The new cycle sweeping through denim offers a welcome reprieve for an industry largely sidelined in the pandemic. After loungewear stole the spotlight during 2020, denim executives can hardly contain their glee at how jeans have reasserted their relevance to the consumer wardrobe. Relaxed-fit styles have seemingly supplanted the skinny, the Gen Z-canceled millennial ride-or-die. But as shoppers leap onto the loose-fit bandwagon and keep up with the celebrity-approved look, what this means for e-commerce returns—long a tough nut to crack—remains a question without clear answers.
In the wake of lengthy isolations and perhaps a few changes to their physiques, many consumers reengaging with workplaces, social activities and the world at large found their pre-pandemic wardrobes in need of a refresh. As the “most trusted item in your wardrobe,” jeans are “one of the first things you’re going to want to update,” said Don Howard, executive director of consulting services for Alvanon, the New York City fashion fit experts.
Stretch-less rude awakening?
But consumers accustomed to a bit of stretch baked into their bottoms might be in for a rude awakening with some of the newer, roomier denims. Levi’s popular, sold-out High Loose women’s jean blends 23 percent hemp with 77 percent cotton—and zero stretch. A similar Gap women’s style, the high-rise organic cotton ’90s loose jeans with Washwell, does one better, giving wearers just a hint of ease with 1 percent elastane. It’s a far cry from the stretch-heavy jeggings and skinny styles that became the de facto norm for more than a decade.
New material makeups could leave consumers questioning how less-forgiving fabrics might accommodate their measurements, which is why brands must be transparent about what shoppers should expect from these new products, according to Howard. “You just have to be very good at explaining to the customer what you’ve done, if in fact you have stopped using as much stretch,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than being surprised when you’re trying on your favorite jean and you want to go back and get another one in a different wash and it fits completely differently.”
Fashion-conscious young shoppers might be all in on the new blue wave, but some industry veterans challenge whether this loose-fit craze has the skinny’s enviable staying power. “Everyone’s talking about the looser fit, but those are trends that come and go,” said Tanya Zrebiec, vice president of innovation and strategy for A3Apparel and 1822 Denim, which runs a direct-to-consumer e-commerce site complementing its primarily wholesale jeanswear business.
Still, wholesale clients like Nordstrom have been inquiring about styles that break from the skinny mold, Zrebiec pointed out, illustrating the new cycle’s influence on fashion consumers eager to mirror the images dominating their social feeds. “Some customers are looking for a straighter leg, and some that are more on the Gen Z side might be looking for really baggy jeans,” she said, noting 1822’s 180 percent year-over-year growth since the pandemic’s March 2020 onset. And while interest in newer silhouettes is bubbling up through 1822’s wholesale and e-commerce channels, “I wouldn’t say it’s changing the game for us,” Zrebiec said, “but we are noticing some traction there.”
The remixed styles reshaping denim arrive as online shopping continues to command consumers’ attention, even if e-commerce’s growth streak is beginning to cool from its red-hot pandemic heights when social-distancing mandates kneecapped brick and mortar. Still, new styles plus less stretchy fabrics plus purchasing online from retailers with generous take-back policies might turn out to be a combustible combination for merchants already buried under a mountain of rejects that consumer “returned to sender.”
To Howard, a bad-fitting product is “almost unforgivable today,” meaning retailers face even higher stakes in ensuring they not just nail fit but also spell out what will await consumers dipping their toes into trend-led, loose-fit waters. “People just won’t put up with” a poor fit that misses the mark “because they’ve got too many choices,” he added, “so if that new trend in denim isn’t for you, I’m sure there’ll be other companies that will supply the one that you like.”
No size surprises
For Ronen Luzon, founding CEO of Israeli fit solutions provider My Size Inc., the loose-versus-skinny debate might be obscuring the real story. “No matter the style, customers need to understand how the product will fit on them and there’s really two parts to solving the issue, especially when it comes to new looser-fitting denim,” he said. As if it isn’t tough enough that new fits now permeate the sector, consumers must also content with sizing’s maddening variations across brands, leaving them with the headache of matching measurements with numerical ranges that might seem randomly assigned.
That’s why MySizeID built its technology around avatars, or digital clones that attack the fit issue, Luzon said, and “provide both accuracy and a visual component that gives even more idea, not only of how an item will fit, but how it will look,” helping first-time loose-fit shoppers make more educated purchasing decisions.
Luzon believes fit technologies are now an imperative “prerequisite to success” for companies selling denim over the web, where shoppers lack the luxury of trying on garments prior to clicking the buy button. And Gap Inc.’s August acquisition of Drapr, a virtual try-on e-commerce startup that similarly uses 3D avatars mirroring a consumer’s dimensions, captures fit tech’s critical role in today’s online shopping experience, he added.
“Retailers have invested so much [in] last-mile fulfillment and acquisitions of those types of solutions to differentiate themselves and provide a great customer experience, but now everyone can provide great delivery,” Luzon said. “Fit is the next differentiator in terms of both efficiency and customer experience.”
Despite retailers’ manifold efforts to spruce up their digital experiences, fit remains the customer’s No. 1 “point of friction” when shopping online, said Sally Gilligan, Gap Inc.’s chief growth transformation officer, who oversaw the Drapr deal. The startup’s technology eliminates much of the guesswork for consumers who “either don’t know their exact measurements or are looking for a specific type of fit that numbers alone can’t tell them,” said David Pastewka, who co-founded Drapr and serves as CEO.
Prior to the acquisition, Will Drevno, Drapr’s other co-founder, described how the startup noticed its fit solution playing a role in encouraging shoppers to branch out from their safety zone and explore a wider array of silhouettes. “With the way most brands’ product pages are laid out today, it can be really difficult for a shopper to visualize how a size or cut will change on different parts of their body,” he said. Drapr’s insights on conversion rates by body shape distribution help product teams figure out where to add and subtract sizes to truly capture sales. Plus, Drevno added, “any brand that wants to support sustainability should be trying to guide their customers toward ordering fewer sizes of the same item,” which is where fit systems like Drapr hold promising potential.
My Size’s Luzon agrees that Gap Inc.’s decision to bring a fit-tech startup in house helps the company “checks both boxes” of efficiency and consumer-facing experience. “It leads to customers that are more likely to buy and come back when they can virtually try on (this will extend to in-store because no one wants to wait for a dressing room) and it accomplishes the driving down of returns without needing to spend big on a supply chain/reverse logistics upgrade,” he said.
But incorporating a sizing solution that stops 70 percent of returns before they start also “opens a whole new set of information to understand who your consumer is, what their body shape is, etc., and that gives a better understanding to the design and manufacturing department in terms of what should be made or ordered in the coming season,” he added.
Fad or fixture?
And whether the seasons ahead will unleash new takes on the loose-fit denim cycle remains to be seen. Howard believes retailers should approach their planning with data—and caution. “From a merchandising point of view, a smart merchant would not want to load up the entire assortment” with de rigueur fashion “unless maybe you’re Aeropostale,” he said, referring to specialty retail’s reliance on of-the-moment fads and trends. The fit veteran wonders whether the popularity of looser fits will quickly peter out or truly have legs as denim’s dominant silhouette, especially for plus-size consumers accustomed to “relying on that stretch for a certain size” and comfort.
“It is an interesting debate—what constitutes a trend versus a staple reality,” Howard said. “But at the end of the day, the customer votes.”