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Back on Solid Ground? Recapping Denim’s Hopeful Rebound

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TikTok’s take down of skinny jeans, creative collaborations and a flurry of new collections that prioritize sustainability and circularity have flung jeans back onto fashion’s radar during the first half of 2021.

Not bad for a commodity item many proclaimed obsolete just one year ago during the height of all-day pajama wearing.

While the apparel industry, in general, is poised to see brighter days ahead—the National Retail Federation projects retail sales growth between 10.5 percent and 13.5 percent, the fastest the U.S. has seen since 1984, thanks in part to the vaccination distribution putting millions back to work—denim is in a unique position to benefit from these gains.

Kontoor Brands’ recent survey signals signal a shift to pre-pandemic fashion—one that combines professionalism and comfort. Denim, despite being relegated to the back of closets during the majority of 2020, stands a strong chance to emerge as the new go-to work wardrobe. Nearly four in 10 workers surveyed said they expect to wear jeans to the office, and 82 percent indicated they plan to buy new jeans in the next 12 months.

As for the reasons behind the demand for new denim, respondents said their current jeans were old or worn-out or think buying new jeans would “brighten their mood.” Meanwhile, another 32 percent said they’ll buy new jeans because the ones in their closet no longer fit.

For these reasons and more, denim’s future is looking bright. Here’s a look at how the industry got here.

New cycle

Now that America is “reopening” from coronavirus disruptions, Janine Stichter, a veteran retail and apparel analyst for Jefferies, believes shoppers want to refresh their wardrobes, update options to accommodate any pandemic-related weight fluctuations or purchase new outfits for social calendars that could be filling up again.

Fashion, she said, undergoes a silhouette shift about once every decade. “When they do occur, they tend to drive an overhaul in the consumer’s wardrobe,” she added, and have a “long tail” powered by younger consumers quickly embracing trends that then infiltrate the mass market in subsequent years.

Though denim’s pivot away from ultra-skinny jeans has percolated behind the scenes and on the runway for some time, Levi Strauss & Co. president and CEO Chip Bergh made it official during the company’s Q1 2021 earnings call in April when said the category is entering a new denim cycle that he hasn’t seen in over a decade ago since the emergence of the skinny jean.

The instant success of the women’s High Loose jean, a style Levi’s introduced in early 2020, is driving the denim giant to invest further into roomier fits, not to mention is influencing the direction of its upcoming collaboration with Valentino. The men’s category is not excluded from denim’s new cycle either. Bergh said Levi’s is seeing momentum building for relaxed silhouettes like the men’s 550 and 559—two legacy fits that the company considered discontinuing a couple of years ago.

Jennifer Foyle, American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) chief creative officer, echoed Bergh’s comments about the jeanswear category cycling out of its decades-long skinny jean phase. She said the American Eagle (AE) brand is seeing a definite shift into looser women’s denim shapes, such as flare jeans. It’s a change that Foyle likened to denim’s last cycle into skinny, when she was at competitor Gap. “I definitely have been there and have experience in that shift and that transition. So, I’m pretty excited about what we’re about to face.”

Pent-up demand for pre-pandemic fashion and newness is behind this denim rejuvenation. The one caveat now in this new cycle is that demand for comfort is at an all-time high, but Foyle isn’t concerned about what that may mean for AE’s denim collections, describing the brand’s jeans as “the most comfortable jeans.” AE’s “great results” in both its men’s and women’s jeans businesses are indicative of this, she said, adding, “I think it speaks volumes for this time period where everyone assumed that we were only selling sweatpants.”

Strategic partnerships

The pandemic trounced the notion of conducting “business as usual,” but companies throughout the supply chain rose to the occasion on several fronts through the help of meaningful collaborations.

Wrangler has cast a wider net in 2021 by forging strategic partnerships. Premium players such as Nordstrom, Free People and Urban Outfitters have helped elevate the heritage brand’s profile among trend-forward consumers, while collaborations with popular TV shows like “Rick and Morty” and “Stranger Things” help target niche demographics.

During Investor Day in May, Tom Waldron, executive vice president and Wrangler global brand president, said the label is “currently experiencing momentum globally like we have never seen” in its 75-year history.

Sister brand Lee is benefiting from a similar strategy. Chris Waldeck, executive vice president and global brand president at Lee, attributed much of the recent success and hope for a promising future to the brand’s licensing collaboration with H&M and their shared sustainability goals, which he believes will help it target a younger, new consumer. The partnership brought Lee into over 1,000 doors across 61 countries.

Collaborations were also key in several brands’ foray into home décor. Wrangler kicked off the chain of events with a partnership with Pottery Barn Teen in January that spanned curtains, tapestries, lounge sectionals and loveseats, to bean bag chairs, quilts and duvet covers.

A month later, Levi’s stepped into home for the first time with long-time partner Target. Offering more than 100 items, the limited-edition Levi’s for Target home collection featured items like tableware, barware, notebooks, rugs and more with a denim twist, including elements that nodded to red selvedge lines and rivets.

And consumers just got their first look at Gap’s debut home collection available exclusively on Walmart.com. The collections riffs on the retailer’s use of classic chambray and stripes, as well as market-ready trends like tie-dye.

Other partnerships are examples of how the industry’s view on competition is changing.

7 For All Mankind, for instance, launched a collection of women’s denim made from deadstock fabric and no-impact hardware with Portuguese design duo Marques’ Almeida. Both brands’ contrasting styles make the collection a unique display of accessible charm, with 7 For All Mankind’s mainstream appeal balancing Marques’ Almeida’s high-fashion approach.

Calvin Klein’s denim category experienced one of the fastest sell-outs in Q1 2021. The uptick in denim interest was partially connected to the brand’s line of elevated basics with designer Heron Preston—its first-ever collaboration. Jacob Jordan, Calvin Klein global chief merchant, head of product strategy and new product ventures, said the PVH-owned label intends to work with different creative people to tell the brand’s story through their perspective.

In May, Miu Miu teased its first-ever collaboration with Levi’s, a line of pre-owned denim revamped with the Italian label’s playful use of embellishment and color. The collection specifically centers on vintage “Made in USA” men’s 501 jeans and Trucker jackets from the 1980s and 1990s but restyled with women in mind. Levi’s also lent its denim expertise to Ganni for a whimsical 14-piece women’s capsule collection that included jeans made with cottonized hemp.

For Ganni creative director Ditte Reffstrup, working with Levi’s has been a masterclass in denim. “We’ve learnt so much along the way about new fabrics and the craftsmanship of great denim,” she said.

Sustainable business

Collaboration is also the backbone to the denim industry’s sustainable makeover—an all-important factor in wooing eco-conscious consumers back into jeans.

Italian brand High tapped into Isko’s R-Two family of circular fabrics, which combine reused and recycled materials to help close the production loop. The brand’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection includes a women’s denim jacket and jeans made with the sustainable fabric.

The kitchen compost bin, meanwhile, was a source of inspiration for Weekday’s first-ever plant-based denim collection. The H&M Group-owned brand previewed the experimental collection at Stockholm Fashion Week in February. The garments, dyed with food waste, are among Weekday’s first made with hemp—a fiber that the brand, which has pivoted to 100 percent organic cotton in recent years, intends to use in main collections soon.

Weekday also introduced the first run of jeans made with Infinited Fiber Company’s (IFC) unique regenerated textile fiber, Infinna. The collection with Weekday was years in the making. The project began as a trial run within H&M Group’s Circular & Renewable Innovation Lab, which reviews innovations in early stages of development. That, in turn, was sparked by H&M Group’s investment in IFC.

Fast-fashion retailer Mango bowed a spring line of denim finished with sustainable technologies such as laser and ozone. Mango reported that these solutions reduced the collection’s water consumption by 30 million liters, compared to traditional methods.

Brands of all sizes, including Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Frame and American Eagle, sparked buzzed with collections that follow Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign guidelines for circular denim.

“Our adoption of the guidelines set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for the AE x Jeans Redesign collection represents AEO’s ongoing journey and pledge to accelerate improvements across our operations through innovation and collaboration,” said Jay Schottenstein, AEO CEO and executive chairman.

“By taking measures to ensure more responsible product sourcing, we are working hard to help create a healthier environment for future generations,” he said.