Cotton Incorporated

The Elevation of Denim

Denim It is the Go-To for Going Out

Denim has seen its share of evolution in the 140-plus years since Levi Strauss started selling blue jean overalls. In its modern iteration, it may be the item of choice for the smart, stylish dresser. With the rise of “athleisure” in casual apparel, the denim category is becoming elevated, with designers showing it on their runways, and brands offering it in custom fits, new finishes, and looks that are geared for the club as well as the office.

The Rise of Denim in Workwear

Eric Goldstein, owner of Jean Shop, a bespoke denim store in Manhattan, says a big part of his business is for men who want denim for “going out” or for work. “We do a tremendous amount of raw denim, and you can wear that with a leather shirt or jacket on top,” Goldstein says. “Our typical customer is the more articulate man, like the banker who wants to look casual, but cool and clean. Denim is being worn to work everywhere — New York, London, and the financial world. It’s not just for casual Friday anymore. Part of the staple work wardrobe is dark, crisp jeans. Our customers come into our store specifically looking for it.”

Goldstein’s customers reflect data that show denim remains consumers’ top apparel choice for a variety of occasions, from work to going out to dinner to running errands. More than a third of all consumers (36 percent) prefer denim jeans for work, followed by casual and dress pants (27 percent each), according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor Survey. Men are significantly more likely than women to prefer denim for work (41 percent versus 32 percent).

WGSN’s junior’s editor, Sarah Owens, says denim has become an acceptable look in the workplace, especially given the premium options now available both in fit, finish, and feel. She says, “It’s quite common now for women to wear a pair of relaxed, boyfriend jeans with a tailored black blazer — creating a high/low aesthetic that has been circulating among Fashion Week street style trends for the past few years.”

Lorna Buford, editor of DenimBlog, says jeans are such a wardrobe staple that consumers will wear denim as a standard work item, unless they have to wear a uniform. “Plus, with the added comfort that jeans now have, it’s a bonus,” she says. Women have the option of pairing them with heels and a dressy jacket or smart sweater, while men just need to think “dark and neat.” AskMen advises male readers to leave their club denim with intricately stitched pockets at home.

The premium denim company DL1961 even has a category named “Office Denim” on its web store to help consumers make the right style choice for their particular job situation. The brand has also added to denim’s comfort factor by introducing lines like “hybrid” “intelligent,” and “DLX” denim that increases movement, retains shape, and even protects from odor-causing bacteria.

“The other direction we see denim headed is a workwear story with raw constructions in rich indigo reworking classic silhouettes in more elongated fits,” Owens says. “This has also been executed in black to give a more contemporary touch to workwear themes.”

On the Streets to on the Go

As favored as denim is for work, it’s preferred even more for shopping or running errands (61 percent), according to Monitor statistics. That’s distantly followed by casual pants (15 percent), athletic pants/shorts (10 percent), shorts (7 percent), and leggings (5 percent).

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Of course, the idea of looking fashion forward when shopping or running around town with the kids was made popular by celebrities. Whether it’s Jessica Alba pushing her baby carriage or Justin Timberlake grabbing a coffee, the look is about the right jeans paired with the right shoes and accessories. That may be why more than four in 10 consumers (41 percent) say they prefer to wear denim jeans when they want to look and feel good in an outfit, followed by casual bottoms (20 percent) and dress pants (17 percent), according to the Monitor data.

Of course, looking good is important when going out to dinner, and denim is also the top apparel choice among both men and women combined (37 percent), the Monitor survey shows. That’s followed by casual pants (26 percent), dress pants (17 percent), dresses (11 percent) and skirts (4 percent) for women, and athletic pants/shorts (2 percent).

“The demand for denim in a more formal or ‘going out’ setting has been increasingly apparent, even before the athleisure trend started to gain momentum,” Owens says.

Buford says she sees both men and women wearing denim in a dressier setting. “I still see people wearing their favorite black or indigo blue skinny jeans with heels and blazers — those are popular for going out.”

Denim Hits the Runways

More denim is also being shown in current designer collections. “The designers really promoted denim on the runways for pre-fall and pre-spring,” says the Doneger Group’s fashion director, Roseanne Morrison. “There’s been a ’70s vibe with the flare leg, the one-piece denim coverall, denim dresses. There’s also been some ’80s styles with the high waist and baggier fit. So it’s a new collection of denim looks that are coming out. We’re also seeing some lighter washes and original indigo without stretch,” she adds.

Owens says the runway has had an influence on the denim category, giving it a wider, dressier appeal. Men and women will continue to see it as more of a “going out” item, she says, “as we enter into the more premium aesthetic that is currently being influenced by current catwalk and trade show trends. From the catwalks, we have been seeing denim take on a more premium aesthetic, with elevated and glossy constructions on more sophisticated pieces such as the tailored denim set at Rag & Bone, Bottega Veneta, and Michael Kors.” Owens continues, “This new renaissance for the denim market gives it a polished identity originally established back in spring/summer 2011 by designers such as Celine and Derek Lam.”

501 Ascending

Levi’s is the originator of denim jeans. At the last National Retail Federation show in New York, James Curleigh, Levi’s global president, said the company is focusing on its core, but “going for more.” “There’s this notion of should you just do what is expected or should you do more?” he said. “Well, guess what? We’re going to do both.”

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Levi’s is still the worldwide leader in denim. In fact, it tops the list of favorite brands of denim jeans among Monitor survey respondents at 32 percent. Levi’s is continuing its traditional 501 jean, and last month introduced the 501 CT (Customized & Tapered) line. The 501 CT is offered in a range of authentic denim washes inspired by San Francisco and California style, the home of Levi’s and the original 501 jean.

The brand is also expanding both high and wide. At the high end, it’s offering its $750 Lot 1 custom, made-to-measure jeans. At the same time, its Commuter Series, featuring reflective seaming and U-lock storage on the waistband, is one of its fastest-growing denim platforms. “Icons don’t remain icons forever unless you continue to innovate around them,” Curleigh said in his presentation.

Trend Tracking

At the recent PROJECT menswear show at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, many denim brands were on display, including Anonymous Jeans of Los Angeles. This maker featured innovative styles such as a 100 percent cotton skinny fit jean with a sarouel drop -— à la the harem pant. Among the many vendors, buyers could also find denim with waxed and leather-look finishes, as well as jeans in a range of colors.

The evolution toward better finishes and different fits is important, especially as denim is the top apparel item among consumers (28 percent), for times when they want to “be stylish or fashionable,” according to the Monitor data. That’s followed by dress pants (25 percent) and casual pants (17 percent).

Those looks are right on time for today’s customer. “Denim is here to stay,” says Jean Shop’s Goldstein. “And in men’s, the classic 100 percent cotton denim is favored. It’s a product you wear your whole life. You can wear clean and crisp with a jacket and tie, and then three years later use it to paint the house or do some other DIY project. We collect jeans in the store. So people can wear their jeans for years, then trade them in when they buy a new pair. They become vintage. And they all tell a story. And with the new pair, the next story begins.”

Catherine Schetting Salfino
Fashion Retail Reporter

Catherine Schetting Salfino covers fashion and retail. Her work has appeared in the menswear
publications Daily News Record, Women’s Wear Daily, Saks POV, and the Sourcing Journal.

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