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Is Denim in Danger?


Yoga pants are currently top sellers in U.S. Fashion. Trend concepts such as ‘soft dressing’ or ‘athleisure’ and the longing felt by customers for casual comfort is helping this product group achieve huge sales growth. Can sweatpants really pose a danger to jeans? How is retail and the industry assessing yoga pants in europe? Here is an overview of what is happening.

If you’ve just settled into your sofa, potato chips in hand and are washing them down with a nice cold Coke, you’re probably not one of the fitness fanatics who measure their pulse with an Apple Watch Sport after doing an intensive cardio workout using the Freeletics app. The topic of fitness is widespread, on all channels and in every area of life. Whether it’s fitness apps on smartphones, yoga or new ways of staying in shape such as Pop Physique, Buti Yoga or Surfset Classes–no, we didn’t make up those names–fitness is a booming business and so are the necessary clothes–whether in the fitness studio or elsewhere. And when it comes to fitness, you are what you wear.

Who benefits from it? Activewear does, for one. In the US, where the fitness movement got its start, revenues for this textile category are flourishing. According to New York market research specialist The NPD Group, at the end of June 2014 earnings of US$33.7 billion (€42.5 billion) with activewear, which accounts for 16% of the overall apparel market, had increased by 7% year-on-year. Marshal Cohen, chief analyst with the market survey group explains: “Part of the reason activewear products are growing faster than the overall business is attributed to the consumer’s passion to get more fit, but the major influence on the rise in sales, especially in women’s, is the desire to look active.

As dressing casually becomes more acceptable, women feel they are getting value when investing in activewear, like yoga pants, which they can wear to the gym, in the gym, and from the gym.” Activewear in the US is experiencing a tremendous upswell, with hype about yoga pants leading the way. Athleisure (athletic and leisure combined)‚ soft dressing, après sport or gym-to-the-office are new key words in fashion and being cleverly used to more broadly market a category of goods which only a few seasons ago was relegated to the out-of-the-way loungewear, homewear or sporting goods departments. New activewear lines and offerings are shooting out of the ground like mushrooms. Urban Outfitters launched its Without Walls campaign early this year. The luxury online retailer Net-a-porter kicked off its Net-a-sporter division this past summer. Its slogan “Sportswear that is as chic as everything else in your closet” underscores how activewear is being praised as everyday wear not meant for the fitness studio only.

Foot Locker already launched its new SIX:02 retail concept in 2012 with a focus on running, yoga, cross fit, cardio and dance for women. Since its rollout, a total of 14 SIX:02 stores featuring a stylish interior design have opened in the US. First appearing on the US market in 2011, Gap offshoot Athleta has aggressively made its mark and is contending with cult yoga retail chain Lululemon from Canada, the standout activewear retailer for market share. Glenn Murphy, Gap CEO, is even said to have described yoga pants as the new denim.

But are yoga pants really the new jeans? And will this be the downfall of the denim business? After browsing through the latest press reports about the US denim market, one cannot help getting the impression denim is struggling right now. According to a survey by Cotton Incorporated’s Retail Monitor (Delivering on Denim), compared to the previous year, jeans relinquished a sizeable portion of retail space to product groups such as dresses and athletic pants in 2013. In another consumer survey by Cotton Incorporated, 90% of 1,500 respondents say that they would also wear activewear when taking part in non-sport activities. A recent survey by The NPD Group shows that sales of jeans in the US declined by six percent last year, with premium denim even shrinking by 32.5% in 2013. But the picture of denim’s future doesn’t need to be as gloomy as that.

According to Cotton Incorporated, jeans are still among the most popular types of pants. The survey results show that 96% of US consumers own an average of seven pairs of jeans and the yoga-pants phenomenon is primarily a trend seen among women. But at the same time, this cannot be discounted: the denim market, especially in the US, is undergoing a transformation. Jeans makers would be wise not to view the athleisure trend as only a short-term development. They should keep on their toes because the competition (Nike, Under Armour, Adidas) for activewear sales is not sleeping. Plus, there is a real danger of losing denim customers to these players, a scenario which could become bitter reality considering that, for the first time, leggings came in first among “top fashion trends right now” in the “Taking Stock with Teens” study completed by Piper Jaffray.

But one can’t accuse the denim brands of doing nothing. The response of jeans brands to customer wishes for more comfort and casual fit has been seen for several seasons with many different denim innovations and developments. Diesel did pioneering work on casual denim as early as fall/winter 2011-12, by launching its first Jogg Jeans capsule collection.

In collaboration with Isko, the Italian jeans label developed special crossover material which blends a raw denim feel with the soft comfy feel of a sweatshirt. “Diesel is always looking to take denim to the next level. Jogg Jeans are a hybrid product category at Diesel, which combines two staples of casualwear: denim and sweats. The woven and knitted fabric has the look of a jersey weave, giving the garment 360° elasticity,” says the Diesel Style Office.

Levi’s launched its Revel series in fall 2013. Its patented “liquid shaping technology” featuring a flexible coating for the inner material of the jeans helps reduce stretching of the elastic material, retaining the shape of the jeans at critical points. At the same time, the coating creates a lifting sensation. Brands such as Timezone, Mavi, Dr Denim, Antony Morato, Bogner Jeans, GAS and Jack & Jones also offer Jogg models in their denim collections. Michael Silver, founder of Silver Jeans, is certain that the proportion of softer denim fabrics with more stretch material has to increase to keep ranges more competitive: “Consumers are now accustomed to comfort in athletic pants. They are actually wearing them in non-athletic settings like to the airport or out shopping, and therefore expectations of comfort have been raised.” This fall, Silver Jeans introduced its first line of yoga jeans, denim jeans incorporating a knit version of denim in the traditional five-pocket blue jeans, available in a variety of washes and fits.

Brands such as True Religion, 3rd & Army, Silver Jeans and Paige don’t consider the ascendency of yoga pants and athleisure apparel a real danger to denim. For example, Gary Harvey, creative director of True Religion, says, “Anything that keeps the denim category new and interesting is a good thing.” Paige Adams-Geller, co-founder of Paige, says: “I don’t think that jersey pants are a threat to denim. Denim is so versatile. We can create so many more varieties of silhouettes, washes and details on denim that won’t work in jersey. I believe that denim is iconic and here to stay for a lifetime.” Jeff Marshall, marketing director of 3rd & Army which specializes in bona fide raw denim, is not troubled by current marketdevelopments. To him, the hype over jersey pants is part of a completely normal cycle: “It’s an evolution. We all know this industry inspires and creates, then grows and changes… Then repeats. I would encourage all to accept this development as another piece of constructional ways to innovate.”

Tony Tonnaer, founder of K.O.I, views yoga pants as a completely different product and doesn’t want to direct his marketing to consumers interested in jersey pants at all: “For us as a denim brand we see this as a completely different product group. You already see a lot of stretch denim as well; we stay close to our roots and make ‘real’ denim.” But still, Tonnaer counters that comfort is important and because of this K.O.I has decided to focus on innovations in denim such as cotton-linen and a Tencel/cotton mix. He also believes that demand for heavier denim grades like Japanese 14oz denim still continues to be far stronger.

And how do things look in Europe? Are jersey pants experiencing an upsurge which will put denim labels under pressure? The European market is developing differently from the US market. Although there are no directly comparable figures for results of US surveys, recent figures for EU denim imports show the jeans market in Europe is doing much better than its American counterpart. According to the “European Imports of Denim in 2013” study conducted by Texworld, from 2007 to 2013 jeans achieved an “exceptional rate of growth” of 5.3%. Compared to strong growth in the denim segment, there was an annual increase of only 2.2% in apparel imports for the EU for the same period. In 2013 the 27 EU member states imported 494 million pairsof jeans valued at €3 69 billion The study concludes that “jeans are more than ever before an essential item of clothing for any European consumer, whatever their age or sex.”

This means there is (still) no yoga pants hype gripping Europe. However, what is clearly evident is: Consumer demand is increasing, not only for more comfort in denim apparel, but for stretch denim. Elena D’Urso of Fornarina says, “I am not seeing the jersey phenomenon very much, but generally speaking, the element of comfort with a fashion touch is becoming important. Women are so used to seeing themselves with superstretch, super slim and skinny denim, it will be a long time before they change the way they present themselves. To become a phenomenon, the way women see themselves must change and it is a very long process.” “If 50% of our women’s pants had stretch material two years ago, that figure now stands at 90%. For men’s pants we only offered a few stretch pants in our range, but the narrower the fit, the more stretch material used because otherwise without stretch, you sacrifice too much comfort,” says Elias Rumelis, CEO of M.O.D. Sonja Comole, product manager at Freeman T. Porter, adds: “Women are looking for more comfort but still with the ‘pretty, sexy look’ as a priority. They want comfort but not a ‘sport look’! This means a lot of innovation and investment on the fabric supplier side. They propose new kinds of fabric qualities such as knitted indigo fabrics, very elastic denim or woven fabric with very good recovery, meaning stretchable but a denim that keeps its fit (does not bag) all day long and even for several days! On the brand side, this means very good sourcing to find more suitable fabric needed for the product range,
and, of course, the new corresponding style and fit design for these kinds of fabrics.”

“More and more demands are being made on us in our everyday lives– jobs,children, sports and even a drink after work–this means you really need the total comfort and flexibility offered by the new sporty style trend,” says Patrick Stupp, Rich & Royal managing director. In his opinion, denim would always come out the winner in direct competition with jersey because a jogging look is not always desirable on the job, and jersey pants don’t have much of a chance against denim. Stupp also adds that denim worn with a blouse or blazer can be a good choice for the office or socializing in the evening. Robert van der Heuvel, sales manager at PME Legend, sees the jersey pants trend driving innovation in denim and helping it reach customers quickly: “Now it’s sweat jeans and it’s a nice supplement for jeans in total.

Innovations in jeans are coming very fast. It’s very important as a company that you can switch in no time and deliver at the right time in the rightjeans and satisfy someone’s needs.” Overall, jersey pants do not really pose a danger to denim on the European market. At least that is the general opinion among industry players. But what do verticals, chain stores and e-tailers think about this phenomenon? At Asos.com demand for jersey pants has been very strong for several seasons. Jacqui Markham, design director at Asos, says: “We have seen strong demand in recent seasons for jersey trousers. For fall/winter, we are also introducing more fabrics with texture and surface interest to give a more dressy ‘going out’ option. We expect to see even more growth across jersey trouser styles in general, because customers love how comfortable and versatile these pieces are.”

But Markham still doesn’t see denim as being in trouble: “We believe that there will always be jersey pants, leggings and jeans in a girl’s wardrobe– they are the foundation for so many looks. The ever-present skinny-jean silhouette shows no sign of going away any time soon, but we are also seeing an increasing desire for more relaxed shapes in denim.”

Chain stores such as Only and Gina Tricot don’t see stiff competition between the two product groups, even though they have both noted an increase in comfort styles. Anna Appelqvist, head of buying at Gina Tricot, says: “Denim and jersey are very strong product lines in the Nordic region. Both materials are relatively easy for customers to buy, but it is important that they have the right image, and the right feel, for them to make the purchase.” Only Play, the sports line of the Bestseller brand Only, is generating excellent sales volume. Margaretha Mikkelsen, collection responsible at Only, says: “Printed pants with a track-pant waist are performing very well. But denim is and will always be the core.”

When asking retailers in Europe and the US, there is a general consensus: Yoga pants and related looks are selling well because of increasing demand for comfort, but they can’t displace denim in the market. Wilco van der Werf, owner of Funkie House, Rotterdam, says: “There is a demand for more comfort and therefore more stretch in denim. Besides denim pants, we sell more chinos and jogging pants, but jogging pants do not take the place of denim.”

Cristiano De Lillo, store manager for The Brian & Barry in Milan, actually sees an opportunity in the yoga clothing trend: “It won’t hurt the denim market, but only help it develop.” Lena Terlutter, owner of Boutique Belgique in Cologne: “A comeback or hype about new styles, materials and fit are always being forecast and celebrated–the new silhouette and style of jogging pants works well as a trend fashion–but denim will never be displaced by the kind of fast fashion being hyped.”

In the final analysis, it’s really easy, as Scott Morrison, owner of the 3×1 store in New York, explains: “There’s a place for both in the modern wardrobe. But it’s hard for me to imagine a knit jean pant looking as sexy as a great fitting pair of jeans on a woman, or an amazing pair of broken-in selvedge jeans on a guy. And as much as I love working out in my training gear, I enjoy putting on a pair of jeans I’ve lived in over the past year or two, or even more.” We agree.

Jeans Jogging
The alternatives to yoga and jersey pants are manifold. perfectly matching the current comfort trend and slowly spreading within the denim market: jogg(ing) jeans.since diesel created the first pair of jogg jeans together with the fabric experts of isko for fall/winter 2012, the hybrid between drawstring jogging pants and a five-pocket jean has found many fans and also copycats. “comfort” or “jogg denims” are now made by a number of denim producers and can be found in the collections of various denim brands for summer 2015–not only as pants but in the shape of jackets, shorts, etc.