Can the Death of Skinny Jeans Save Retail?

If you’re dreading cramming yourself into your skinny jeans after a year in the soothing swaddle of sweatpants, I’ve got great news: You don’t have to, because skinny jeans are over. 

Several big names in denim have recently noted a migration away from this era-defining silhouette. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. Chief Executive Officer Fran Horowitz told investors on Tuesday that “the skinny jean is becoming less important.” At American Eagle Outfitters Inc., chief creative officer Jennifer Foyle spoke the next day on an earnings call of a “shift into looser denim” for women.

It’s no surprise these Gen Z-focused chains would be on the front lines of the change, given their target demographic has been on TikTok mocking millennials for steadfast adherence to the gospel of skinnies and side-parted hair. But Levi Strauss & Co., which courts a wider array of shoppers, also notes the difference. CEO Chip Bergh told investors in late January, “There's definitely a trend towards more casual, looser-fitting clothes,” including jeans, adding that the brand’s roomy, straight-fit varieties were “performing really well” in recent months.

Can the Death of Skinny Jeans Save Retail?

When I say skinny jeans are over, I don’t mean no one’s buying them. They still account for 35% of women’s denim sales in the U.S., according to NPD Group, a larger share than any other style. Rather, I mean they have lost their place as the gravitational center of women’s wardrobes. They are no longer the default. Indeed, NPD apparel analyst Maria Rugolo says wider styles are gaining market share, including one known as the “mom jean” – the ultimate sign that even the most scorned garments can be reborn as cool.

Clothing retailers, whether luxe or low-priced, should be cheering the new look because it is likely to stoke some demand in an industry that badly needs it after a year of being pummeled by the pandemic.

Can the Death of Skinny Jeans Save Retail?

The loose pants shoppers are snapping up now tend to have high waistlines and leg openings that are spacious, but not to the point of being swishy or flowy. American Eagle Chief Operating Officer Michael Rempell told investors that “a change of trend in bottoms is great for the AE business.” He’s right, and not just because the chain gets a significant share of its sales from denim: A major change in pants silhouette can be the centerpiece of a much broader turnover in fashion that gives people incentive to refresh their whole wardrobes. The proportions of tops, the toe-shape of boots, the lengths of coats – all of these things are pulled in new directions by an updated pants shape. That can leave a shopper feeling as if everything in her closet is passe – and that, in turn, is an opportunity for retailers. 

New trends in denim cannot fully offset the significant challenges clothing stores will face in 2021. Many women will see little reason to spring for the latest looks as long as they don’t have any parties or vacations at which to sport them. But even without a return to normal social calendars, relaxed jeans have utility and appeal. They make sense for a perma-casual lifestyle. And they shouldn’t feel like a huge fashion risk because they have the same looser look and feel as the joggers and loungewear pants women have been living in during the last year. 

Can the Death of Skinny Jeans Save Retail?

Some readers will see my proclamation about the expiration of skinny jeans and scoff that this trend hasn’t felt fresh in several years now. A number of non-skinny denim types have gained traction recently, including cropped flaresstep hems and so-called rigid jeans, which don’t have stretch. Those items certainly have been easy to spot in the feeds of Instagram influencers and on the digital shelves of trend-forward shopping sites. What I believe is starting to happen now, though, is more far-reaching. It’s a new baseline aesthetic that even women who aren’t obsessed by style will notice and adopt. This new look will be what bell-bottoms were to the 70’s, what acid-wash was to the 80’s, what bootcut was to the 90’s – a trend so ubiquitous you almost can’t help but participate in it.

I wrote in 2016 that the "twilight" of the skinny age was imminent, if not already in progress. It’s been a strikingly slow deceleration, though, and I’m not exactly sure why. It could be because athleisure outfits have been so hot and were able to provide a dose of apparel excitement without dethroning the skinny. It can’t have helped that so many mid-priced clothing stores – the places that set the fashion goalposts for the masses – have been in distress and not firing on all sartorial cylinders.

Can the Death of Skinny Jeans Save Retail?

There is occasional chatter in retail about whether, in the fragmented, warp-speed world of social media, mass apparel trends will even happen anymore. Certainly the shelf life of fads has been abbreviated, and niches such as normcore and cottagecore have emerged and reached only limited awareness. But the unexpectedly long run of the skinny jean serves as evidence that certain ideas in fashion can still become truly world-saturating. This is true in other creative businesses, too, where, for all the splintering of watching and listening habits, we still see some industry-eating forces, such as superhero movies and Drake

I, for one, am pleased about the retirement of my skinny jeans. Dressing differently feels like a fresh start – something I find myself welcoming enthusiastically after an incredibly dark year. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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