Designer denim, which has reigned for more than a decade as the pièce de résistance of the clothing industry, is on the decline. The iconic indigo-dyed cotton twill, which clad gold miners in the 1800s, soldiers through the Civil War and hippies through Woodstock, is rapidly losing ground to possibly its greatest and most unanticipated foe of all: yoga pants.
When sales in denim started to level off several years ago, analysts initially proposed a few explanations. First, that the jeans market was saturated and due to shrink back after its initial explosion at the turn of the millenium. And secondly and more relatable to consumers, the question of threshold — how many pairs of expensive jeans can a person possibly want to own?
But then the skinny jean happened. Then the colored jean. Then the boyfriend jean. And revenue in denim started to surge again, with both price point and volume increasing to unprecedented levels.
The denim category seemed untouchable, the crowning marriage between textiles and technology. But a couple of years later, revenue started to slip again.
The dip, of course, could be traced directly to the rise and influence of a humble textile called interlock jersey. This fabrication, which was brought into ubiquity by Vancouver-based activewear company, Lululemon Athletica, became so pervasive that women around the world started to ditch their jeans in favor of the stretchy, shaping leggings that were not only comfortable, but also cast a contemporary glow of status and health. The magic behind yoga pants, ironically, is the same formula that brought designer denim into dominance: They were very flattering, they were a little too expensive, and they could be worn every day. Instead of changing clothes after a morning workout, instead of getting dressed for the carpool line, instead of even exercising, women increasingly said yes to yoga pants and no to denim. The trend, called “athleisure,” is projected to command $100 billion by 2020. The battle is far from over.
We could see that denim was starting to kowtow to the yoga pant, as jeans from the high to low end started to resemble activewear more and more. “Jeggings” were supposed to be the love child of the two worlds and keep the denim industry from continuing to slide down the slippery slope of irrelevance. And while consumers adopted it for a while, it seemed that one would never become the other. Denim will have to cast another life raft.
Twenty years ago, revenue of Levi Strauss & Co. was almost double that of Nike. Today, it is almost the exact inverse of that. While there is no fear that our children’s children will see a photo of the Marlboro Man and not recognize what his thick, dusty blue jacket is made of, its longevity as a multibillion dollar behemoth industry is unknown. It’s hard to imagine a time when denim does not have the gyroscopic effect on the modern wardrobe as it does now. It’s even harder to imagine a time when skintight interlock jersey pants become the mainstay of the clothing industry. But maybe that’s precisely where we are, and we just haven’t admitted it. Sure there are ski pants, ponte pants and leather leggings, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you know how that goes.