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Denim: Stayin’ Alive in the Face of Activewear Growth

Don’t hammer the final nail—or rivet—into denim’s coffin just yet. While news outlets have lamented denim, which reported a 6 percent dip in domestic sales last year as a tell-all sign that old blue is just that—old, Denim Hunter editor Shanna McKinnon says that gloom and doom talk is “sensationalism.”

“Denim is definitely not dead. That’s like saying the white T-shirt is dead, or sneakers are dead,” McKinnon said. “New denim brands are still popping up in the market all the time, and for small brands, denim is an easy way to enter the market.” Plus, she quipped, “You can only go so far dressed in activewear. You can’t wear it to work or to dinner. You’re never going to see yoga Fridays become a thing in the workplace.”

Whereas activewear and yoga apparel is ruled by heavy-hitting athletic brands like Nike, Under Armour and Lululemon, McKinnon said denim is a way for young brands to pave their path in the fashion industry and to move into other apparel categories. Case in point, Acne whose fall collection spans raw, skinny and wide-leg jeans to pony hair ankle boots and psychedelic printed parkas. Or J Brand, whose relaxed jersey tees are now in as much demand as its skinny jeans.

With that young and intrepid point of view, comes new and innovative ways to wear denim. With the exception of skinny jeans that are distressed, torn or cut slightly looser, McKinnon sees the skinny becoming a generic staple in wardrobes. Instead, she sees that innovation toward bolder denim looks coming in the form of jumpers, boiler suits, button-down shirts and joggers. Joggers—a loose style, lightweight denim or chambray, often with an elastic ankle—might be a buzzword for Fall ’14 as every brand is churning out one of its own, but McKinnon noted that Diesel fans will remember the company did joggers four years ago.

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For the denim traditionalist, sport jeans offer a compromise between jogger and jegging. The jeans still have a high cotton content, which makes it durable—a distinct benefit of denim that McKinnon said jeggings lacked. “The jegging had too much stretch and it lost its denim qualities. And it devalued the skinny jean,” she explained.

And what better way to promote the flexibility of sport jeans than with a crew of ballerinas. Earlier this year, AG Jeans released a YouTube video of ballerinas dressed in their Contour360 denim dancing across downtown Los Angeles. Likewise, Diesel promoted its Jogg Jean with a lively video of dancers moving with ease dressed in the jersey-denim bottoms.

While McKinnon said the promotional efforts by brands depicting denim in the ranks of yoga wear have been overblown, she understands why it does the job. “People want to be comfortable, but that isn’t necessarily new. You’re just seeing more of it as brands react to sportswear being so prevalent on the runway. Denim is trying to get into the business too. When Chanel sends sneakers down the runway, you can’t ignore it,” she explained.

And just as shoppers gravitate toward relaxed and casual fashion today, McKinnon says you can bet the style pendulum will swing entirely in the opposite direction. “As sportswear becomes too mainstream, people will want to dress up again,” she noted.

Designers like Miu Miu and Phillip Lim are already bringing an elevated look to denim with recent denim collections that rival the intricacy and artistry of some of their most high-end designs. McKinnon added, “I think we’ll see more work and detail go into denim—the laser cuts, embroideries and details of a high fashion dress will make into denim.