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In Changing Times, Denim Caters to Casual, Comfort-Seeking Consumers

Fashion is at a crossroads: continue with cutting-edge strategies developed to persevere during Covid or slide back into familiar (yet unprofitable) habits? Get the experts' perspective at our in-person Sourcing Summit, Oct. 19 at New York’s Cipriani 42nd Street.

Denim was certainly not immune to the struggles that hit the apparel industry during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, sales in the sector fell approximately 19 percent during 2020, according to Euromonitor International. But the do-it-all, timeless fabric remains resilient, as jeans sales are expected to rise again with 13 percent growth in 2021.

As the world has undergone changes throughout the pandemic, a shift in denim’s role in the consumer’s life comes with it. Aligning with the revitalization of shoppers’ collective moods amid the highly anticipated distribution of vaccinations, denim is set to veer off into various unforeseen and exciting directions, all of which are explored in Rivet’s recently released Blueprint report.

Whether it’s to cater to accelerating conscious consumption as shoppers warm up to thrifted threads, or adhering to the new modernity, characterized by a much more inclusive establishment that breaks traditional notions of seasons, gender and luxury, denim will continue to be at the center of many of fashion’s trends in 2021.

Skinny is old news: Wide jeans, cozy clothing are in

While skinny jeans have been the “in” trend for quite some time, Gen Z is leading a push to bring loose fitting, wide-leg jeans front and center. While the new style will likely be scoffed at from certain consumers, denim retailers will be very happy to know that they have new styles they can push to a wider consumer base that is gaining substantial buying power.

In one such example, Brazilian denim brand Amapo is “bringing the witches back” in its F/W 21-22 lineup, with a collection that includes harem pants featuring a dropped waist, as well as pull-on high waist super-wide leg jeans that point to a shift to more comfortable styles that move with the wearer.

According to Carolina Gold, the brand director of Amapo, this is a reflection of current times, which call for both flexibility and a “re-appropriation of female magic.”

“This collection was conceived thinking about the actual moment we are all living” Gold said. “It’s about looking and feeling good at home or anywhere you go, with shapes that embrace the body, bringing comfort and fluidity of movement—jeans that go beyond the city and the street.”

Many of today’s denim brands are complementing their traditional collections with comfortable assortments, including the likes of sweatshirts, knitwear and T-shirts. With the demand for more casual attire climbing, the most prolific jeans brands like Levi’s, Madewell, NYDJ and Kontoor’s Wrangler and Lee all leaned into their non-denim lines more.

“General market data shows that between June 2020 and August 2020, specifically, searches online doubled for loungewear terminology, with subsequent months following a similar trend,” said Estelle Dahan, vice president of design for NYDJ. “As far as our data for e-commerce shows, customer behavior online has reflected this as well.”

The comfort craze is even resulting in a slight comeback of one of the most maligned items in recent memory—jeggings. New arrivals of jeggings were up 13 percent in 2020 from the prior year and they remained consistently higher throughout the year, according to data from retail market intelligence platform Edited.

And while jeggings themselves aren’t crafted with denim, they have further inspired denim brands to reimagine their own ultra-stretch jean, particularly to reflect current views on comfort, sustainability and size inclusivity. NYDJ recently debuted SpanSpring, a line of skinny jeans that stretch to fit three sizes. In 2020, Frame launched Le One, a jean that comes in two sizes—one for sizes 23-28, and one for sizes 29-34. L.A.-based brand Good American also entered this space with Always Fits Jeans, a line of five-pocket jeans that can accommodate a range of three to four sizes without sacrificing fit.

Why wholesale still matters

How jeans are being distributed and sold is changing too—and not exactly in the ways you might expect. While many brands have sought to spurn wholesale channels in favor of direct-to-consumer, especially as some larger department stores and specialty apparel retailers have performed poorly in recent years, there’s still plenty to love about wholesale.

Kelly Helfman, commercial president, Informa Markets Fashion, believes there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for brands, but is a firm advocate that cross-merchandising with other labels can help grow a brand’s identity.

“There is some level of sales psychology at play here that brands need to think about. Who you ‘hang with’ at retail to the consumer gives them an identity-by-association relationship,” Helfman said. “For example, a newer, maybe unknown and growing brand merchandised next to well-known designers, may cause shoppers to inherently—and sometimes unconsciously—make cross correlations between previously unassociated brands.”

To determine how to deliver the right channel mix and develop a fitting distribution strategy, denim brands must be careful about auditing their own needs and identifying the market they are looking to capture. While trend brands have extremely small margins and often want to move product quickly, this would lend itself toward mass distribution. On the other hand, contemporary brands would shift toward a more selective distribution model that aligns with the brands’ overall proposition.

Taking top experiences beyond flagships

Denim retailers now must be creative in how they’re approaching their retail operations as well, particularly to win shoppers back at stores. That might mean bringing the best of the brand beyond its most popular physical locations.

While major metropolitan flagships include specialized features, such as is the case of Levi’s Times Square store and its Tailor Shop, or Naked & Famous’ SoHo location and its vintage Japanese displays, the brands powering these stores are going to have to expand these offerings to suburban locales, especially as shoppers flock from the cities, according to Michael Brown, a partner in the consumer products and retail practice at consulting firm Kearney.

“The most successful retailers will have an appropriate mix of online and in store, with these experiential locations that create an affinity to the brand and enable the consumer to really just engage with the brand in these environments,” Brown said.

And as store traffic continues to be tempered, denim retailers like Frame are taking matters into their own hands by partnering with Hero, which gives store-based staff the chance to answer questions about fit and fabrication in real time for customers as they browse product pages online. Jens Grede, the co-founder and co-creative director of the brand, credits Hero as a critical avenue for acquiring new customers and nurturing new shopper relationships, since store staff a can collect a consumer’s contact info and engage via text, chat or video both throughout and after the experience.

Download the 2021 Blueprint Report from Rivet here to learn more about the year’s top 21 denim trends, get a sneak peek into the F/W 21-22 collections of denim brands like G-Star Raw, Etica, Devil-Dog Dungarees and more, and discover how fabrics such as Repreve, hemp, Refibra and Coreva are helping jeans evolve.

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