By  on January 2, 2008

NEW YORK — Long eclipsed by the denim explosion, dress and casual pants are clawing their way back. The bottoms market is finally saturated with denim—and jean sales, which fueled the category’s growth for years, are showing the first signs of slowing. “Guys won’t be buying three or four pairs of jeans this year,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group. The denim glut, paired with a renewed interest in dressier looks, is creating a new opportunity for makers of khakis, dress trousers and casual slacks—in short, everybody who suffered over the last decade as jeans became the Everypant. 

For years jeans stole an increasing part of the market as dress codes softened and younger guys gravitated toward a bottom that didn’t require constant pressing (or even washing). For the year ending September 2006, jeans racked up $5.2 billion of the $15 billion bottoms market, just under pants and slacks, which accounted for $5.3 billion in sales for the same period, according to data from NPD. But the newest numbers show that denim sales have plateaued, and the segment may have passed its zenith. Jeans sales fell 1 percent for the year ending September 2007 to just under $5.2 billion, as slacks sales posted their biggest increase in years: up 6 percent to $5.7 billion. 

The numbers reflect a shift in the zeitgeist. Until this season, casual pant makers, in hopes of cashing in on the denim craze, modeled their products after jeans. Cue five-pocket styles, wider belt loops and denim washes. But the tide is turning. Slacks for next fall are abandoning hybrid styles for a look that is clean, dressed up and authentically trouser. Kenneth Cole is stripping its bottoms of denim and cargo pockets and replacing them with pockets that are either besom or on-seam. 

“We’re going a lot cleaner, and more traditional,” says Shelley Lloyd, head designer for Haggar, which makes Kenneth Cole pants under license. “There are no cargo styles in the line. It’s more dressy casuals.” 

Zanella, a better trouser company, is seeing increased demand for its dress trousers, especially in flat-front. “We had a conference call about the slowdown in the premium denim market,” says Marc Spiro, vice-president of Zanella’s men’s division. “We’re expecting a big comeback for dress trousers.”

Meanwhile, in a considerable reversal, denim is looking to pant styles for direction. Many of the latest offerings from big denim companies boast slash pockets, simple stitching and dark, even washes. In brief, jean as trouser. 

But even as pants are looking more like, well, pants, Cohen said the denim market, especially premium denim, is responsible for the comeback. “Jeans got men thinking about fit and fashion,” he says, adding that denim further popularized flat-fronts. “It got the simplicity out of the bottoms business and injected it with style.” Slacks, he said, with their emphasis on fit and tailoring, are the next logical step. 

But vendors aren’t sure how dressy this post-jeans consumer is willing to go. Will the new jean be an open-bottom trouser, hemmed by a tailor, or just a dressed-up chino? Aaron Levine, the designer for hickey, the contemporary collection from Hickey Freeman, thinks both trends are happening. The new hickey line will continue to offer closed-bottom khakis and denim but next fall will introduce open-bottoms on some wools. “We think the customer also wants to decide how he wants it done,” he says.

The tailored clothing world could benefit from a return to open-bottoms. In department stores, closed-bottom programs require lots of floor space, thanks to the myriad inseams they require. “That environment kills ingenuity because basics take up all the space,” says Dana Verrill, Lanier’s group president. “Open-bottoms would allow us to offer more fashion and fits.” 

Cohen believes this consumer is ready for the tailoring mirror, and its attendant wait time. “In the past, guys used to buy pants without trying them on,” he says. “Now there’s a sophisticated consumer that’s concerned with how things look on him.” 

But jeans and their imitators aren’t going away. Bill Thomas, owner of Bills Khakis, says its hybrid five-pocket khaki is selling briskly. Other companies, like Nautica, which is made by Lanier under license, are also offering five-pocket models in dressy fabrics next fall. 

So it’s unlikely that consumers will be tossing their denim anytime soon, or that the so-called “return to dressing up” will involve a wholesale revival of 20-somethings wearing suits, waistcoats and fedoras. Nevertheless, the derelicted and uncool trouser market seems to have found new legs.

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