NEW YORK — It seemed like even Santa was buying denim this Christmas.

Despite fears of lethargic holiday sales, specialty retailers and department stores reported denim as one of the strongest-selling categories this Christmas, with jeans exceeding initial holiday sales projections as well as last year’s figures. Sources said denim across price categories sold consistently well throughout the holiday selling season.

Buyers said lightweight and stretch denim were bestsellers and that while they kept markdowns to a minimum, discounted merchandise sold quickly. Consumers continued to buy low-rise boot-cut jeans and retailers said that will remain the most important fit throughout 2002.

At Macy’s West, dark rinses, light rinses and jeans with green or purple tints sold — as long as it looked new and “special” it moved, said Durand Guion, women’s fashion director.

“The appeal is not about replacing the jeans,” he said, noting that sales of basics stagnated. “It’s about finding a pair or two or three that really say something.”

Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion Kal Ruttenstein said denim was a strong seller during fall and holiday.

“We’re happier with denim sales than with a lot of other [categories],” he said.

Ruttenstein said Seven jeans sold particularly well. Also, a strong demand for jeans from Marc by Marc Jacobs has brought the line from a few select stores to all Bloomingdale’s locations, he said.

Scoop co-owner Stefani Greenfield also cited Seven as a major seller at her five boutiques in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

“Seven [sales] was something I haven’t seen before in my life,” she said. “It’s been so consistent. A lot [of Seven] doesn’t even hit the floor because we get wait lists, which helps drive up traffic in the stores.”

Mairead Clarke, an associate at contemporary store Les Deux Copines near San Francisco, also noted the store keeps a long list of people to call when a new shipment from Seven arrives.

“Seven is flying out the door,” she said.

That brand also made its way onto many holiday wish lists.

Andrae Gonzalo, assistant buyer at American Rag in Los Angeles, said that some male customers arrived at the store ready to buy women’s Seven jeans as a gift for their girlfriends.

“She’s sending in her boyfriend and telling him she wants one thing: a pair of Seven jeans and she knows the wash — distressed,” he said.

American Rag found there was new interest in flares.

“Things were getting sleek and geometric but since Sept. 11 there’s been a big switch toward comfort and jeans that look worn in,” said Gonzalo. “The more hand-finished the better,” he added, noting Seven is particularly adept at a hand-finished look.

Scoop’s Greenfield said denim sales are ahead of prior-year levels, thanks to more jeans lines and denim-related items, like corduroys. She said Earl Jean’s side-slit corduroys with grommets made exclusively for Scoop sold strongly.

“We find the best styles and then we have a lot of stock. I have definitely narrowed my assortment,” she said. “For spring, my key lines are Seven, Earl Jean, Juicy Jeans, Paper Denim & Cloth, and Serfontaine.”

At Zebraclub in Seattle, sales of denim accounted for 20 percent of total holiday business, according to Pamela Sutter, vice president and director of retail. That’s about what the Northwestern store had anticipated.

Sutter noted Diesel and Levi’s were the two top brands, in bleached, stretch or dirty vintage looks. Super low-rise jeans and boot-cut pants were choice cuts, she added.

At Barneys New York, the denim category performed exceedingly well, said buyer Megan Mitchell. To encourage in-store traffic, Barneys brought designers to the store every Saturday in December to customize jeans and T-shirts for shoppers.

“The designers personalized with paints, decals, patches and labels,” Mitchell said. “The traffic has been pretty steady, so I imagine it will be strong after Christmas, as well. I think in general, denim has been consistent and our sales are definitely ahead of last year for sure.”

While denim sales remained strong through the holiday shopping season at Macy’s East, executive vice president of women’s apparel Robert Jezowski said he is cautious about the first part of this year.

“Denim was one of our better performers in both status and moderate areas,” Jezowski said. “After New Year’s there is still a lot of business because people are coming back to shop for themselves, but I’m very concerned about the end of January and the first quarter of 2002.” Overall, he said 2001 was a tough year and that he is looking forward to a fresh start.

For 2002, Jezowski said the denim skirt business has opportunity to be successful and that he would like to buy higher-end brands.

“Whether it’s getting Diesel or Mavi, I would like to pursue some of the upper status brands where we can have some exclusivity,” he said. Jezowski said junior lines like LEI and Mudd offered good silhouettes including lace-up jeans, which brought in extra volume.

A representative of Saks Fifth Avenue said novelty jeans were key during the holidays. Red stitching, side-zip legs, lace-up jeans and studded denim were popular sellers at that chain.

New York’s Canal Jean Co., which carries over 15 different jeans brands, was especially affected by the lack of tourists and shoppers in lower Manhattan following September’s terrorist attacks.

“The whole fourth quarter is not one that we want to see repeated,” said general merchandising manager Neal Leavitt. “The tough economy, the weather, the lack of tourism in lower Manhattan and Sept. 11 just made our lives very difficult. But holiday sales came on strong at the end and were much stronger than what we had seen since Sept. 11, so we have some positive feelings entering the spring.”