If there’s a denim style for every decade — the ’70s had bell bottoms, while the ’80s and acid wash are forever linked — the past ten years have undoubtedly been synonymous with skinny jeans.
But the style has recently fallen from grace: Earlier this year, Gen-Z TikTok users declared skinny jeans decidedly out of fashion, sending countless Millennials into a tailspin. For the fashion industry, the online debate wasn’t exactly new: Skinny jeans have steadily disappeared from runways and headlines have predicted the death of skinny jeans for at least five years.
Earlier predictions for the style’s demise were premature, but consumers have finally begun to transition to roomier styles, trend forecasters say. The reasons range from a resurgence of looser ‘90s fits to the pandemic-driven demand for comfortable clothes.
Unlike those bell bottoms and acid wash denim, many brands are betting that skinny jeans will have a long life in consumers’ closets, even if they never regain their “it” denim status. The style has earned a permanent place in many shoppers’ wardrobes, and are likely to remain a core item sold by retailers at all price points, even if they direct their marketing budgets to newer, hotter trends.
Rather, the discussion around skinny jeans tells a larger story about how trends rise and fall in fashion. In categories like denim, which is, at its core, a utilitarian item embraced by nearly every consumer, trends help shape a brand’s offerings, but they don’t often prompt a top-to-bottom shakeup. This year, WGSN expects skinny jeans to make up 35 percent of US denim sales, compared with 10 percent for straight leg and 15 percent for wide leg.
In other words, it’s rare for a trend to ever truly “die.”
“The term trend is thrown around quite loosely and often people associate it with a hyped fashion moment,” said Francesca Muston, the vice president of fashion content at WGSN. “But really, there are all sorts of trends and a lot of them are much more of a sustained movement.”
At Levi’s, for instance, skinny jeans make up 50 to 60 percent of women’s jeans sales, said Jennifer Sey, brand president at Levi’s. At Paige, a premium denim label, skinny jeans made up 75 percent of sales a few years ago; even in the waning days of the trend, the style still contributes 35 percent of revenue, said co-founder and creative director Paige Adams-Geller.
“There will always be a core skinny jean in our line, as long as the customer keeps voting for it,” said Adams-Geller.
That doesn’t mean fashion can ignore shifts in the denim market, however slow. Jeans are a foundational fashion piece that serve as a “building block” for other trends, said Muston. Skinny jeans paired well with other popular items of the 2010s, such as knee-high boots or sneakers. If the default denim changes, it threatens other trends, too.
“When you change the jeans, it’s a disruption of the entire silhouette,” she said. “You can update trends on top of it, but as soon as you sort of shift to a different leg, suddenly, the shoes are wrong.”
But brands have a vested interest in seeing the denim landscape continue to open up. A new silhouette gives consumers a reason to shop for jeans again – a “resurgence of excitement,” as Adams-Geller put it. That will be something of a salvation for denim brands that spent the last year struggling to cope with the sweatpants boom.
“Innovation is what’s going to attract the consumer,” said Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst at NPD. “If the consumer doesn’t need to replenish anything in their wardrobe, because everything stays the same, then it doesn’t warrant them spending money on it.”
From Trend to Classic
At some point over the past 10 years, skinny jeans accomplished a rare feat: Crossing out of trend territory and into a brand’s permanent denim lineup.
“I look at it as skinny as the new classic fit,” said Sey. “When you look at different fits, the ones that stick around the longest maybe started as a trend but they have staying power because they’re flattering.”
Crafting a denim assortment that resonates with consumers is a delicate balance between paying attention to what consumers are buying now while also forecasting what they’ll want to buy in the future. Adams-Geller said she consults with internal sales teams on the former and analyses data to determine what consumers will gravitate towards in a given season.
Levi’s, Sey said, often consults its own archives to determine which styles are set to circle back around. In recent years, they’d seen more consumers seeking out styles from the ’80s and ’90s, which was an indication to the brand it was time to invest in wider-leg styles once again.
Brands can take items that are still in demand but is no longer trending and update them to better reflect current styles. Some skinny jeans sold today have a slightly looser fit around the ankle, and brands like Paige, Levi’s and Rag & Bone have incorporated “slim” fits that sit between skinny and straight-leg.
It’s the new and trendy styles that will get featured in marketing, however; after the last decade, consumers know where to find skinny jeans. In a minute-long video from Levi’s latest campaign, a variety of silhouettes are featured, but wider-legged styles are most prominently featured.
Continuing to stock skinny jeans also positions brands for their inevitable return.
“We do see those classics come back and be really on trend at a certain point, even though they’re always a timeless choice,” said Sey.