2010s, such as knee-high boots or sneakers. If the standard denim changes, it also threatens other trends.

“If you change the jeans, it disrupts the whole silhouette,” she said. “You can update trends on top of it, but as soon as you change leg, the shoes are suddenly wrong.”

But brands have every interest in the denim landscape continuing to open up. A new silhouette gives consumers a reason to buy jeans again – a “resurgence of excitement,” as Geller-Adams put it. That will be something of a rescue for denim brands that have struggled to cope with the jogging boom over the past year.

“Innovation is going to attract consumers,” said Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst at NPD. “If the consumer does not have to add anything to his wardrobe, because everything stays the same, then that is no reason to spend money on it.”

From trend to classic

At one point in the past 10 years, skinny jeans have made a rare feat: crossing the trend area and into a brand’s permanent denim collection.

“I think it’s just as skinny as the new classic fit,” said Sey. “When you look at different fits, the ones that last the longest may have started out as a trend, but they remain powerful because they are flattering.”

Creating a range of denim that suits the consumer is a delicate balance between paying attention to what consumers are buying now while predicting what they want to buy in the future. Adams-Geller said she is consulting with internal sales teams on the former and analyzing data to determine where consumers will head in a particular season.

Levi’s, Sey said, often consults its own archives to determine which styles are set to return. In recent years, they had seen more consumers search for ’80s and’ 90s styles, indicating to the brand that it was time to reinvest in wider leg styles.

Brands can take items that are still in demand but no longer trending and update them to better reflect current styles. Some skinny jeans on the market today have a slightly looser fit around the ankle, and brands like Paige, Levi’s and Rag & Bone have built in ‘slim’ fits that are between skinny and straight legs.

However, it is the new and trendy styles that will be featured in marketing; after the last decade, consumers are finding skinny jeans. A one-minute video of Levi’s latest campaign showcases a variety of silhouettes, but wider leg styles are most prominent.

Stocking skinny jeans also positions brands for their inevitable returns.

“We see those classics come back and get really trendy at some point, even though they are always a timeless choice,” said Sey.

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