A New ‘Denim Cycle’? After a Decade, Jeans Move From Skinny to Loose 1

American shoppers are flocking to high-waisted, loosefitting jeans in droves and companies believe they may become a hallmark of the post-pandemic world.

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The obituary for skinny jeans has been written time and time again since their ascent more than a decade ago, but the narrow-legged garment has persisted despite it all. It has emerged in new colors and cuts and varying levels of stretch to remain in style and on shelves from Bloomingdale’s to Old Navy, relentlessly hugging a nation of ankles and shins.

But these days, the whispers of its decline may carry real weight as American shoppers flock to high-waisted, loosefitting jeans in droves. On a recent earnings call, executives for Levi Strauss & Co. said sales trends showed that loose, even baggy, jeans for women and men were booming and poised to become a hallmark of our post-pandemic world.

“The last denim cycle has been longer than 10 years, and it was the skinny jean cycle,” Chip Bergh, chief executive of Levi’s, one of the top sellers of denim worldwide, said in an interview. While it’s too early to call an end to that, he said, “we’re definitely seeing a lot of uptake on these looser fits, and our competitors have all followed it and they’re all seeing the same thing.

“If we see it sustain for another season or two,” Mr. Bergh added, “it’s very possible that we’re into a new denim cycle.”

The style at hand — or leg — is often referred to as “mom jeans,” including on the Levi’s website where they are prominently showcased. They have become more visible in the past year on Instagram fashionistas and teens in Netflix shows, and championed by youths on TikTok. Mr. Bergh said younger customers were often pairing tighter tops with the jeans. “That seems to be the look with the Gen Z and young millennials right now,” he said.

The type of jeans worn by Americans, whether it’s bell bottoms, flares or skinny jeans, are often associated with specific eras, and retailers are keen to see how strong the loose denim trend will be in the long-awaited After Times. For apparel sellers, among the most battered sectors this past year, the prospect of a new denim style is welcome, as they try to drum up sales and get consumers excited about clothing again.

Skinny jeans still make up the largest share of women’s jeans at 34 percent of sales in the United States, according to data from the NPD Group. But the style lost seven share points in the 12 months ending in February. The firm said that the size of the U.S. women’s jeans market was $7.1 billion.

Levi’s
Levi’s

Early last year, Levi’s introduced a small collection of women’s high-waist, loose-fit jeans and wide-leg jeans called balloon pants which sold “really, really well,” prompting the company to double down on such cuts, Mr. Bergh said. The company said on its earnings call that in the past quarter, it also saw relaxed-fit men’s styles like its Levi’s 550 and 559 post a 50 percent jump in sales from a year earlier. Just a few years earlier, Levi’s had discussed discontinuing the styles because of their poor performance.

The trend is not confined to Levi’s, which lays claim to inventing the blue jean in 1873. Madewell, the popular retail chain owned by J. Crew Group, has also been seeing enthusiasm around looser fit jeans and balloon pants, even among skinny jean acolytes, which is viewed as a turning point for the fit.

“The people who were really long holding onto skinnies are like ‘Oh OK, I’m going to crawl over to the other side and do something,’” said Anne Crisafulli, Madewell’s senior vice president of merchandising.

Madewell, which is known for its jeans, has been coming up with styles that help customers transition to the looser fit in a bid to provide “training wheels for people coming out of skinny,” Ms. Crisafulli said. Customers seem to want “looser and more comfortable” denim going forward, she added.

Mr. Bergh noted that pandemic-related weight gain could be driving interest in the jeans, as some people look to update their closets.

Levi’s, based in San Francisco, saw its revenue tumble 23 percent to $4.45 billion in 2020, as many retailers saw sales fall as stores faced temporary closures and customer habits shifted. Sales also dropped in the first quarter, which ends in February, but Mr. Bergh noted that was before vaccines had been rolled out in the United States in a “big way.” He said he was optimistic about a denim resurgence.

“As people think about going back out, they’re thinking about what’s the look now, and they’re going to our website, they’re going to other websites, looking at fashion magazines and seeing looser, baggier fits be the new trend,” Mr. Bergh said. “The fact that people are liberated and can finally go out to dinner with their family or girlfriend or boyfriend — it gives them an occasion to kind of upgrade their wardrobe, update the look and splurge a little bit on themselves, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

And still, even if looser denim is the look of the 2020s, that does not mean the disappearance of the skinny jean.

“I don’t think skinny jeans are ever going to go away completely,” Mr. Bergh said. “People are mixing it up, and women in particular are having multiple choices.”