Consumer Insights

Skinny Jeans: The Fashion Trend That Won’t Die

When stereotypes collide, everyone usually ends up wrong. Take millennial shoppers and fashion trends, for instance. The former can’t make up their minds about brands their loyal to or even what price they’re willing to pay, and the latter change faster than the seasons they nominally follow.

So, how is it that, despite first hitting the scene a decade ago, skinny jeans are still the only kind of denim customers are buying?

According to data from retail forecasting consultancy WGSN, via Bloomberg, skinny jeans account for 54 percent of all full-price denim pant products among female U.S. shoppers. Though some styles overlap, WGSN still found that mid-calf cropped jeans — the next highest category — account for less than half of skinny jeans sales at 25 percent.

What might be the most disconcerting for apparel retailers, though, is the fact that newer styles don’t appear to be catching on with shoppers like they have in the past. Styles introduced in 2014 and 2015, such as the baggy “boyfriend” pattern and bootcut look, comprised 9 and 8 percent of the category’s sales, respectively — barely edging out purchases of maternity jeans by a few percentage points.

The enduring quality of skinny jeans — regardless of the quality of the fabric itself — seems to buck certain trends. First, the assumption that consumers, especially younger ones, are happy to follow new trends is proven as hollow as it sounds. In fact, Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne explained during a recent earnings call that it’s not that consumers have found the last fashion trend they’ll ever need but rather that designers and retailers have gotten so good at marketing line extensions for skinny jeans that their customers’ closets are filling up faster than the need to buy new styles.

“The last major fashion shift was 10 years ago when the skinny bottom returned to popularity,” Hayne said during a call with investors, as quoted by Retail Dive. “Since then, we’ve had all varieties of skinny: low-rise, high-rise, color, black, white, and print, washed, sanded, sliced and destroyed, yoga and active, leggings, jeggings and stretch … Today, the customer has a closet full of various skinny bottoms, and she has many many long tops and sweaters to go over them. Without a fashion need to drive her purchases, the customer can easily defer her apparel spend.”

It’s a catch-22 of their own doing that retailers now find themselves in, but Hayne went on to explain that apparel retailers shouldn’t abandon all hope for another shift in consumers’ collective fashion sensibilities — the law of averages seems to suggest as much. However, while traditional apparel continues to lean increasingly heavier on the appeal of a single style, the risk of “jean fatigue” — customers eventually wanting something different just for the sake of variety — grows higher and higher. And as soon as the skinny jean bubble bursts, it’ll be like the 2008 financial crisis — but in denim instead of dollars.

Every stock market panic needs some kind of destabilizing force, though, and every descending fashion trend needs an ascending one to take its place — if not in sales, then in customers’ minds. Fortunately, Morgan Stanley thinks it has just the thing its clients should throw their money in. Quartz reported that the firm encouraged its investors in an Oct. 2015 note to go bullish on stocks for activewear or the “athleisure” market, including ever-popular yoga pants, spandex leggings and the like, meant to be worn either for exercise, slow days at the house or even discreetly comfortable yet work-appropriate outfits. By 2020, Morgan Stanley sees these products pulling in around $83 billion in sales.

Those dollars aren’t coming from thin air, though. They’re going to come out of the pockets of retailers who decide skinny jeans are the alpha and omega of future fashion.

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