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Express CMO on Denim, Sustainability

A quarter of Express customers buy jeans from the contemporary fashion retailer, but that wasn’t always the case.

The Columbus, Ohio-based company set out to “reimagine” its denim assortment two years ago, said Malissa Akay, Express chief merchandising officer, following time spent with customers talking about the brand, its purpose, and the role it played in their lives. In these conversations, it became clear that most viewed Express as a niche brand for particular moments in consumers’ lives but not all.

“One of the things that was very apparent was that we were not very versatile in our assortment,” she said. “We’re very known for wear-to-work, we’re very known for party, but it’s hard to mix and match those things.”

The revelation led to the Express Edit merchandising and design philosophy and the “promise to edit the best of now for real life versatility,” Akay said.

With most consumers wearing jeans several times a week, denim became an obvious starting point for the brand. “We found that our customers were wearing 80 percent of the time, yet only 17 percent were buying [denim] from us,” she said. “We thought, oh gosh, that’s a huge opportunity.”

Time for change

Even at this point, before the so-called new denim cycle started to churn its wheels, consumers were itching for something new. The feedback, Akay said, was that they wanted quality denim products that offered a polished approach to casual dressing. Express responded with a laser sharp focus premium-quality denim for under $100.

“We completely reinvented the assortment,” she said. “We now have a diversity of light shades and washes and finishes—really focusing on the details that matter.”

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Express also offers more variety in jeans than it ever has—a move that will surely sit better with skinny jean-trashing Gen Z consumers and their millennial counterparts that want to stay current. Prior to its updated stance on denim, Akay said Express was more than 90 percent skinny jeans on the women’s side.

Skinny silhouettes are still present, but the revamped women’s collection now spans slim, mom jeans, boot, boyfriend, straight, flare and wide leg to provide consumers a complete denim wardrobe. Three rises (mid, high waisted and super high waisted) are featured in the line, and four fabrications that underscore the unwavering popularity of soft and stretchy denim.

Though skinny jeans continue to have a strong hold in men’s, the revamped collection also offers slim, slim straight, straight, relaxed, bootcut and several athletic options. Super soft fabrics that feel like sweatpants, 4-way fabrications for a high level of motion and temperature control fabrics for year-round comfort are emphasized as well.

“We value so much our vendor partners and our mills that we work with, and they have been incredible partners helping us continue to update and innovate,” Akay said. “And with everything, we’re always curious, so we’re always talking to new mills and factories that might offer something new and interesting.”

New realities

Finding like-minded vendors will be a critical piece to achieve Express’ sustainability goals.

The brand recently launched the Conscious Edit Jeans, a range of jeans that contain at least 10 percent recycled fibers and use cleaner dye techniques that traditional processes. By 2026, Akay said the brand aims to have 75 percent of its denim assortment made with “subconscious materials” and more sustainable news is on its way this year.

Fabric selection is also critical in the brand’s new FlexX line of jeans—the  solution to the one-size-fits-many jeans trending in every tier of the denim category. Each alpha size jean for women’s FlexX line fits up to three numerical sizes: extra-small (00), small (0-4), medium (6-10), large (12-16) and extra-large (18+).

“As you might know, a lot of people are not the same size they were coming out of the pandemic going into the pandemic,” Akay said. “We worked with fabrics and waistband constructions and developed our most innovative jeans to date.”

More fits and concepts to choose from, however, are leading to new styling questions and Express is stepping up its efforts to help consumers navigate the new cycle and what it means for their existing closets. “Consumers have been trained to wear certain shoes and tops with skinny jeans for a decade,” Akay said.

By leveraging support from in-store associates with programs like Express Style Trial, a rental program that allows consumers to try-out and experiment with new styles without the commitment of purchasing, and Express Style Editor, a platform that promotes user generated content, the retailer is working overtime to provide answers and inspiration.

“Customer plus brand plus culture is the Express Edit,” Akay said. “Our purpose is to create confidence and inspire self-expression. We’re feeling good about it, but we are just getting started.”