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Denim Retailers Prepare for Spring/Summer 2021 with Optimism

COVID-19 recovery is on the horizon but the pandemic's impact on sustainability, retail, product development and consumer buying patterns means the denim industry must evolve. Join Rivet on April 20th at 11 am ET for the COVID, One Year Later roundtable.

For retailers emerging from a global pandemic and navigating one of the most challenging economic crises in recent history, Spring/Summer 2021 assortment planning is far from business as usual.

New considerations such as changing consumer demand and tighter finances—coupled with the fierce competition jeans retailers are now facing with loungewear and at-home fashion—have impacted the way retailers are planning their assortments for spring. And with in-person trade shows such as Project, Coterie and Liberty Fairs now providing digital alternatives for buying opportunities, even the way retailers place their orders has changed.

For David Shelist, owner of The Denim Lounge in Chicago, his assortment for next spring has been focused on providing unique value for the consumer. The store’s classic bestsellers—which consist of premium denim labels for men and women and hats and tops for children—are evolving as new preferences emerge.

“It’s been a tough go on selling dark, ankle-length skinnies,” he said, adding that consumers are now seeking out unique pieces that they don’t currently have in their closet.

Shelist is loading his spring assortment with vibrant colors, along with various fabrics and styles, including looser fits with unique hems and distressing throughout. But while he’s looking for newness, he’s looking no further than styles from his current brand partners.

“I want to partner with my existing lines since we have well-established relationships,” he said. “I trust the companies we have been supporting for a long time.”

This quest for newness could be a result of consumers spending more time indoors taking inventory of their current closet. It may also be owed to a pent-up desire to dress up again. The interest in new silhouettes and fashion pieces also echoes recent trends identified by product intelligence company Trendalytics, which reported that online searches for men’s patchwork jeans are up 53 percent compared to last year. And with searches for wide-leg jeans up 78 percent compared to last year, Trendalytics anticipates denim’s retro cycle to continue to gain momentum over the next year.

Shelist is giving consumers what they want. Unfortunately, it may not be what’s best, nor aligned with reports that consumers are growing more aware of the environmental impact of their purchases. Despite his own hopes for a shift to more sustainable denim, Shelist said that’s not what his customers are currently demanding. “Unfortunately, [sustainability doesn’t seem that] important,” he said. “My customers are not asking for sustainable jeans right now, though I hope that changes.”

Retailers of all sizes explain how they’re planning their Spring/Summer 2021 denim assortments in regard to post-pandemic consumer demand.

Citizens of Humanity stretch jeans sold at The Denim Lounge

For Howard Gee, founder of San Francisco denim boutique AB Fits, consumer demands are evolving post-pandemic. Because people are covering their faces with masks, they’re now more likely to play with bold colors and textures, he noted.

“If you wear a yellow sweater and walk in a room, you’ve said a lot already,” he said. “Now you can say something just by wearing certain clothing.”

As a result, his store’s spring assortment consists of “louder” pieces. And while soft, comfortable fabrics are now most popular, he pointed out that they must also be thoughtful. “We focus on pieces that are comfortable but also very well-tailored,” he said. “That big, comfortably puffy stuff can become frumpy very fast. Everything needs to be casually thoughtful.”

The traditional boutique landscape is not the only channel to have changed as a result of the pandemic. Larger retailers are adjusting their factory orders, namely for products that will resonate with more eco-conscious consumers.

“As one of the largest apparel retailers in the world, we have a responsibility at our scale and size to make a positive impact,” said Michele Sizemore, senior vice president of global product development at Gap. “We produce around 110 million yards of denim a year—that scale is a tremendous opportunity to be a force for good.”

In addition to sustainability, post-pandemic Gap consumers are looking for comfortable denim—both in tops and dresses as well as in their jeans. Sizemore noted that the brand’s “Soft Wear” denim collection is a best seller that it’s building upon for upcoming collections. Part of Gap’s water-saving Washwell program that uses 20 percent less water than traditional washes, the Soft Wear collection is made with a blend of comfort-enhancing fibers like Lycra and recycled spandex.

While no retailer has emerged from the pandemic unscathed, Gap has fared well, as its customer base is made up of all ages. “Kids are continuing to grow, so they often need new items,” she said. “We are seeing that people are most definitely still shopping.”

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is also reporting strong demand for denim across both of its Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister brands. “We have stayed close to our customers, pivoting and adapting our products, marketing, messaging and inventory to align with their changing reality,” a spokesperson told Rivet. “While our [Abercrombie & Fitch] soft and cozy collections have been well-received, our customer has also been  responding to our improved fashion content, including denim.”

The most popular styles across both brands include a shift away from skinny jeans for women and girls’—a trend that the retailer predicts will continue through S/S 21. Mom jeans and vintage straight-leg styles, as well as upcycled and re-done elements, including patch and repair, will breathe new life into classic denim fits for the upcoming season.

Size-inclusive women’s brand Universal Standard has also fared well through the pandemic, noting that customer demand for its denim and athleisure products were both consistent throughout.

“Because of the pandemic, we saw a huge growth in sales for our athleisure category,” said Polina Veksler, Universal Standard co-founder and CEO. “Logically, you would think that denim would be negatively impacted, but we did not see any slowdown in denim sales. I think that a huge reason for this is because our denim has more stretch than average, making it so comfortable to wear while working from home.”

For these reasons, the company is leaning more heavily into its denim business in 2021, starting the year off with new styles and washes, including a high-waisted sailor style. What it will change for future seasons is the way it works with suppliers, as the pandemic shined a light on the need to work more closely with factories to pre-plan further ahead of time so it can replenish stock more quickly.

“We’re still very bullish on denim as a category for next year,” Veksler said. “Denim has always been an important category for us because it garners the most repeat purchases, and we want to surprise our customer with great options to express their style.”

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