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Indigo Children: What’s Next for the Kids Denim Market

After loungewear stole the show in 2020, new fits and trend cycles coupled with the reopening of workplaces gave men’s and women’s denim brands a new lease on life in 2021.

Jeans generated $18.4 billion in U.S. sales last year, an increase of 36 percent over the prior year, and a 9 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels in 2019, based on Consumer Tracking Service data from The NPD Group. Sales for women’s jeans increased 9 percent and men’s increased 12 percent versus in 2019.  

With many of the themes that helped reinvigorate the men’s and women’s categories trickling into kids, Maria Rugolo, NPD apparel industry analyst, said there’s room for growth in the children’s denim market. Children’s jeans account for 10 percent of total jean sales for the 12 months ending August 2022. “This is not performing to its potential as kids account for 14 percent of total apparel sales,” she said. 

The kids’ denim market—which NPD defines as girls 13 and under and boys 14 and under—accounted for over $1.8 billion in U.S. sales revenue. Unit sales are down 11 percent versus last year, however, Rugolo said children’s jeans revenue is down just two percentage points due to higher average selling prices.

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The bright spot for both dollar and unit sales growth for kids’ jeans right now compared to last is in mass stores, she added. 

Value remains a key driver in consumer purchasing decisions for children’s denim. Looking across all mass and value retailers tracked by retail intelligence firm Edited reveals a mix of pureplay and own-brand offerings. Top stockists include Shein, Levi’s, OshKosh B’gosh, Rainbow and Gap. So far this season, Katherine Bailey, Edited children’s wear analyst, said the $25-$30 price bracket is the most popular range for full-price children’s denim, accounting for 26 percent of all denim products.

While mass retailers receive most of consumers’ denim dollars, online and direct-to-consumer channels have become a crucial part of brands’ businesses, especially as the children’s independent boutique business inches closer to extinction with each financial crisis. A quarter of revenue for children’s jeans is spent online, according to NPD. While online revenue is down two points from last year, Rugolo said it is still higher than pre-pandemic levels.  

DL1961, which offers premium denim for sizes 2T to girls’ 16 and boys’ 18, said its direct-to-consumer digital channel continues to grow year over year. Likewise, heritage brand and Carter’s Inc. subsidiary OshKosh B’gosh is seeing the most success in its own physical stores. 

Creature comforts

The popularity of children’s denim has long been tested by leggings and athletic apparel, perhaps even more so than its adult counterparts thanks to the bottoms’ array of colors, prints, and licensed characters, and their mix-and-match appeal. However, the pandemic and subsequent school closures and social distancing amplified this demand for the comfort-driven, size-forgiving, elastic-waisted staples. 

“The pandemic impacted us in 2020, as kids were homeschooled and wearing sweats and leggings,” said Sarah Ahmed, DL1961 chief creative officer. Despite their offering of jeans made with “ultra-soft fibers and stretch,” the New York City-based brand saw sales shift from blue jeans to joggers and comfort knit styles during covid.  

“I think kids and parents got used to being more comfortable in what they are wearing with covid and staying at home,” said Louise Vongerichten Ulukaya, founder and CEO of the “Made in Portugal” children’s brand Mon Coeur. “Consumers are looking for comfortable denim options for their kids, and the traditional rough denim is probably not as popular as it used to be.” 

Mon Coeur

Mon Coeur’s solution for kids’ sizes 2-8 has been straight cut gender-neutral shapes—which Vongerichten Ulukaya said are both stylish and practical—and pull-on jogger styles for babies. “Consumers are looking for comfort and it still must look good. That has not changed, everyone wants to feel good in what’s there are wearing, and this is why our denim has done so well,” she said.

Similar to what Zoom did to office attire, virtual schooling forced kids’ brands to evolve to suit their customer’s changing preferences. “Competing with the booming loungewear market meant integrating details that enhanced wear, like elasticated waists and soft linings, and merging shapes to create hybrid options like denim joggers,” Bailey said. “Where hardwearing fabrics were once a priority, now comfort and ease of movement ranked highly.”

Indeed, OshKosh is seeing a new trend in boys with the consumer leaning towards pull-on styles with a functional drawcord over the traditional 5-pocket styling, said Zia Taylor, OshKosh B’gosh VP of design. The heritage brand’s Fall 2021 collaboration with Kith Kids—the streetwear retailer’s first partnership with a children’s apparel brand—centered on tees, crewnecks, hoodies, and sweatpants with rinse-wash denim overalls, jeans and jacket making up a small fraction of the overall assortment. 

However, a year later the OshKosh consumer is finding comfort in looser denim fits, creating new opportunities for the brand outside the skinny jean/jegging cycle. “Slouchy and relaxed denim fits paired with tees and with a denim jacket are always a win,” said Carissa Atkins, OshKosh B’gosh senior director of merchandising.

OshKosh B’gosh

Similar to working from home for adults, Kendall Becker, fashion and beauty trends editor at Trendalytics, said the kids’ denim market saw a lag during peak pandemic years. “With that being said, the interest has been revitalized, not only from a trend standpoint but sizing, too. Newness not only is a want but a need for many, especially for kids as they’ve grown over the remote years to back in-person. All in all, these factors give confidence in the growth of the category,” she said.

DL1961 is already seeing the tide turning back in favor of jeans. Once schools began to open back up, Ahmed said the company “saw a massive uptick in overall denim sales” and business bounced back from covid within one year. Ahmed said the company was on track to end 2022 as its strongest year to date. “With the trends changing so quickly and the demand for wider leg options, we have been a key resource for our retail partners,” she said. “Denim is definitely having a moment right now.”

Big little ideas

To understand what’s trending in the children’s category, look to the women’s and men’s markets for clues.

“Trickle-down from the men’s and women’s wear market plays a significant role in children’s denim trends, with runway-informed narratives like Y2K, collegiate/preppy, and grunge showing influence,” Bailey said. 

However, the approach to trends is softer in children’s wear. Becker said more approachable iterations hit the market on a later timeline after it has resonated with the more mature counterparts. 

For boys, Edited’s data shows that “commercial silhouettes” like slim and straight jeans are being updated with baggy and relaxed styles that reflect a move away from restrictive shapes. Boys’ jeans with utility details like patch pockets are also picking up momentum this fall, following “the cargo pant revival,” Bailey said. 

Echoing Edited’s data, Ahmed said DL1961’s best-selling styles for boys include new utility joggers and hooded jackets. “Cargo pockets and utility detailing have been a big trend in boys,” she said. “We also do very well with our classic slim legs, especially our navy and khaki twills for back-to-school shopping.”

There’s also been an interest in “mommy and me” dressing across categories, Becker said. The search volume for “mommy and me” is high at 12,000 average weekly searches and an average of 263 social media posts a week. 

Parents’ nostalgia for Y2K fashion as well as the era’s flair for glitz and novelty designs make it a perfect match for girls’ denim. Edited named the era’s signature fits—wide-leg and flare jeans—as fits to watch.

In a post-pandemic world, the children’s denim market faces its own host of challenges and opportunities.

DL1961’s trends for girls closely mirror its women’s business. The new Emie High Rise Straight has been a best seller across all department stores and its new Lily High Rise Wide Leg is “gaining a ton of momentum,” Ahmed said. Though the brand still has a solid business with fall staples like classic miniskirts and skinny jeans.

OshKosh B’gosh saw consumers gravitate to its core denim assortment during the back-to-school season, stocking up on skinny, straight and relaxed fits for boys and skinny, super skinny and jegging fits for girls. However, the denim trends for adults are the source of excitement for the heritage brand, which is seeing higher rises, flare fits, wide leg and relaxed fits trickle into children’s wear. “For girls, we are seeing a lot of consumers purchase our flare silhouette style,” Atkins said. 

Wider legs are becoming a norm across girls’ assortments, Becker said. The style is up 24 percentage points in average weekly searches compared with last year. “As we know, skinny jeans and leggings, especially in children’s, were the standard and that’s certainly shifted,” she added. 

Though the color palette remains overwhelmingly in favor of tones of blue, Edited’s data shows retailers are venturing into more experimental aesthetics, with new arrivals showing up in brown, neutral and pastel tones.

“Colored denim is also having quite the resurgence with colors like sage, mauve, butter yellow and steel blue owning this trend,” Becker said. “This is one to watch as it’s most saturated in the women’s luxury market at the moment, making it a key indicator of the trend trickling down.”

Variations of washes are driving boys’ trends, she added, noting that grey stonewash, acidic olive green and distressed blue are leading new arrivals. 

Digital-native kiddos are also turning to social media for style inspiration. Becker said the age of social media influencers is increasingly becoming younger which provides a correlation to the wants of their audiences. 

“The normality of influencers in the children’s wear market is more important than ever with increasing access to social platforms that didn’t exist prior,” she said. “Kids can keep up with their idols in real time rather just in magazines or on the television as in generations past.” 

Opportunities abound

The children’s category also brings its own unique opportunities.

Bailey said “significant strides” have been made recently in children’s denim by Abercrombie & Fitch, which introduced a size-inclusive collection for kids in July. Though size inclusivity has been a dominant conversation in the women’s market, the children’s denim market lacked a leader until now. 

Designed based on feedback from more than 1,000 customers and following two years of fit testing, the entire range features inbuilt waistband adjusters and includes short, regular, and long lengths to ensure as accurate a fit as possible.

“Age is just one factor in finding the right fit, but by introducing multiple lengths, expanding the size range, and including waistband adjusters in every pair, kids can now enjoy the same experience as adults: find a waist size, find a length, and enjoy their comfiest denim fit,” said Kelly Hall, senior vice president and general manager of Abercrombie Kids. 

Abercrombie Kids

Edited has also tracked “exponential growth” in the number of jean multi-packs in stock across the last three years. Bailey said numbers more than doubled from 2021 to 2022 “as a result of significant uplifts in options” at retailers like H&M and The Children’s Place. Jeans sold as a two-pack is the most common pack size, accounting for 56 percent of intake. However, she said bundles extend to encompass as many as five pairs. 

“The dramatic market expansion of multi-packs will favor cash-strapped consumers seeking cost-effective purchases, while retailers will benefit from higher overall order values and slashed packaging costs,” she added.

Packs work in children’s brands’ favor because demand for constant newness has less importance in the category compared to men’s and women’s. The slower pace of trends allows brands to invest more in quality and production. Whereas many brands license out their children’s ranges, DL1961’s vertical operation allows the company to produce its kids’ jeans in-house, utilizing the same fabrics featured in the men’s and women’s collections. “This sets us apart in the market,” Ahmed said.

As important as sustainability is, Becker said Trendalytics is seeing a downturn in searches for sustainable fashion across all categories. Searches for the term are down 40 percent in average weekly searches compared with last year. 

The right consumer, however, appreciates children’s brands with a sustainable backbone. “We are one of the few kids’ denim brands in the market right now that is sustainable and eco-friendly. This appeals to the millennial mom who is conscious of the environment,” Ahmed said. 

Though DL1961 strikes on the right trends and fits, the brand prioritizes recycled and renewable fibers, clean dyes, ozone and laser finishing technologies and produces in solar power and energy-efficient closed-loop manufacturing facilities. The brand recently introduced Recover-branded recycled cotton fibers in its men’s and women’s ranges and is currently discussing adding it to its kids’ range in future seasons. 

 “Sustainability is a huge selling point for DL1961’s wholesale partners and consumers,” Ahmed said. “Consumers care about the environmental impact and want to invest in sustainable clothing.”