Retailers from American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO) to Bloomingdale’s are betting that women are ready to shed skinny jeans for a return to flared styles, a change that may firm up more than sagging denim sales.
“The fashion shift is coming,” said Christine Chen, an apparel retail analyst at Needham & Co. in San Francisco. “Once the bottom changes, your tops are wrong. It’s a whole new reason for the consumer to spend.”
Form-hugging denim, around since the middle of the last decade, boosted jeans purchases during the recession with styles like J. Crew Group Inc.’s “matchstick.” Now the novelty has worn off, with sales of women’s premium denim sliding more than 6 percent last year to $1.36 billion, according to Port Washington, New York-based NPD Group Inc.
Upscale department stores like Macy’s Inc.’s Bloomingdale’s aim to buck that trend with designer jeans from J Brand resembling upside down martini glasses for $185. If women buy in, retailers and jean makers such as True Religion Apparel Inc. (TRLG) may have just the trend to revive demand in the $13 billion U.S. market, helping to offset price increases spurred by record cotton costs.
“It’s been a hit,” said Stephanie Solomon, women’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s. “We’ve all been wearing skinnies or jeggings for too long. It’s a reason to buy.”
Runway to Retail
Flares have fueled denim sales this spring and are outselling skinny jeans, Solomon said. The style, which showed up on runways last year, has also reached mass-market retailers such as Pittsburgh-based American Eagle, which unveiled a “vintage flare” this spring for $49.50. True Religion, based in Vernon, California, offers a dozen flared styles for as much as $319.
American Eagle rose 28 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $15.58 at 4:02 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. True Religion advanced 19 cents, or less than 1 percent, to $22.95 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Fashion had focused on slimmer shapes since the mid-1990s, when women’s magazines began looking more to Kate Moss than Cindy Crawford, said Lourdes Font, a professor of art history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Skinnies, leggings and jeggings (leggings that look like jeans) have left designers with nowhere else to go but bigger.
“It’s at the very limits of physical reality,” Font said. “The only other thing tighter is your own skin.”
The flare revival itself could make much of women’s old wardrobes obsolete, Chen said, because pants often spur other trends. Flowing tops and shirt-dresses came into being to compensate for the ultra-skinny. Wide legs will usher in an era of shorter and tighter blouses, sweaters and jackets, Chen said.
Footwear will change too, said Amy Noblin, an apparel-chain analyst for Weeden & Co. in Greenbrae, California. Skinny jeans pair well with boots, propelling sales past $5 billion last year and sparking an explosion in brands like Deckers Outdoors Corp.’s Ugg.
Bell bottoms, instead, hide much of the foot and may curb the appeal of today’s ubiquitous knee-high boots. That could lead to a renaissance in footwear with flat soles such as sandals or platforms, Solomon said.
The wide leg may also gain acceptance faster than skinny because it’s more flattering and many women still have a flare or two in their closets, Noblin said.
“People don’t have to go back too far in their lifetime to remember the last time they wore a pair of flare jeans, which makes me think this is an embraceable, democratic trend,” Noblin said.
Still, a fashion shift of this magnitude won’t be a boon for every retailer. While San Francisco-based Gap Inc. (GPS) also is offering flares for $69.50, it may have difficulty connecting with shoppers because it’s known more for basics and not the “hippie chic” look that’s spurring this trend, said Chen.
“This is right up our alley,” Louise Callagy, a spokeswoman for Gap, said when asked how the retailer is likely to fare with the new trend. “Gap has always done best when it participates in culture, and flare jeans and pants are an example of that.”
Other designers are confident too. Premium denim purveyor James Jeans, found at such luxury stores as Barney’s New York, has touted jeans with legs as wide as 22 inches (56 centimeters), more than double a skinny cut.
“This was overdue,” said founder James Chung, whose Los Angeles-based company is offering half-a-dozen varieties of flare pants this season. “You can only have so many skinny jeans in your wardrobe.”
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