Denim’s universal appeal is well-known, but no single blue jean is alike.
Washes, fits and finishes make up the DNA of a jean, while the pandemic has thrusted upon the category a greater emphasis on comfort, sustainability, and price. These factors (and more) ultimately influence consumers’ purchasing behavior, as well as the styles and brand names that suit their personal aesthetic.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the denim choices of boomers, millennials, and Gen Z. The young cohort’s TikTok takedown of millennials’ favorite skinny jeans flashed a spotlight on the generational gap in denim styles. With each demographic having its own set of expectations in fashion, it’s never been more important for brands and retailers to know their audience.
Here, retail analytics provider Edited breaks down the ins and outs of selling denim to multiple generations.
Having grown up alongside jeans’ evolution from a symbol of youth rebellion to a staple in casual and work attire, boomers—or consumers currently between 57-75 years old—are well-versed in denim fits. And the cohort does not have the same level of loyalty to a singular silhouette as its millennial counterparts.
The key to resonating with boomers is to elevate denim. Timeless fits like straight and skinny appeal to the mid and mature customer long-term, while cashmere blends offer a premium hand feel. When it comes to finishes, brands should practice restraint. “Stick to vintage washes for the more classic-seeking mid and mature customer, while laser-printed whisker details can offer subtle interest to jeans,” Edited stated.
This consumer also favors practicality. For instance, Edited said Bonobos has seen success with its denim jeans assortment this season, with 74 percent of designs replenished. This success is due in part to the brand’s $99 All Season Jeans, a line of organic cotton jeans “weighted to keep you comfortable from January to December.” Additionally, with “overwhelming evidence” that comfort will remain a “priority in a post-pandemic world,” Edited names stretch fabrications are a must-have in boomers’ closets.
Mass-market retailers may have the most opportunities to cater to this consumer, however. Since launching in March, Marks & Spencer’s Sosandar denim line has had a 29 percent sellout rate, Edited said. Retailing for 49 pounds ($66), the product range offers a middle price point. Between the retailer’s house label and third-party brands like Hobbs, which retail for 89 pounds ($120).
Meanwhile, both Marks & Spencer and George at Asda have launched multi-pack jean options that retail for 16 to 32 pounds, or $21-$44, for value-driven consumers. The packs, Edited stated, have seen strong SKU movement at full price and represent an opportunity for other mass-market retailers to consider the convenience of selling multiples.
Though millennials are adjusting to wider proportions, the comfort factor of looser fits is a major win.
For women, straight, mom and wide fits dominate new arrivals at retail. “Of all styles, mom jeans had the highest number of sell outs at millennial retailers,” Edited stated. High rises, as well as ’90s-inspired knee rips and vintage blue washes are among the trending details. Edited noted that the Pantone shade “17-4021 Faded Denim” was Zara’s top-stocked hue.
While millennial women are warming up to the rigid appearance of ’90s denim, they still want the flexibility they’ve become accustomed to from wearing skinny jeans for the most of their lives. “The importance of comfort remains essential in this category as retailers invest in their own stretch technologies,” Edited stated.
American Eagle is one example of how a retailer is successfully navigating denim’s new cycle and consumers’ unrelenting demand for comfort. The brand increased the number of options of Airflex denim—its line of lightweight, flexible, and comfortable jeans—from making up 30 percent of its denim assortment in 2019 to 94 percent this season.
Meanwhile, millennial men seem to be more resistant to giving up their skinny fits than women.
Skinny jeans accounted for half of retailers’ new arrivals for men, but Edited noted that slim, straight and taper fits all saw year-over-year growth. In general, straight fits are emerging as a “core shape” and a “commercial alternative” to wider leg silhouettes, Edited stated.
But influences from the runway may be the final push millennial men need to give new fits a try—and there’s plenty of it. Mid-blue washes, vintage effects, slouchy fits, oversized Trucker jacket, bootcut jeans and denim joggers were seen across pre-Spring 2022 collections, including those with a millennial fanbase, like Virgil Abloh and Glenn Martens.
It’s no surprise that the youngest generation with $143 billion in spending power and an open mind is also the most experimental with its denim style. Denim is consuming assortments geared toward Gen Z. Jeans make up 48 percent of all bottom arrivals at youth-oriented retailers, Edited stated.
As new arrivals of women’s skinny jeans slow down, straight-leg jeans saw higher levels of investment, followed by relaxed, wide and boyfriend fits. For Gen Z men, Edited said “descriptors of relaxed, stretch, loose and oversized” are common.
Double denim styling—be it a jacket and jean combination, or a button-down shirt and mini-skirt set—presents a cohesive merchandising opportunity, as well as denim accessories like unisex bucket hats and tote bags.
“Retailers should look to build out denim assortments with slouchy fits, low-rise waistbands and extra-long lengths, keeping comfort front of mind,” Edited stated.
Nostalgic blue, black and white denim washes are core, but the cohort’s fascination with Y2K era fashion invites brands and retailers to offer more prints and color. For instance, Edited reported that Motel, Missy Empire, Mango and Zara have invested in bright trending hues of purple, yellow and green, while checkerboard prints, paint splatter and acid washes are themes to watch.
For further trend-forward inspiration, Edited said look to DSquared2 for its color-blocked patchwork bottoms.