London - Times are tough for fashion retailers, but even tougher for denim retailers as the denim market remains under pressure. Global denim sales are still on the rise, thanks to an increasing middle class in countries such as China - however a recent study from Euromonitor has revealed a slump in sales in the industry's core markets, Western Europe and North America. Even though jeans are unlikely to disappear from our wardrobes anytime soon, a shift in consumer preferences concerning the fit, performance and price of denim is taking its toll on the market. The rise of the yoga pants and ‘athleisure’ has help lead to a crisis in the denim industry, as traditional indigo jeans struggle to find their place in today’s fashion landscape.
In this in-depth study, FashionUnited looks at how issues concerning fit, comfort and performance are affecting the global denim market and what new innovations are emerging to help brands and retailers overcome them.
The denim market is under pressure due to issues with fit and comfort
One of the main reasons the denim market is currently feeling squeezed is linked to the shift in consumers preference towards fit and expectations of how the product should perform. In the past, denim jeans used to be made from 100 percent cotton to ensure its longevity. It was after all, the uniform of the working class and therefore needed to be as durable as possible. However, this also meant that the fabric was thick and stiff and needed to be worn in by the wearer for a certain amount of time to achieve that perfect fit. Raw denim enthusiasts are known to wear their jeans in the bath, in the ocean and to wash them as little as possible to cultivate the perfect, authentic pair of jeans.
But recently consumers attitudes towards denim and fit have begun to shift - now they demand products which already offer that worn in look and perfect fit. The level of comfort offered by jeans has also become important as men and women alike have been pursuing a slimmer silhouette and tighter fit all-round. Which is why synthetic fibres such as elastane and polyester have been blended in with cotton yarn to offer wearers certain amount of stretch. Although most skinny jeans do offer wearers a certain amount of comfort thanks to the addition of stretch, it has not stopped consumers from searching for softer, more comfortable and better fitting bottoms. Even Levi’s has felt the pressure to conform to consumers demands and is releasing it's iconic 501 jeans with stretch.
Athleisure and sportswear tighten their squeeze on the denim market
“People still love to wear jeans,” said Jean Hegedus, Invista’s global denim segment director to FashionUnited during Kingpins 6th edition in Amsterdam. “But they also love to take them off when they come home and put on a pair of leggings or comfortable bottoms - especially if they have been sitting behind a desk for 8 hours.” Thanks to the rise of leggings and comfortable sportswear bottoms consumers across the world have been substituting a portion of their denim wardrobe with these comfier alternatives. Data backs this up - a recent report from Slice Intelligence found that the online purchase of leggings and sportswear bottoms increased 41 per cent in 2016, while the purchase of jeans only grew 3 per cent in the same year.
But not only as customers buying more sportswear bottoms - they are also willing to pay more for them as well. A study from research specialist Fung Global Retail & Technology and technological agency First Insight found that on average customers are only willing to pay 74 per cent of the recommended retail price for a pair of jeans, in comparison to 82 per cent of the recommended retail price for a pair of sportswear bottoms. However, considering that the average woman has 10 pairs of jeans in her closet, it should come as little surprise that she would rather spend her money on something else. The skinny jean in particular has become the posterchild for the lack of newness within the denim industry and has been linked to its decline in sales.
The rise of skinny jean has left the denim industry lacking something new
As this trend appears to be here for the long run, the denim industry struggles to chartered a new path and thus remains torn. While some denim retailers such as Lee and Wrangler are using more synthetic fibres in order to add more stretch and comfort to their products, others like Kings of Indigo and G-Star are going the opposite direction and producing more ‘raw’ and ‘authentic’ cotton jeans. For denim retailers seeking out the perfect level of comfort, the ultimate goal is for the stretch to be “invisible” to the average person touching them. However, at the moment most skinny or slim fitting denim jeans contain such high levels of synthetic fibres that they feel slick to the touch - not like real denim.
In addition, most stretch in denim lacks the strength and recovery needed to hold onto the jeans tight fit and form, causing many pairs of jeans to overstretch and lose shape after a few wears and washes. “Last year there was all this super stretch on the market, jeans made with 40 percent polyester for the tightest fit, but I didn’t do it,” said Tony Tonnaer, founder of Kings Of Indigo to FashionUnited. “I could have sold a lot more pair of jeans, but I just don’t think it’s right to make denim with such high percentages of polyester mixed in. You can’t recycle it afterwards easily, it feels too lightweight and not really durable. I am sure it’s comfortable but it’s not us.”
Performance and shapewear denim offers retailers a solution
So, what options are there on the market now to help denim manufacturers and retailers overcome their problems with fit and comfort and reignite consumer interest?
Invista has developed a number of fabrics to help solve denim retailers issue with fit. For example, its Lycra dualFX fabric, which contains Lycra fibre and Lycra T400 fiber in one, offers both the stretch and recovery needed to maintain its fit all day. “It’s sort of like a slinky - it just wants to return to its original form,” explains Hegedus. Although denim fabrics with Lycra dualFX technology contain about 30 per cent stretch, they are said to retain a high degree of dimensional stability and durability.
The unique denim fabric delivers results - when American Eagle began incorporating Lycra dualFX in their women’s denim collections in 2015, they saw an increase in their denim sales in the first quarter. Then there is Lycra Beauty, which takes things one step further by combining the best of shapewear with denim. The unique denim fabric was developed after a series of proprietary wear, force testing, wearer feedback, and body scanning. The fabric is said to offer wearers the right level of sculpting force, without constriction so the wearer still has the freedom to move around freely.
Fit remains a "big issue" in the denim industry
“Fit is a big issue, especially for women, as we want something that fits us all over and doesn't slide down our backs when we sit,” she adds. “Especially with jeans, we want something to hold us in around the waist, stomach and thighs. However, it has to be comfortable too. Pressure is important - if the pressure in key points is too high then the jeans are uncomfortable, so getting that balance right is vital. It’s all about being able to provide a product that shapes you comfortably.”
Hyosung, the largest global elastane producer, and owner of the Creora brand teamed up with Chinese denim mill Prosperity Textile to develop a new generation of denim which offers fit and comfort, known as Trans-form. Containing its patent Creora Fit 2 technology, the fabric is said to offer a “second skin fit” with 360 degree comfort. “We know that consumers still see a flattering fit as the most important quality of denim,” said Bart Van de Woestyne, Creative Director of Prosperity Textile. “With the rise of new technologies, the standards for fit technology evolve. We have developed this new Trans-form collection as our next generation product.”
"3D technologies have the potential to reshape" the denim industry
Of course, there are still retailers on the market who do not want to incorporate stretch products - and in that case they should look to new technologies such as 3D body scanning and design to help improve the fit of their product. Companies such as Lectra and Alvanon currently offer fashion companies 3D design solutions which help pattern makers and designers create virtual designs which can be tweaked down to the smallest detail before a physical sample ever touches the floor.
“We need to break away from outdated processes and put technology to work in ways that enhance product development, improve fit and accelerate speed to market,” argues Ed Gribbin, President of Alvanon. “3D technologies have the potential to reshape the way the industry does business, though their full effects may not be felt for cycles to come.”
Photos: Wrangler Europe, Levi's and G-Star, Facebook