The Style That Finally Dethroned Skinny Jeans

The skinny jean’s reign is officially over.

Last year, straight leg jeans accounted for 33 percent of US denim sales to women, compared to 30 percent for skinny jeans — knocking the form-fitting style from the top spot for the first time in at least a decade, according to NPD Group analyst Maria Rugolo.

The skinny jean had an uncanny run. After starting as a mid-aughts trend, the style maintained its grip on consumers year after year, defying style experts’ repeated predictions that the trend had run its course. As recently as 2019, skinny jeans made up 41 percent of women’s denim sales, NPD data shows.

It was the pandemic that finally cemented the shift toward looser fits. For two years, consumers have worked from home in their pyjamas, leggings or sweatpants. Now, as they venture back to work and social occasions, many are still looking for an element of comfort. Add in the nostalgia for all things ‘90s and Y2K — a period where baggy trousers were the norm — and the fix was in.

While the skinny jeans still constitute an essential category for many retailers, the changeover is happening fast in many stores, replaced by straight leg, boot cut, “mom jeans” and other wider-leg styles.

“Back in the day, you went to our denim bar and it was all skinny jeans on a table,” said Mary Pierson, senior vice president of denim at Madewell, where skinny jeans’ share of denim sales have plunged from 90 percent a few years ago to about 10 percent today. “We still carry two to three staples in stores, because there’s still a customer that loves it, but we’re not as focussed on it.”

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A New Silhouette

At Abercrombie & Fitch, best-selling styles include the ‘90s Ultra-High Rise Straight Jeans; the ‘90s High Rise Relaxed, with a wider leg; and the Slim Straight, which fits like the happy medium between straight and skinny jeans. Current denim best-sellers at Gap are also straight and loose fits, the company told BoF, while Kontoor Brands-owned Lee said its straight fitting jean was consistently the top seller in 2021, followed by the boot-cut style. Skinny jeans remain a top performer at Uniqlo, the company said, but it has seen increased interest in wider-leg styles since the pandemic. At Levi’s, women have been snapping up the company’s high-waisted “mom” jeans, and its high-waisted straight jeans, said Levi’s chief marketing officer Karen Riley-Grant.

“It’s not that the skinny, slim jean is dead, it’s just now, having a variety is important for different outfits,” said Corey Robinson, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Abercrombie & Fitch.

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Other retailers are taking a more extreme view. Brieane Olson, PacSun’s president, said shoppers are flocking to wider-leg styles to emulate tastemakers like Emma Chamberlain. The retailer pulled skinny jeans from stores last year. Its best-selling styles are its ‘90s boyfriend jeans, its Dad fit jeans, and its low-rise denim in boot cut.

Some consumers have migrated from skinny jeans to stretchier bottoms with a similar silhouette made from more forgiving fabric, including jeggings and leggings, said Sarah Ahmed, co-founder and chief creative officer of DL1961. And as shoppers are still turning to fitness apparel for comfort clothes, they’re buying other denim styles to be on trend.

Changing norms in culture has also played a part in the shift of trending denim styles.

“The skinny jean was often a bombshell, over-sexed look, but now women want more oversized styles that look cool and can be worn with sneakers or heels,” said Ahmed.

Over the past year, Neiman Marcus saw its straight-leg denim styles do triple-digits in growth, said Lisa Aiken, the company’s fashion and lifestyle director. Skinny jeans have gone from half of Neiman Marcus’s denim sales to one-third, and Aiken said the best-selling products are straight-leg styles from Mother Denim, Frame and AGolde.

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Merchandising Opportunities

For retailers, more denim trends is an opportunity to drive sales. In a March earnings call with analysts, American Eagle Outfitters’ executive creative director Jennifer Foyle called denim “low hanging fruit” for generating higher margins. Gap Inc. chief executive Sonia Syngal also cited denim as a category with new trends to chase in 2022 after a year of loungewear.

“I’ve been in this business for over 30 years and I’ve never seen so many fits and leg shapes,” said Madewell’s Pierson. “They are all selling and it’s happening pretty quickly.”

Unlike skinny jeans, looser denim styles don’t require fabric technology that enables stretchiness, according to Gap’s head of denim design, Crystal Henricksen. This makes the new wider styles more sustainable without having to use polyester or elastane and more resilient as well.

In men’s assortments too, slim fits are giving way to looser styles at Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi’s and PacSun.

“That ‘90s fit is happening everywhere.” Robinson said.

Retailers say not to count out the skinny style completely, however.

“Skinny jeans have replaced the straight jean silhouette, but they can definitely make a comeback — we’re just not sure if that will be five or 10 years,” said Olson.

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