“This is the first time in my 30-year career where there are multiple denim trends happening all at once,” said Mary Pierson, Madewell senior vice president of denim design. “The exit from skinny jeans seems to have accelerated so quickly. Now, we are seeing a range of leg shapes and rises trending as well as heavier, less stretchy and non-stretch denim gaining popularity.”
Though consumers found physical and emotional comfort in dressing in cozy loungewear during the early months of the pandemic, Covid-19 is not the singular factor in the evolution toward roomier fits. “The skinny trend was dominant for so long that a shift was ready to happen,” Pierson said.
The first signs of wider fits emerged on the runway years prior as streetwear-oriented designers like Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston gained their footing in the luxury market, which applied a pricey designer label to the genre’s signature aesthetic.
Add the mainstreaming of genderless design (which leans heavily on boxy workwear-inspired silhouettes), coupled with millennials’ fixation on ’90s nostalgia and the rise of “ugly” sneakers—chunky styles that call for wider denim proportions—and it’s clear that skinny jeans’ fate was written long before sweats became the universal work-from-home uniform and a 15-year-old TikToker ever griped about the “cheugy” fit.
The plot twist, however, is how being cooped up for months Kondo-ing closets and scrolling through social media drove consumers of all ages toward a whole new denim persona as they emerged from quarantine—and the speed at which this evolution unfolded. “When the pandemic happened, it pushed trends forward and faster,” Pierson said. “People are seeing things faster and are adapting to newness quicker as opposed to earlier times when a few people would adopt trends slowly and the masses would follow.”
The resulting trend cycle means anything goes in denim, from low-rise and mid-rise jeans to flare, bootcut, cargo, balloon, straight, mom, relaxed and more. And everything old is new again, particularly to Gen Z consumers and much to the delight of brands with a desirable design vault.
“We’re not pulling inspiration from anyone but ourselves in this moment in time,” said Zihaad Wells, creative director of True Religion, the low-rise, baggy-fitting 2000s jeans brand worn by Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton during their Y2K heyday, and more recently by Bella Hadid. The Ricky straight jean remains True Religion’s No. 1 because it nods not only to the brand’s original style but also to fashion’s current mood.
“It’s evident that denim’s new trend cycle in 2022 sees a welcoming reappearance from the past,” Wells said, adding that True Religion is delivering on this demand for nostalgia with archival styles like low-slung fits for women and baggy silhouettes for men. “Consumers are really fascinated with the fashion of the early 2000s and I believe it’s because trends at the time were unhinged in the best possible way. People were getting creative with self-expression through their fashion choices, and we are seeing that movement once again. It just looks a little different.”
In terms of silhouettes, Favorite Daughter design director Carla Calvelo said the ’90s and 2000s are big influences this year, naming relaxed, oversized, flare, bootcut and straight leg styles as fits to watch. The brand is continuing with high-waisted and elongated silhouettes and seeing interest in a “tailored” denim trouser with a rinse wash based on raw denim.
“I love the idea to continue exploring the tailored fits—elevated pieces that can be recognized as Favorite Daughter,” she said.
The same era filters across Joe’s Jeans collections for 2022—and it’s a comfort zone for Alice Jackman, the brand’s design director. “I’ve been working in the denim industry for over 20 years, so a lot of the late ’90s and early 2000s design influences happening now are familiar to me from the first time around,” she said.
Joe’s next collections will offer looser and wide fits in line with the trend cycle. The brand also has a new fabric called “Heirloom,” which Jackman says has a prominent denim twill line with a super soft hand feel and “the perfect amount of stretch.”
“I have great resources for vintage here in L.A. so I’m always discovering amazing worn-in pieces to replicate for wash on all our modern denim fabrications,” she said.
Meanwhile, old-school skate culture is guiding Hudson Jeans’ new direction, according to Steffan Attardo, the brand’s men’s design director. Paint splatter, destruction and coated fabrics add edge to the label’s upcoming collections, but the real focus is on creating voluminous fits.
“Wider-leg fits are the new mainstream,” Attardo said.
The past provides inspiration, but Gen Z is copying and pasting it back into relevance through their social megaphones on Instagram and TikTok.
Though social media’s stronghold on fashion dates to the 2000s with Tumblr, current platforms gained greater importance to consumers and brands when pandemic restrictions shut down other traditional sources of sartorial inspiration like street style, red carpets, in-person events and even the option to browse stores.
“Social media has really become the catalyst for new trends emerging all the time,” said Sarah Ahmed, DL1961 co-founder and chief creative officer. “New information and innovations are shared so quickly and so easily that it’s no wonder denim trends are changing more than ever.”
The rapid pace at which denim trends are moving plays in vertically integrated DL1961’s favor. In February, the New York-based brand bowed its first line of jeans made with Recover’s post-consumer waste cotton fiber. Styles centered on wide leg, bootcut, flare and straight fits. “Because all of our manufacturing happens under one roof at our family-owned factory in Pakistan, we can easily make changes and adapt to new styles and trends when necessary,” Ahmed said.
“I think the trend cycle is ever-evolving as long as we continue sharing our lives and our wardrobes on social media,” Ahmed said. “It’s all about the spread of information, the speed at which that happens, and the technology advancements within denim manufacturing that will allow us to keep up.”
“The way we experience trends is completely different now and it will never be the same,” Wells added. “When you know that, you can kind of do whatever you want.”
All winning streaks eventually come to an end, and designers anticipate that this denim bubble may pop sooner that the industry norm for trends.
In the past, Pierson said it was standard to expect a denim fit or trend to last at least five years, possibly longer, but as trends in denim change so do the trends in the tops and footwear consumers wear with them. While it is uncertain how quickly consumers will want another wardrobe refresh from top to bottom, Pierson said she expects to see trends around straight, wide, and flare-leg denim continue for the “next year or two.”
Attardo echoed that sentiment, estimating that the focus on these fits is likely to continue “through the next couple years, at least.”
Where jeans shift to next, and when, remains a mystery that only the next generation of consumers can determine, but if the resilience that the denim industry has shown during the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that there will always be a customer hungry for jeans.
“People’s love for denim is consistent and that’s a great thing,” Wells said. “However, we are always keeping one eye on the future and making sure that we are that brand that continues to have a unique point of view. We want to stay on the pulse of what the younger generation is doing, and if we do that, I think we won’t be as focused on chasing the trend because we’re just doing what feels right.”
This story appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Rivet. Click here to view the entire issue.