Denim Making a Rebound After Activewear Challenge
For years, denim reigned as the unrivaled monarch of the market for casual styles.
Demand for jeans grew beyond its original market of clothes for laborers and those who wanted something casual to relax in.
The introduction of premium denim was embraced by a luxury market where people didn’t hesitate to spend more than $250 for a pair of jeans. Denim was dominant.
But in the past 10 years denim has been knocked off of its perch, challenged by the skyrocketing popularity of activewear. Think yoga pants, leggings and sweats.
In a recent study, market researchers The NPD Group found that in 2018 activewear represented 24 percent of total apparel sales while sales of men’s and women’s jeans represented 25 percent.
Addressing the decline of denim, NPD recently issued a report called “The Denim Evolution,” which confirmed that consumer choices have grown and changed the way they are purchasing denim.
Despite stiff competition, NPD analysts found that denim remains a highly popular category, with growth seen in 2018 when American women spent $8.8 billion on jeans, up 6 percent over the previous year.
The report also found that while apparel choices have expanded, denim shopping remained the bailiwick of bricks-and-mortar stores. About 70 percent of consumers prefer to purchase jeans at physical stores compared to online.
Men and women who were surveyed said what drives their denim purchases are fit, price and the comfort of a jean.
Despite the continuing strength of denim, Marshal Cohen, an NPD retail analyst, said the denim business needs to change. “First, make denim more active. Second, make it new and fresh. Expecting consumers to build denim wardrobes as they did years ago is a thing of the past. Building memories rather than wardrobes is the new way of life. So, denim makers need to excite and energize potential customers.”
The solutions to the denim market’s previous blues can be found in some of the oldest retail strategies—customer service.
Debbie Rudoy, who owns Goldie, a shop located in Sag Harbor, N.Y., said that more than 30 percent of her store space is devoted to denim, with brands including Mother, Frame, CQY and L’Agence.
Rudoy said that sales have remained consistently strong and have never dipped. “I don’t find it’s a big challenge,” Rudoy said of denim sales. “Everyone has their activewear and goes to spin class and yoga. But people don’t want to run around in Lycra every day.”
Denim will be a top choice for consumers if retailers represent the category well, she said. If retailers direct shoppers to brands that will give them a superior fit, they’ll create long-term customers. “If someone is really curvy, we direct them to a certain brand. They walk out with what works for their body,” Rudoy said. “If someone wants to buy jeans and gives us time, they will walk out with multiple pairs of jeans.”
Vince Gonzales, a business development consultant who has focused on denim sales, said that sales are making a rebound. But the gains and sales are coming in more slowly than in the go-go days of premium denim.
“It was fast and furious. You couldn’t put enough jeans on the shelves for retailers to stock,” Gonzales said. “People were buying two to three pairs at a time. New denim brands were popping up all the time.”
Consumer behavior changed after the economic slowdown of 2008’s recession. Shoppers made fewer purchases, and manufacturers chopped prices by producing jeans in low-wage countries.
While the activewear trend started to sprout in the 1990s, the trend made big strides after the premium-denim boom of the 2000s.
To counter that, denim brands started giving consumers a greater variety of denim fabrics such as lighter-weight denim and manufacturing jeans in a more environmentally sustainable way, Gonzales said.
Los Angeles–based designer Rik Guido said that denim brands need to give consumers more novelty. Wardrobes are filled with premium denim. “They’re going to be looking for anything that is new,” said Guido, who introduced the La Forme’ denim brand during the June Los Angeles Market Week.
The La Forme’ pant looks like an indigo jean but fits and feels like yoga pants, he said. It is made from an Italian fabric that is 86 percent performance cotton and 16 percent polyester/spandex, retailing for $68 to $88. “We feel that is the future of the contemporary customer,” Guido said. “Women already own $250 jeans.”
Cohen of The NPD Group noted that there is a lot of opportunity in denim. Entrepreneurs just have to look for it and keep their pulse on what the public wants.
“Younger consumers love to discover their own brands or rediscover old ones they can resurrect. Contemporary denim is different than premium denim a good dozen years ago. High-end pricing doesn’t cut it as well for the consumer. There are way more things to invest in, both inside and outside of their wardrobe. Brands need to migrate with the consumer today, not try to manipulate them. Denim is the poster child of this need.”