Joe's Jeans High Rise Flare and Kass Ankle jeans. Image courtesy of Joe’s Jeans.

After a period of slowing sales, the denim market has bounced back — which includes strength in the high-end segment as consumers respond to vintage looks and better fits.

The uptick comes as consumers step away from ath-leisure and activewear, and some industry observers noted that the denim market could continue to “steal back market share” from ath-leisure.

Total U.S. jeans sales for men, women and children were over $15 billion in the 12 months ending June 2017. Women’s jeans saw 2 percent growth with sales coming in at $8 billion with sales of skinny jeans seeing double-digit growth. Online sales have also experienced gains from last year, and now represents 17 percent of total jeans dollar sales, according to NPD’s Consumer Tracking Service.

As the category gains momentum, denim brands are reinventing themselves to differentiate in the market. “I think the denim market had a tough 7 to 8 years, but it is improving,” Scott Morrison, founder and creative director of 3×1, told WWD. “Denim is trending again in fashion and we’re pretty optimistic about what’s happening in the market. I think there are certainly challenges in retail at the moment — discounting, price competition, etc. — which affect every category and our retail partners are having to reinvent their business (as we all are) to stay compelling.”

Morrison said his company is “taking a more novelty-driven approach [at 3×1] to our denim, while ReDone has been refreshing ‘vintage’ in a new way, Moussy is doing Japanese washes which feel unique again and even Calvin Klein is reinventing itself with its throwback denim.”

“We’re trying our best to give them compelling products and in turn, give their [and] our consumers a reason to buy jeans again — which is in turn fueling the growth,” Morrison added.

Evolving consumer preferences also include a shift toward premium denims as well as tailored styles that can elevate and transform denim into a luxury-level product. “To most people, the concept of ‘premium’ simply meant ‘better fabric, better fit, better finish [wash]’ and now we’ve seen the rest of the denim market catch up,” Morrison explained. “Today, the consumer can find great fitting jeans, using Isko denim, with a decent wash at $78, so the premium market is being forced to reinvent itself. Reinvention today looks different for different brands, but the main thing I see is evolution and differentiation.”

Peek A Boo Dress in Augustine. Photograph courtesy of 3×1. 

The denim industry’s sluggish sales in recent years was largely due to the ath-leisure movement gaining momentum and market share. As a result, one of industry’s biggest hurdles is wrangling Generation Z, a consumer base that has remained apathetic to denim and instead pursued the comfier, sportier counterparts found in ath-leisure apparel. Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst for retail at NPD, told WWD, “[Denim is] such an important category. It’s one of those [that has] crossed every single generation in time.” He continued, “But denim right now is faced with this younger generation that really doesn’t see the level of denim’s importance that every generation preceding it has.” Denim is not the “mainstay, go-to product” for high school kids today, according to Cohen.

“One of the interesting things about denim is that it’s in a really great place,” Cohen explained. “It has an opportunity to be able to be the product that takes this ath-leisure movement from the top of the pile. And that means that they have to get a little more innovative, they have to definitely get a little bit more lifestyle-driven, but denim has the opportunity to be the trend, be the fabric, be the business that literally makes the next wave of fashion become important.”

Cohen noted that there are “all kinds of businesses that have tried to make their mark in fashion, but frankly nothing has the ability to do it like denim. Denim could very well take its place back from the ath-leisure business that stole it.”

Joe’s Jeans High Rise Flare and Kass Ankle jeans. Photograph courtesy of Joe’s Jeans. 

In a recent study conducted by the Cordura brand, customization was identified as an upcoming macro trend for denim. The primary drivers for customization are authenticity and freedom of movement, according to the study.

I think customization is a priority for certain customers, not for everyone,” Morrison said. “Personalization is probably a more compelling term in the sense that many customers today are looking to make the things they buy more unique to them and in doing so allow more of their personality to show through in the products they wear and buy. We see this in the more recent trends of personal embroidery, monogramming, applying patches and pins to items. Customization is one step further in that process, with bespoke or made to measure being the end game.”

Other macro trends include sustainability, as well as increased interest in performance denims. Tricia Carey, the director of global business development for denim at the Lenzing Group, said that “Sustainability is starting to resonate with the consumer. Take the recent Everlane denim launch produced by Saitex, which sold out. Consumers purchased knowing the sustainability story and where their garment is made. Market the value of the product to the consumer and they will purchase.”

Carey said the denim supply chain “is driving initiatives with less environmental impact and the brands are responding. The questions from brands [and] retailers [regarding] raw materials, processing and certifications, continues to increase each season.” To meet these consumer demands, Carved in Blue, the Lenzing Group’s denim industry blog, will launch a pop-up store at New York Denim Days to create a space for consumers to shop for denim with its Tencel-branded lyocell fibers, which are extracted from raw material wood.

And the rise of “fashion inclusivity,” a movement in which designers are working to accommodate a wider range of sizes for different body types and incorporate ethnic diversity, is also flourishing trend in denim, with brands such as Joe’s Jeans and Riders by Lee prioritizing inclusivity in its collections.

Joe Dahan, the founder and creative director of Joe’s Jeans, recognized the need for inclusivity at the onset. Dahan told WWD, “Immediately after having launched the company I realized the importance behind creating different overall fits for each woman’s body type.” He added, “[This] psychology is at the core of our brand and apparent in every one of our designs. We were the first in the market to identify this need and this unique attribute is still what allows us to stand out amongst our competition.”

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