ATLANTA — In the “great waist debate,” the belly button is the hot button issue.

Waistlines have replaced hemlines as the great divider of generations, industry experts say. Young consumers, weaned on low-rise jeans, see high waistlines as the epitome of nerdiness. Despite runway rumblings of higher waists on the horizon — including lots of natural-waist looks in New York, Milan and Paris for spring — low-rise pants, after almost a decade of popularity, are as hot as ever, especially with young consumers, according to retailers.

Consumers are clearly polarized about waistlines and trouser manufacturers are scrambling to cope.

“I don’t want high-waisted ‘grandma’ jeans,” said Mary Young, 44, a singer-bookkeeper from Florence, Ala. “I want to be hip, and yet I don’t want to look like Britney Spears. So would somebody please tell me where I should wear my waistline?”

Young wants jeans and pants that show her fashion sense without showing too much skin and looking ridiculous. She relies on advice from her favorite specialty store owner, Marigail Mathis, who encouraged her to try modified lower waistlines in a jean from Seven For All Mankind and pants with variety of options.

“They’re comfortable and they make me feel good,” said Young. “But I wouldn’t have figured it out for myself.”

Toni Browning, president and chief executive officer of Proffitt’s/McRae’s, a division of Saks Inc., said that low-rise jeans sales are as strong as ever for younger customers this fall, with manufacturers, such as L.E.I., Mudd, XOXO and others, playing up low waists with belts, grommets and sashes.

Better, career and bridge markets for older customers, haven’t significantly modified waistlines, said Browning, although the customer has responded to comfort, especially in stretch fabrics. Browning said the high waist emphasized by runway designers in recent seasons would probably not translate to mainstream retail before fall 2005.

Women ages 30 and over, who generally are more comfortable with higher waistlines, originally shied away from super-low jeans as the province of provocative pop stars. But the enduring popularity of lower waistlines has older consumers modifying their position. Retailers say older consumers willing to try slightly lower-rise pants often find them a fashionable, comfortable, alternative. Yet other women continue to take a more conservative approach, resistant to change.

This story first appeared in the October 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Manufacturers say they’ve lost sleep obsessing over the waist debate. They fear that lower waistlines can both attract and alienate customers. Many collections have revamped waistlines several times in recent seasons before settling on one that works. Others are hedging their bets by offering options — as many as four rises — and letting customers choose. Options often require creative new marketing support to educate both consumers and retailers.

David Wolfe, creative director for The Doneger Group, a New York buying office, said the current confusion all dates back to when Tom Ford labeled hip bones “erogenous zones” 10 years ago, and the hippest jeans lines, such as Seven For All Mankind, followed suit with sexy, low-rise denim. But nobody predicted the low-rise trend would last so long that it would define a generation.

“Anybody Generation X or younger accepts low-waistlines as the norm,” Wolfe said. “To them, high waistlines mean over-the-hill and look as old as blue-rinsed hair. Designers such as Prada and Marc Jacobs have touted higher waistlines, and people are saying low rise is over. Excuse me? Fashion comes from the streets, and consumers aren’t ready.”

Wolfe said that while pop culture icons, such as Spears, have helped boost low-rise denim sales, no real celebrity fashion symbol exists for older women. So while denim companies have made money on the trend, sportswear and denim firms that target an older customer have missed an opportunity.

That may be changing, as many companies are venturing into uncharted territory, below the navel, and introducing new waistline options.

After extensive consumer research indicated consumer interest in waistline options, Dockers For Women launched a “Three fits so we all fit in” campaign this fall. Three options include the highest waist “classic” fit; the “favorite” fit, slightly below the natural waist, and the “nouveau” fit, an inch or so lower, that’s also cut straighter through the hip and thigh. Other options, such as flat-front or pleats and embellishment, have been introduced, to update all fits. So far, the Nouveau and Favorite fits have outsold the Classic.

The new strategy, which may be tweaked with still more options in the future, is working well, according to Courtney Blacker, marketing manager. To support the program, Dockers launched a national print advertising campaign this fall. Product hang tags explain fits and suggest coordinating pieces, while the Web site includes an interactive feature that shows each waistline in 360 degrees.

David Kahn, the eponymous owner of a Los Angeles jeans line, said he targets women 20 to 50, “hip chicks to soccer moms.” In recent seasons, he launched four waist options, ranging from right at the belly button to three and a half inches below. Keeping the back of the waist higher than the front makes lower rises more accessible to a range of body types and ages.

Kahn said customers have increasingly asked for lower options. He designs the high-waist style, called “Karen,” only “grudgingly.” He sees high-waisted jeans as hopelessly out of fashion.

“Even older customers now want lower waistlines, and the jeans market hasn’t adequately addressed them,” he said. “I’ve got two kinds of women — the traditional soccer mom and the sexy, hip soccer mom. It’s not an age, but an attitude.”

Targeting this neglected customer, G&M Design Group, a bridge price sportswear manufacturer based in New York, will launch a new denim program for spring offering women fashion jeans in a variety of rises.

“Waistlines have been the hottest of topics among our design team,” said David Rosenzweig, president. “Waistlines have gone down in the past 18 months, in both the Garfield & Marks division and the more updated Womyn labels.”

Rosenzweig said women have evolved over the past decade. “The 40- to 50-year-old customer knows about cool jeans, and there’s not as much of a schism between generations,” he said.

Jeans and sportswear firm Cambio America, a New York division of Cambio European, targets women over 30. The company is known for its higher waistline, described by sales director Marybeth Martorana as “a womanly fit.” Three years ago, Cambio began offering four options, in more relaxed, yet still womanly, fits. While older women have responded to the options, they have also helped Cambio reach a younger customer who wasn’t comfortable with extreme low-rise jeans offered in the juniors market.

The company applied the same approach to its twill pants this fall, offering waistline options, including point-of-sale materials that explain them to consumers.

Neil Cohen, president of ITW by Claude Brown, a New York denim and sportswear collection, said he was “waistline obsessed,” raising and lowering the waistline bar for years, before finally settling on one three years ago that works for his 30- to 55-year-old demographic. Cohen chose a rise between 10 and 10-and-a-half inches — “between a true missy fit and a true contemporary fit,” he said. “The customer looks modern, and feels hip, but not like her teenage daughter,” said Cohen, who sees no need to offer alternatives.

“We’re not trying to be everything to everyone,” he said. “We’re not going after the Juicy Couture customer, but sticking with our niche.”

Retailer Marigail Mathis, owner of her eponymous store in Florence, Ala., divides it into areas according to three waistline options, which she calls “classic,” “modern” and “contemporary.”

“In the past year, customers have been totally confused, asking us where their waistline is,” she said. “We’re figuring it out for them before they go in the dressing room.”

Mathis said women are now ready for more updated waistlines, finding them more comfortable and flattering once they try them on. The mid-rise “modern” fit now represents 50 percent of pants sales, with “classic” and “contemporary” rises 25 percent each. Still, she keeps higher-rise pants, from vendors such as Garfield & Marks, Fabrizio Gianni and Lauren Vidal, for customers who prefer a true, Katherine Hepburn-inspired classic trouser fit.

Terri Martin, president of Terri Martin Buing Inc., a New York buying office, said the confusion surrounding waistlines has ultimately hurt the bottoms industry.

“While pants manufacturers are floundering over this waistline issue, skirts, with lots of novelty and newness, are doing great,” she said.