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Jeans feeling the blues as consumers turn to yoga pants

Americans’ obsession with jeans is beginning to wear thin.

Jeans long have been a go-to staple in closets across the country. After all, not many pieces of clothing are so comfortable they can be worn daily, yet versatile enough to be dressed up or down.

But sales of the iconic blues fell 6 percent during the past year after decades of almost steady growth. Why? People more often are sporting yoga pants and leggings instead of traditional denim.

The shift is partly due to a lack of new designs since brightly colored skinny jeans were a hit a couple years back. It’s also a reflection of changing views about what’s appropriate attire for work, school and other places that used to call for more formal attire.

“Yoga pants have replaced jeans in my wardrobe,” said Anita Ramaswamy, a Scottsdale, Arizona high-school senior who is buying more leggings and yoga pants than jeans. “You can make it as sexy as skinny jeans, and it’s more comfortable.”

To be sure, the jeans business isn’t dead: Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy, estimates denim accounts for 20 percent of annual sales at the nation’s department stores.

But sales of jeans in the U.S. fell 6 percent to $16 billion during the year that ended in June, according to market research firm NPD Group, while sales of yoga pants and other “active wear” climbed 7 percent to $33.6 billion.

And Levi Strauss, which invented the first pair of blue jeans 141 years ago, is among jean makers that acknowledge their business has been hurt by what the fashion industry dubs the “athleisure” trend. That’s led them to create new versions of classic denim that are more “stretchy” and mimic the comfort of sweatpants.

BIRTH OF THE BLUES

It’s one of the few times jeans haven’t been at the forefront of what’s “trending.” Businessman Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis invented jeans in 1873 after getting a patent to create cotton denim workpants with copper rivets in certain areas like the pocket corner to make them stronger. By the 1920s, Levi’s original 501 jeans had become top-selling men’s workpants, according to Levi’s corporate website.

Over the next couple of decades, the pants went mainstream. In 1934, Levi’s took advantage of the rise in Western movies and launched its first jeans aimed at affluent women who wanted to wear them on dude ranches. Then teens boosted popularity of the pants, first among the greasy-hair-and-leather-jacket set in the 1950s and then, the hippies in the 1960s.

But teens’ biggest contribution to jeans’ rise was the name itself: Until the 1950s, the pants were called overalls or waist overalls, but in the following decade, teens started referring to them as jeans. During that time, jeans took on a bad-boy image — popularized by actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando in such roles — which led many schools to ban kids from wearing them to class.

In 1960, Levi’s began using the ‘jeans’ name in ads and packaging. And over the next few decades, jeans became even more of a way for people to express themselves. In the 1960s to early 1970s, hip-huggers and bell bottoms became an anti-establishment statement. Then in the 1970s and early 1980s, jeans became a status symbol when designer brands like Jordache rolled out more chic versions. More recently, names like 7 For All Mankind made $200 jeans, helping to push sales up by 10 percent to $10 billion in 2000, NPD said.

IRONING IT OUT

Jeans have faced other rough patches. One came in the mid-1970s, when denim sales fell 3 to 4 percent, while corduroy pants surged in popularity, with sales rising 10 to 12 percent, according to NPD estimates.

NPD declined to offer more historical sales data because of changes it made in its methodology recently, but the group’s chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen says jean sales fell about 3 percent again with the resurgence of khakis 12 years ago. That was the last decline until now.

Fashion watchers say the latest decline could be the longest. The “athleisure” trend is the biggest threat jeans have faced because it reflects a fundamental lifestyle change, said Amanda Hallay, assistant clinical professor of fashion merchandising at LIM College in Manhattan. “Everyone wants to look like they’re running to the gym, even if they’re not,” she said.

As a result of jeans’ waning popularity, retailers and designers are focusing more on activewear and less on denim. For instance, J.C. Penney recently has doubled its selections in casual athletic styles for the back-to-school season and scaled back growth of its denim business.

And designers are pushing new versions of jeans. Both Levi’s and VF Corp., the maker of Wrangler and Lee jeans, are rolling out jeans that they say are stretchier. And many brands are making so-called jogger pants, a loose-fitting sweatpant style that has elastic cuffs at the bottom of the leg.

“If casualization is what everyone is looking for, we can push the innovation,” said James Curleigh, president of the Levi’s brand.

It’s too early to tell whether the new styles will help jeans regain popularity. Jennifer Romanello, for one, said she’s not interested in them.

“If I want yoga pants, I will buy yoga pants,” said the publishing executive from Rockville Centre, New York. “I just don’t see jeans crossing the line to be yoga pants.”

Year in Review: 2013’s key fashion moments

It was a year for pixie haircuts, chunky flat shoes, bangs on our first lady and bare skin … lots of it, on movie actresses and pop stars. Fashion always has its royalty, and this year, Kerry Washington was a queen.

For real royalty, we had Kate Middleton, making the rest of us mortals feel a little better by flashing her mommy tummy. If Kate made us feel good, Lululemon didn’t, when its chairman appeared to blame women’s own bodies for problems with those popular yoga pants.

A look back at these and other key fashion moments of 2013:

MICHELLE’S BANGS:

Nobody would call bangs a new trend, but when the first lady’s involved, things take on more significance. In fact, President Barack Obama actually called his wife Michelle’s new hairdo the most significant event of his second inauguration. Unveiled just in time for the festivities, the new hairdo made enough news to have its own (unofficial) Twitter account, FirstLady’sBangs, which issued alerts like “Just got a text from Hillary Clinton’s side-part.”

LESBIAN COUTURE:

The message was unmistakable: At the Karl Lagerfeld haute couture show in Paris, the designer sent not one, but two brides down the runway for the finale. The brides walked hand in hand in their feathery concoctions, a clear vote of support by the designer for France’s gay marriage law. The show came only nine days after hundreds of thousands of people marched in Paris in opposition to the law.

QUEEN OF THE RUNWAY, AIRWAVES AND EVERYWHERE ELSE:

By the time she appeared in a lovely Stella McCartney floral frock and high red leather pumps as a judge on “Project Runway,” it was clear: In the realm where Hollywood meets fashion, Kerry Washington is royalty. On her hit show, “Scandal,” playing professional fixer Olivia Pope, she was all professional Washington – Washington, D.C., that is – but on the red carpet, she was glamour personified. Case in point: that Marchesa gown she wore at the Emmys, all cream and white and flower appliques, fit for a queen.

KATE MAKES US FEEL GREAT:

Much has been said about the fashion sense of the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, but in 2013, it was something a bit different that caught our eye. Peeking out under her blue-and-white polka dot dress as she emerged from the hospital post-childbirth was a pronounced “mommy tummy,” a normal development but something most celebrities keep under wraps, until their personal trainers have whipped them back into magazine-cover shape. Thanks, Kate!

LULULEMON, NOT SO MUCH:

Remember those popular yoga pants that had the unintended effect of being see-through? Well, turns out the ongoing fabric problems with those pants, including pilling, was YOUR fault. Or rather: the fault of YOUR THIGHS. Founder and chairman Chip Wilson of Lululemon Athletica noted in a TV interview that “Frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for the pants, because of thighs rubbing against fabric. Now Wilson just actually won’t be working as chairman of Lululemon; the company announced his resignation from the post in December.

TAKING IT ALL OFF:

Gwyneth Paltrow was happy to show just how little cellulite she has when she appeared at the “Iron Man 3” premiere in a dress with sheer mesh panels on the sides, leaving little of her lower body and, er, posterior to the imagination. But we all nearly forgot about Gwyneth when we saw actress Jaimie Alexander at the “Thor” premiere, her black gown expanding the see-through effect to the midriff and upper regions. Let’s just say these actresses are saving money on underwear.

DESIGNER MOVES:

A Paris runway show full of mournful symbols – and lots of black – was designer Marc Jacobs’ somber goodbye to Louis Vuitton in October after 16 years in the influential post of creative director. Under Jacobs, who also has his own eponymous brand, Louis Vuitton became the most lucrative fashion house in the world, in part thanks to Jacobs’ creation of a ready-to-wear line. He was replaced by Nicolas Ghesquiere, formerly at Balenciaga.

TAKING DESIGNERS TO TASK:

Iman and Naomi Campbell are legendary supermodels, but this year they lent themselves to something different: promoting diversity on the runway, by calling out designers whose catwalks were almost completely white. The two women joined modeling agent Bethann Hardison in their Balance Diversity campaign. Explaining their purpose, Iman, now 58, said she was shocked to hear there were fewer black models on the runway than when she stopped modeling in 1989.

WE GOT THE PUNK:

Who knew that punk would become high fashion? That development seemed to crystallize in May, when the hallowed halls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a new Costume Institute exhibit, “Punk: Chaos to Culture,” celebrating a movement that embraced anarchy in the 1970s. “Despite its best intentions, punk has come to symbolize integrity and authenticity,” said curator Andrew Bolton.

THE FLAT SHOE, THE PIXIE CUT:

Think short! In shoe stores this year, you could see a trend toward flats, including a notable reinterpretation of those chunky Birkenstocks. The first ripple effect would be comfort, of course, but the changes are more profound, notes Virginia Smith, Vogue’s fashion market and accessories director: “Every woman wants a flat right now, and that has a big impact on fashion because it changes proportion.” Another trend: pixie hair, on everyone from Michelle Williams to Anne Hathaway to Jennifer Lawrence. “It will have an effect beyond celebrity and the runway,” Smith says. “A lot of these women are very influential.”

TRENDSETTER MILEY?

Speaking of influence, dare we call Miley Cyrus a trendsetter? She was already a trailblazer with her pixie cut from 2012, but hey, you probably were too busy watching the stuck-out tongue, teddy-bear leotard and nude bikini (which falls into the baring-it-all trend at the MTV Video Music Awards). Only weeks later, though, she was all elegance in sequined Marc Jacobs at the Night of Stars gala. Miley the fashion icon? Not by the standard definition. But heading into 2014 she was one of the most-watched people on the planet. “Blurred Lines,” indeed.