Despite an overall decline in men’s and women’s denim sales, a highlight in the market is the rising popularity of the “vintage revival” trend, including nods to prior decades — the 1970s in particular — which analysts say is boosting spring apparel sales, especially in department and specialty stores.
This story first appeared in the April 20, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
By style segment, the bright spots are women’s boyfriend and skinny jeans, which are outperforming other looks. Also helping, denim overall is getting a boost from fashion publications and celebrities, as well as on the runway.
For example, trendy Japanese designer Keisuke Imazaki‘s fall show was anchored by the use of denim, while this month’s issue of Glamour featured “Wonder Woman” actress Gal Gadot in a pair of Denim & Supply Ralph Lauren distressed jeans. And David Beckham sported double-denim at a Boston Celtics game last week — a look he’s been seen in regularly since last July.
Behind the growing momentum in the market is a broad-based international push from Levi Strauss & Co. with its women’s business, which it said is experiencing double-digit growth. The company this summer is also rolling out its Levi Brand 505 C, and it’s already generating some market buzz.
VF Corp.’s Lee brand also has a big fall launch in the works, while several niche labels are being disciplined about the number of products they are introducing in the premium jeans market, that’s especially popular in major cities from Frankfurt and London to New York and Los Angeles. At the other end of the spectrum, fast-fashion brands and the growth of e-commerce continues to reshape the market with accessible, value-driven merchandise.
The American denim market is still down, but it has shown some improvement over 2014. According to NPD Group Inc.’s Consumer Tracking Service, U.S. sales of men’s and women’s jeans totaled $13.1 billion in 2015, which is a 2 percent decline from the prior year, but, “Declines in 2015 sales slowed in comparison to the 4 percent loss in 2014,” NPD researchers said.
Regarding silhouette, skinny still rules.
Katie Smith, senior retail and fashion analyst at data researcher Edited, said she’s seen 3 percent fewer units of skinny jeans arrivals compared to this time last year. “That said, the skinny jean is still, by far, the most stocked style,” she said. “There are three times more skinny styles online in the first quarter than all ‘on-trend’ shapes combined.”
During the first quarter, Smith said the average price of skinny jeans fell 32 percent, “which signals a shift from it being a trend piece to an essential. Meanwhile, the Seventies flare that fits within this season’s trend stories has seen a 5 percent overall price increase.”
She noted that with cropped jeans, there’s been “less hype,” but said “retailers would do well to give them some attention.”
“With only 17 percent overall discounting, [cropped jeans are] the least discounted of all the shapes,” Smith said. “At present, 28 percent of skinny jeans are discounted, while overall discounting on flared styles is 29 percent.”
Smith said boyfriend and skinny jeans “are the two highest-performing shapes. Their high percentage of sell-out (3.9 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively) and replenishment rate (2.4 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively) illustrate their strength in the denim market.”
For the vintage revival trend, The Levi’s Brand revealed the relaunched and “reimagined” 505 C (“C” for customized) in men’s and women’s — rolling out this July. Jonathan Cheung, senior vice president of global design, said the 505 C was partly informed by research that showed a surge in consumers buying vintage 505s.
The 505 C has a modernized and “timeless fit” with a “customized, straight-leg feel” designed to “create the ideal slim fit,” Cheung said.
James Curleigh, president of the The Levi’s Brand and executive vice president of Levi Strauss & Co., described the 505 C as a “remastering of a classic that only The Levi’s Brand can do.” He said it also speaks to the company’s ability to leverage its own past to meet the style demands of today’s consumer.
Increasingly, that consumer craves authenticity, another key trend in the denim segment driven by Millennials. Last month, Chip Bergh, president and chief executive officer of Levi Strauss, told WWD that the company has been “shifting more of our marketing to digital. It’s part of the reason why we did the Levi’s Stadium deal and how we connect to the younger consumer through sports, through music, through entertainment. So we’re much more present through sports today, more present in music today.”
Heritage in denim and its connection to popular culture is also creating opportunities for brands. Jordache said it will launch the Jordache Legacy collection targeting department stores. Debra Lavi, vice president of sales, said the premium business is seeing strength as consumers respond to product innovations and new designs.
“Outstanding fit and fabric is what we stand for at Jordache Legacy,” Lavi said. “[We] need to be constantly moving forward and finding the next new big idea.”
For Lee jeans, keying into authentic looks is also part of the marketing and merchandising matrix. But it also has to be comfortable.
Amber Burke, product design manager for Lee’s misses’ denim, said the Lee consumer “now expects more from her jeans.”
“She wants jeans that look like authentic denim, but with the comfortable qualities she’s experiencing with her ath-leisure bottoms,” Burke said, citing “a no-bind waistband, a fabric that moves with her and keeps its shape. Lighter shades are fresh for spring along with a little destruction and pops of white denim. Jackets, skirts and dresses are key additions to the denim wardrobe.”
Burke said the approach is “about versatility, looking good and feeling confident in your own skin. The skinny jean is a staple for us that provides style versatility. It’s also flattering on many body shapes and sizes.”
Chuente Gamino, senior merchandiser for Lee’s men’s denim, said there’s clearly a “shift in men’s wear into the slim-fit silhouette. It continues to be the fastest growing trend in men’s denim.” Gamino also said there’s “been a resurgence in authentic denim outerwear,” such as denim jackets.
Suzy Biszantz, president and ceo of Joe’s, said on the women’s side, “we’re finding that washes [that destroy the fabric] in all fits — skinny, boyfriend, cropped and shorts — and shades are still very strong.”
“Additionally, black and light gray washes continue to become more important year-round,” Biszantz said. “Styles that are specifically doing well for Joe’s are the Ex-Lover Straight, an updated boyfriend in a new straight-leg silhouette, and The Olivia, which is a midrise crop. Both are available in several washes.”
Biszantz said for men’s, “traditional denim washes continue to drive the business with a touch of stretch. Comfort is becoming more important in men’s wear and stretch is becoming the norm.” She added that the company’s “straight and narrow Brixton is consistently our most popular men’s fit but we are seeing increases in Slim Fit styles as well.”
At 3×1, founder and creative director Scott Morrison said “fringe styles are doing incredibly well. We launched that concept two seasons ago and haven’t been able to keep it in stock anywhere. We’re continuing to introduce new washes, which have been a huge hit. We’re also seeing [our customers] gravitate toward our cropped baby-boot styles. This is a very easy silhouette to wear and looks great on all heights. We also love our classic channel-seam skinny, which continues to be a bestseller.”
In the broader denim market, Morrison said the Seventies are “having a moment right now,” citing patches, embroidery, slightly lower rises, cropped-length inseams and flares.
Jefferies equity analyst Randal Konik said in a recent research note that driving overall spring sales is a demand for fashion trends from the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. For the denim segment in particular, Konik said “destroyed denim is making a comeback.” And flare-leg styles “have the potential to be a transformational silhouette shift,” the analyst said, adding that the consumer is “finally ready to embrace it.”
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of The NPD Group Inc., said, “Consumers want to regain a position with denim, but in prior years there’s been an absence of color and innovation. That’s changing, though. There have been catalysts such as stretch, which isn’t new, but is being marketed in new ways — and that’s making a difference.”
Regarding the nod to prior decades and styles, Cohen said the prior focus was just on the Sixties. “Now we’re seeing a historical collage of many decades, which the consumer is demanding. It’s an interesting time for the market.”