Wrangler jeans.

Denim has re-emerged as the consumer’s material of choice and the industry is working to breathe new life into craftsmanship, fabrications and technologies that enable brands to differentiate and stay competitive in the market.

By the numbers, the denim industry is going strong. By 2021, the global jeans market is poised to generate $130 billion in retail sales, according to data from Statista. And the global premium denim market is anticipated to experience compounded annual growth of 8.4 percent between 2017 through 2021, according to Technavio.

U.S. sales of jeans increased 4 percent in the 12 months ending February 2018 to $16.1 billion, according to The NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service. Women’s jeans sales are driving the majority of growth while men’s jeans sales remained flat compared to 2017. Consumer preferences for cut show an inclination toward straight-leg options, and skinny and slim cuts have also seen continuous growth. Women’s special sizes, which includes plus and petite options, are up double digits compared to the prior year, all according to the same NPD report. 

Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser at The NPD Group, told WWD, “Denim’s comeback is just starting. As most of the growth continues to come from women and skinny and straight cuts, there remains an absence of dramatic change in styles to really propel growth. One saving grace for denim is that ripped is still big. And they tend to be the most vulnerable pairs of jeans. They wear out even faster when already distressed. So when denim is facing an opportunity to replace the casual active style, it’s not doing enough.” Cohen added, “The time is now to strike. Retailers and brands are looking for the next big thing. It’s not likely going to be the same old thing.”

And this season, creativity with a dose of daring is key for denim brands and retailers striving to stand out. Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s business development director for denim in New York, told WWD, “The U.S. denim market is price driven and we see the mass brands finding innovative ways to increase product value. It is challenging for premium denim brands to stay ahead when fabric, fit and fashion is a stronger part of the mass brands’ ethos. Direct-to-consumer brands are able to tell the story about denim from fiber to factory better than retailers. Millennial and Gen Z customers are keen to know the details of their denim.”

Photograph courtesy of Wrangler. 

In the spirit of experimentation is American denim brand Wrangler: The company has confirmed that Nordstrom will carry its Premium Denim and Sportswear line, officially debuting this fall. Described by the brand as an “elevated” heritage lifestyle collection, the line includes jeans, denim tops, jackets, sportswear pieces and brightly colored T-shirts inspired by art from Wrangler’s archives. The move signifies a bump up for Wrangler, whose products will be showcased alongside higher-priced apparel goods in a price range between $98 to $138 for its women’s and men’s jeans. Its collection will also be available in additional boutiques such as Free People, Revolve Clothing and Shopbop, among other high-end retail stores, the company confirmed. Select styles will be available for purchase this spring.

Or consider Wrangler’s 27406 Capsule Collection, a nod to the company’s heritage in denim and panacea to consumers’ desire for specially made goods. Named after the zip code where its denim has been cut and sewn in Greensboro, N.C. since 1947, the collection of women’s and men’s jeans and denim jackets celebrates the brand’s “deep roots in the community, and its long-standing neighbor and partner, Cone Denim,” according to the company.

The collection is limited edition and each pair of jeans is stamped on the inside pocket, numbered and signed off on by the sewer who completed it, the brand reported. For each pair of jeans in the collection, the belt loops, pockets, signature “W” and Wrangler patch were hand-stitched. Jenni Broyles, Wrangler’s vice president and general manager, modern lifestyle, told WWD, “The response to the Wrangler 27406 collection has been overwhelmingly positive; consumers are attracted to the Made in U.S. component of the collection and the authentically Wrangler classic styling.” Broyles added, “Wrangler and Cone Denim have a deep running partnership that celebrates each parties’ love of the community, Greensboro, and great looking denim. Wrangler is honored to have had the opportunity to pay tribute as a partner and neighbor to celebrate American-made denim with the 27406 collection.”

And collections designed for niche consumer segments have emerged as a pivotal brand differentiator. Lee Jeans’ premier launches such as Lee Body Optix, which employs laser contouring and shading on denim; Smiley, a co-branded collection initially designed for the Asian market; or its Vintage Modern collection debuting this fall, reflects ongoing efforts to connect with its evolving consumer. Kim Yates, vice president of marketing at Lee Jeans, told WWD that the brand will continue “to find new ways to cascade our innovations and craftsmanship across multiple channels.” 

Photograph courtesy of Lee Jeans. 

Also of note is Lee Jeans’ integration of 3-D design technology to ensure quality fit and streamline its design revisions. “Several years ago, the Lee team began collaborating with Browzwear, the software developer behind two virtual pattern-making and 3-D design technologies,” Yates said. “Using 3-D design enables our patternmakers to ensure integrity across a wide range of sizes so that whether a jean or top is sized 4 or 26, it will fit correctly. Additionally, designers can revise details, shading, etc., immediately without needing physical prototypes. The result is a more efficient process — what could take weeks now takes a day or two — as well as a more sustainable one; in total, the number of Rider’s first-round physical prototypes has decreased by 30 percent, which also reduces water usage and carbon emissions. Riders by Lee is the first Lee collection to be designed virtually, and we are in the process of expanding the technology throughout the full organization’s design team.”

Greater use of color, as well as patchwork and embroidery, have also come into focus. Carey told WWD, “There is more color coming into the denim styles. From brights and pastels to the blue spectrum; the influx of color in denim and garment wash styles is coming into the market. [Lenzing’s] Tencel denim has a high affinity for color and blends well with other fibers to create various aesthetics.”

Regarding additional trends, Yates noted that “High-rise and vintage styles remain very trendy. Patchwork and embroidery has brought new life to classic styles within [the Lee Jeans] brand. Differing lengths — particularly cropped or ankle-length with unique hem details and destruction — are very popular in female jeans, and we have integrated those into our brand and collections, like Vintage Modern and Riders by Lee. Also, consumers continue to expect more from their jeans. Both men and women want jeans that look like authentic denim, but offer the comfort they experience with ath-leisure bottoms, including athletically inspired waistbands and fabric that moves with them while keeping its shape. Lee’s Extreme Motion products for men and Dream Jeans for women offer these types of solutions.”

The latest material technologies in denim are focused on enhanced performance, as well as ecologically minded color vibrancy and steadfastness. Cynthia McNaull, the global brand and marketing director at Invista, Cordura Brand, told WWD, “We continually stress the importance and emergence of cross-functional textiles that are designed to take you faster and farther. We’re continuing to see the trend of traditional denims enhanced with “hidden science” — or technologies that you may not be able to see on the surface, but that are designed with added performance in mind. Some examples of this include our durable Cordura denims with added stretch, moisture-wicking, and thermo-regulation capabilities.”

Cordura Denims from Artistic Milliners feature “hidden science” benefits, and were selected as ISPO Textrends 2018 winners in the Top 10, Street Sports and Second Layer categories.  Matthias Robl

McNaull continued, “One new notable technology that we’ve just added in our collaboration with Tencel and Artistic Milliners is ‘Stay-True Color’ — which is achieved through the solution-dyed nylon dyeing process for added shade consistency and long-lasting vibrancy. The practical explanation of this is that it helps your black jeans stay black longer, rather than fading in the wash over time.” The three brands also partnered to create “SuperCharged Noir,” a performance denim portfolio “designed for excellent and long-lasting color-fastness, without sacrificing the durable DNA that defines the Cordura brand,” she said. SuperCharged Noir was inspired by five components, via its “5S technology:” stay-true color, enhanced strength, engineered soft comfort, sustainable innovation and performance stretch, according to the brand.

And sustainability is top of mind for Artistic Milliners, which operates its vertically integrated and sustainable denim manufacturing plant in Pakistan, the country’s first LEED certified factory. The company refers to its facility as the “Eco-Tech Unit” and the “garment factory of the future,” as it employs clean and solar energy, utilizes energy-efficient lighting, reduces emissions, conserves water and reports a 75 percent rate of water recycling. Artistic Milliner’s research and development team launches sustainable and technology-focused material concepts every season.

Photograph by Richard Cordero for Lenzing Fibers. 

Also leading the sustainability front is G-Star, which offers its “most sustainable jean” and Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Project FLX,” or “future-led execution,” that “digitizes denim finish design and enables a responsive and sustainable supply chain at an unparalleled scale,” according to the brand. Its laser finishing is executed by Jeanologia, a long-standing partner that offers eco-efficient solutions for fabric and garment finishing. Carey told WWD, “For several seasons we have seen the denim supply chain addressing sustainability and it’s finally getting the real attention it deserves. The denim market will reduce environmental impact because progress is more important than perfection.”

Another emerging trend among consumers is Japanese denim. Brands such as Fabric Brand & Co., which produces denim with handcrafted products hailing from Japan’s top mills, operates within a small artisanal factory and laundry in Okayama’s Kojima district, a historical area in Japan that is well-known as a central hub for denim manufacturing. Fabric Brand & Co.’s designer, Simon Miller, told WWD, “I think Japan is slowly opening up to the west more and more. The denim market softened a bit in the past few years and it seems Japanese denim companies are now looking abroad for new customers and ways to grow their business. Japan is an intriguing market though as the majority is homogenous, so most prefer to work domestically — working with international clients is not a natural exercise. Having said that, there are some western brands who have recently developed a trust with Japan.

Miller added, “I am happy that more and more people have access to what Japan has to offer. They are some of the most respectful and kind people I have come to meet — not to mention knowledgeable and talented. I’m hopeful anyone that has an opportunity to work in Japan regards it with the respect it deserves.”

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