By  on May 24, 2007

The denim industry's heady days of double-digit growth have faded, but confidence among those who make and sell it hasn't waned.

The explosive growth of the premium denim market had been the rising tide that lifted all boats for five years. Hundreds of brands flooded the market and retailers down the price ladder followed suit, adapting relatively quickly to offer their customers similar styles and washes at more palatable prices. The first rumblings of a slowdown in the premium segment started appearing last year and it's clear that the shakeout in that arena is in full swing. But for the broader denim market, the changes haven't been nearly as dynamic.

According to market research firm The NPD Group, women's U.S. jeans sales fell 4.9 percent to $7.41 billion for the 12 months through March, compared with sales of $7.79 billion for the same period a year ago. The explanation for the decline may be simple — consumers' closets are already overflowing with denim.

According to surveys conducted by Cotton Incorporated, U.S. consumers own more denim garments than anyone else in the world. U.S. consumers own on average nine pairs of jeans.

Eric Beder, senior vice president and analyst at Brean Murray, Carret & Co., which covers several premium denim players, said in addition to consumers sitting on their own denim cachet, the industry is also faltering in its mission to deliver new and excitement-generating styles. Then again, there's been an exhaustive progression in styles from low-rise to boot-cut, to torn, to heavily washed or embroidered. Last year, the shift went to dark washes and skinny or straight legs, which Beder believes might have given consumers cause to shift their attention elsewhere.

"The whole straight-leg, dark-denim campaign was exclusionary because a lot of people can't wear that," said Beder. "The dark denim trend also lasted too long. We don't really have a next. It's more of what we had before."

NPD's figures speak to this trend among several key demographics. Women's jeans sales among 25- to 34-year-olds fell a sizeable 15.3 percent to $1.09 billion for the 12 months through March. Sales for women between the ages of 18 and 24 also fell 6.3 percent to $1.47 billion. The most significant growth is coming in the 55- to 64-year-old age group, with sales rising 15.2 percent to $592.5 million.

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