The style that finally dethroned skinny jeans
The reign of skinny jeans is officially over.
Last year, straight-leg jeans accounted for 33% of women’s denim sales in the United States, compared to 30% for skinny jeans – knocking the skinny style off the top spot for the first time in at least a decade , according to NPD Group analyst Marie Rugolo.
The skinny jeans had a weird run. After beginning as a trend in the mid-2000s, the style has maintained its hold on consumers year after year, defying repeated predictions from style experts that the trend had run its course. As recently as 2019, skinny jeans accounted for 41% of women’s denim sales, according to NPD data.
It was the pandemic that ultimately cemented the shift to looser cuts. For the past two years, consumers have been working from home in pajamas, leggings or sweatpants. Now, as they return to work and social occasions, many are still looking for an element of comfort. Add to that nostalgia for all things 90s and 2000 – a time when baggy pants were the norm – and the solution was there.
While skinny jeans are still a staple category for many retailers, change is happening quickly in many stores, being replaced by straight cuts, boots, “mom jeans” and other wider leg styles.
“At the time, you would go to our denim bar and there were only skinny jeans on a table,” said Mary Pierson, senior vice president of denim at Madewell, where the share of skinny jeans sales in denim sales has dropped from 90% a few years ago to around 10% today. “We still have two to three staples in stores because there’s always a customer who likes it, but we don’t focus on it that much.”
A new shape
At Abercrombie & Fitch, top-selling styles include the ’90s ultra-high-rise straight-leg jeans; the High Rise Relaxed from the 90s, with a wider leg; and the Slim Straight, which is the happy medium between straight jeans and skinny jeans. Current denim bestsellers at Gap are also loose, straight cuts, the company told BoF, while Kontoor Brands-owned Lee said its straight-cut jeans were still the best seller in 2021, followed by boot-cut style. Skinny jeans remain the top performer at Uniqlo, the company said, but it has seen increased interest in wider leg styles since the pandemic. At Levi’s, women snatched up the company’s high-rise “mom” jeans and its high-rise straight jeans, said Levi’s chief marketing officer Karen Riley-Grant.
“It’s not that skinny and skinny jeans are dead, it’s just now, having variety is important for different outfits,” said Corey Robinson, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Abercrombie & Fitch.
Other retailers take a more extreme stance. Brieane Olson, president of PacSun, said shoppers were flocking to wider leg styles to emulate tastemakers like Emma Chamberlain. The retailer pulled skinny jeans from stores last year. His best-selling styles are his 90s boyfriend jeans, his dad fit jeans and his low rise boot cut denim.
Some consumers have switched from skinny jeans to stretchier bottoms with a similar silhouette in more forgiving fabric, including jeggings and leggings, said Sarah Ahmed, co-founder and chief creative officer of DL1961. And since shoppers are still turning to fitness wear for comfortable wear, they’re buying other styles of denim to be on trend.
Changing cultural norms have also played a role in the evolution of trending denim styles.
“Skinny jeans used to be an explosive and over-sexed look, but now women want more oversized styles that look cool and can be worn with sneakers or heels,” Ahmed said.
Over the past year, Neiman Marcus has seen its straight-leg denim styles see triple-digit growth, said Lisa Aiken, the company’s fashion and lifestyle director. Skinny jeans have fallen from half of Neiman Marcus’ denim sales to a third, and Aiken said the top-selling products are straight-leg styles from Mother Denim, Frame and AGolde.
For retailers, more denim trends are an opportunity to boost sales. On a conference call with analysts in March, American Eagle Outfitters executive creative director Jennifer Foyle called denim “a low-hanging fruit” for generating higher margins. Gap Inc. chief executive Sonia Syngal also cited denim as a category with new trends to pursue in 2022 after a year of loungewear.
“I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and I’ve never seen so many cuts and leg shapes,” said Pierson of Madewell. “They’re all selling out and it’s happening pretty quickly.”
Unlike skinny jeans, looser denim styles don’t require fabric technology that allows for stretch, according to Crystal Henricksen, head of denim design at Gap. This makes the newer, wider styles more durable without having to use polyester or spandex, and tougher too.
In men’s assortments too, slim fits are giving way to looser styles at Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi’s and PacSun.
“That ’90s cut is happening everywhere.” said Robinson.
However, retailers say not to completely count the skinny style.
“Skinny jeans have replaced the straight jeans silhouette, but they can definitely make a comeback — we just don’t know if it will be in five or 10 years,” Olson said.