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What’s Old is New Again in Denim Retail

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While apparel spending has undoubtedly contracted since the start of 2020, the industry hasn’t had a total meltdown. Some bright spots, like comfortable, casual apparel, have emerged as winners at retail. And during this moment of relative pause, shoppers became more conscious, both socially and ecologically, of the impacts of their purchasing decisions.

Secondhand retailers have benefitted from this shift in perspective. Consignment boutiques and online resale channels have emerged as pandemic winners. While categories like suiting and dress footwear may have a challenging time finding a zealous buyer during quarantine, denim only gets cooler with age. Gen Z’s obsession with ’90s style (an easier time when many of them were mere zygotes) has fueled a lust for vintage denim jeans and jackets that seems to be insatiable.

Now brands, boutiques and e-tailers are rising to meet the onslaught of new demand. “Consumers are looking to make more conscious, more intentional decisions about what they buy and what they really need,” said Jen Sey, chief marketing officer at Levi Strauss & Co., of the new appetite for circular business models like resale.

“That’s part of why the re-commerce market is booming right now,” she added.

Having had an ear to the ground on the growing popularity of resale for seasons now, the heritage denim label announced the launch of Levi’s SecondHand last October. The buy-back program is designed to extend the life of the company’s pre-worn denim. Levi’s shoppers can return their used garments to any company store for a $15 to $25 credit toward a future purchase—or up to $35 for vintage styles—and shoppers can buy products at much-reduced prices on Levi.com. The microsite’s used denim will range from $30 to $100.

While the new program is in its infancy and sales numbers are scant, Sey said that Levi’s iconic 501 jeans have been the most-searched item on the site. Before SecondHand’s launch, Levi’s marketers also saw “vintage 501 jeans” trending as a key search term on Google.

Predictably, the team also tapped a Gen-Z-heavy roster of influencers and celebrities to promote the new effort, including Levi’s Spring 2020 campaign stars Hailey Bieber and Jaden Smith.

On the back end, Levi’s has teamed with Trove, which facilitates the cleaning of the used garments, along with managing inventory and fulfilling orders. The operation has worked with brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Arcteryx, along with Nordstrom on facilitating their own take-back-and-resell programs.

The SecondHand offering couldn’t come soon enough, according to Sey. “Gen Z are shopping resale more than any other consumer,” she said. One reason for the uptick in thrifting or buying used is their interest in sustainability, “but they also love the hunt, and they love that they can find something truly unique.”

These young shoppers also appreciate authenticity, she added, eschewing replicas or styles that simply reference eras past. “Rather than buy a remake of a ’90s style, they’d prefer to buy original ’90s items,” Sey said.

That purist tendency works in the favor of brands looking to push circular solutions. According to new data published by Levi’s, buying pre-worn denim has just 20 percent of the carbon impact of a new pair of jeans, and each garment put back into the circular economy saves about 700 grams of waste. “Buying used or recycled or upcycled is the second most sustainable choice you can make,” Sey said. “The first is simply shopping your closet.”

While retail therapy has become a necessary expense for many homebound shoppers, a Los Angeles husband-and-wife team makes it possible for consumers to mine their own wardrobes for perfectly good pieces that could benefit from a little TLC. Fox and Jeff Garza, who own Foxhole L.A., have built a business on denim repair and customization, along with the sale of rare, vintage pieces.

While the couple’s business has changed over the course of the Covid crisis, going from two storefronts in Silver Lake to one consolidated, appointment-only studio, they said that the business has been thriving since it reopened in July. By summer, many consumers had already bought up all the tie-dye joggers and Lululemon leggings they would need for the duration of the pandemic, and the Garzas believe they were itching for a bit of normalcy.

“At first I believe there was a surge in loungewear, but now people are sick of being sloppy and lazy and want to get back into a pair of denim,” Jeff Garza said. Spouse and partner Fox’s specialty is custom tailoring, which helps sell shoppers who are “looking for an easy, but flattering, fit.”

“Since people have had lots of time at home we have had a lot of custom projects to do,” Fox confirmed, adding that “clients have been going through their closets and wanting to make use of old denim, and revitalize it.”

Folks who come into Foxhole looking to shop the vintage collection have also received more personal care and attention from the Garzas than ever before. This quiet time has allowed the duo to hone their personal shopping skills for each customer that comes through the door. “They can buy vintage denim, get it custom fitted, and buy a cool vintage tee to complete the look,” Fox said.

Most of the studio’s recent shoppers have been looking for roomier, straight-leg styles as they head into the fall season, Jeff said, “being that they have been a bit less active” in recent months.

Further down the road at an unassuming spot in Northeastern L.A., Tommy Dorr’s unmarked Mothfood showroom—an exclusive, appointment-only collector’s haven favored by stylists to the stars—is going strong after retail’s unsteady start this year. “I haven’t seen any change,” he said of business in a post-Covid world. “If anything, the vintage denim business is still rapidly growing in popularity.”

While Dorr was forced to shutter Mothfood for three months during the mandatory retail lockdown, he spent that time building out his e-commerce site. There, he showcases one-of-a-kind finds, from denim jeans and coveralls to vintage dresses, T-shirts, letterman jackets, outerwear and more. “This really helped get me through the uncertainty of the beginning of Covid times,” he said.

The trend away from office garb to easy-wearing, practical apparel has also likely helped, not hurt, categories like denim, he said. While people have indeed changed their habits, Dorr said denim ranks among the top picks for “casual, comfortable clothing that people are living in right now, like Ts, sweatshirts, fleece and loungewear.”

When it comes jeans, Dorr has seen an uptick in popularity of ’80s and ’90s styles and washes in mostly relaxed fits, echoing Garza’s assessment that shoppers are looking for comfort with a hint of polish. “The last few months I’ve worked with mostly apparel brands and stylists, and it seems to be what most clients are gravitating towards,” he said.

When asked whether the pandemic had generated any new trends in spending or consumer appetites, Dorr said he believed that “people are way more conscious of how they are spending their money during these times,” and aren’t throwing down dollars on fleeting trends. That newfound conscious consumerism could be a boon to businesses like his, which deal in pieces that are sometimes many decades old. According to Dorr, shoppers are “buying less, but are more willing to purchase secondhand or vintage with the idea that it’s something they’ll wear and keep a long time.”

Across the country in the hip East Village neighborhood of New York City, vintage boutique Duo NYC is seeing one denim style fly off the shelves, and co-owner Larae Kangas is sticking to what works.

“For us it’s the classic 501 Levi’s that is the most solid seller, always,” she said. The high-waisted, button-fly silhouette has continued to resonate with the city’s shoppers, even through New York’s hardest months. “It’s that classic, straight cut with the fly up to the belly button” that every girl is looking for, she said.

“Pandemic wise, sales have been consistent,” Kangas said of her vintage denim offerings, though loungewear’s influence continues unabated. “Sizing has gotten a bit bigger, because quarantine [weight gain] is real,” she said, but the Levi’s 501 is still the store’s overall top-selling item.

According to Kangas, Duo NYC closed for 98 days beginning in March, finally reopening its doors to shoppers at the end of June. The time away from the shop gave Kangas and co-founder/sister Wendy time to build out the shop’s airy, minimalist website—and start selling on social.

“We’ve found Instagram to be huge for us,” she said, adding that posting photos of one-off vintage items on the platform is much easier than creating dedicated product pages on the store’s e-commerce site. Shoppers simply comment or direct message the shop to reserve an item, and they’re sent a digital invoice for their purchase.

Kangas said that trends in washes “seem to be staying standard” with what she’s seen in the past—lighter washes and whites in the warmer months, and darker indigoes and charcoals for fall.

In the online realm, similar patterns persist, according to Noelle Sciacca, editorial lead for The RealReal’s women’s business. The premium and luxury resale marketplace deals in everything from designer handbags to contemporary looks and of course, denim.

“Iconic denim styles from the ’90s are having a moment right now,” she said, along with straight leg jeans from companies like Re/Done, and wide-leg silhouettes from names like Rachel Comey and Khaite, which are trending on the site. Whether the styles are new or old, they’re all forgiving to pandemic pounds.

“Jeans will forever be a wardrobe staple—what we see changing is just the desired silhouette,” she added. Now that comfort is a priority, relaxed denim is rising to the top. “So much of what we wear on a daily basis now is dictated by what will be visible on our small video screens,” Sciacca explained, “so it’s no surprise that during Covid we’ve seen an increase in pant consignments.”

For The RealReal, skinny jeans was the number one overall consigned item at the beginning of the pandemic, she added. “Perhaps this was the first-time consignors had the chance to deep clean their closets and get rid of the popular mid-2000s style,” she postulated, “or maybe they just preferred to swap them for less restrictive pairs.”

Over the course of recent months, shoppers have also demonstrated a new interest in flared jean styles, she said, supplementing the boyfriend styles and straight-leg, high-rise denim that has been popular for seasons.

Spokesperson for resale marketplace ThredUp Natalie Tomlin reported that flared jeans were seeing a major resurgence—in fact, they’re the leading style on the site, selling 25 times faster over the past month than the same period last year. Some of the leading brands for flares include Hudson, Levi’s, Citizens of Humanity and 7 For All Mankind, she said, adding that the uptick in sales reflects “a broader trend for ’70s fashion” across categories.

Active styles like leggings have surely seen augmented sell-through compared to pre-pandemic levels, she said, but interest in denim has remained fairly steady, suggesting that jeans enjoy a special, indispensable status in consumers’ wardrobes. “While the demand for athleisure and comfy clothes spiked during Covid, it never replaced the demand for denim,” she added.


Click here to read more from Rivet magazine.

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