They’ve Got Legs: Female Raw Denim Consumers Could Be the Industry’s Next Big Wave
In 2019, with the help of a close friend, I started the world’s largest and most-inclusive denim fading competition, The Indigo Invitational. From the start, we wanted to welcome denim lovers from all over the planet, and, with over 850 registered competitors from all over the world, we can say we’ve done that.
In 2019, with the help of a close friend, I started the world’s largest and most-inclusive denim fading competition, The Indigo Invitational. From the start, we wanted to welcome denim lovers from all over the planet, and, with over 850 registered competitors from all over the world, we can say we’ve done that. While we’ve got a good balance of West and East in the second year of the competition, we cannot say the same thing about the gender balance. 98% of our competitors are men. We see a similar gender imbalance in the online spaces dedicated to denim and workwear. These are male-dominated spheres, so, though it’s certainly disappointing that we don’t have more women in the competition, it’s not surprising. It raises the question: Why are women as rare as hen’s teeth in the denim scene? I talked to one of our competitors, American denim blogger Rachel Richardson, about this. She has experience in a number of male-dominated worlds. She’s a denim lover and a weightlifter, and she says the difference between the denim scene and the world of weightlifting is night and day. When she started documenting her progress as a weightlifter, toxic males did everything they could to make her feel unwelcome. They criticized her form and told her she would be more attractive if she stuck to light weights. She had to fight tooth and nail with misogynists and trolls to claim her right to exist in the male-dominated space. When she started documenting her denim fades, though, the experience was entirely different. Rather than berating and belittling her, the male-dominated workwear community rallied around her, supporting and encouraging her at every turn. She was welcomed into the denim-loving community with open arms. If we’re looking for the root of the problem, we have to look elsewhere. It’s not the community of passionate enthusiasts, it’s the product itself.
The Obstacle: Fit and Comfort
I’ve talked to dozens of women who have tried find a pair of raw denim without any success. I’ve also tried to find a pair for my wife (we went through more than half-a-dozen pairs before we found one that fit her right). Most of us have the same story. We try to convince our female partners or friends to try raw denim, but more often than not they find the experience intensely frustrating. Men struggle to find that elusive balance between a great-looking fit and comfort, but at least we know that, if the pair we have in hand doesn’t do it for us, we can move down the line to the next pair and then to dozens of other pairs after that. Women just don’t have the same range of options. Most brands offer only one or perhaps two women’s fits (if that), and, when you’re in a brick-and-mortar store that specializes in raw denim, you’ll be lucky if they have even a single pair for women. This lack of options is strangling opportunities. With only a handful of models to choose from, women find it intensely difficult to find something that looks and feels great on their figures. Rather than continuing to hammer a round peg into a square hole, they go back to the brands that they can buy with confidence (often without even trying them on). If there were more (and better) female options, we might start seeing women making up a considerable percentage of raw denim consumers. As it is, the brands are not doing all they can to make women feel like anything more than an afterthought. However, change may be just around the corner.
At the end of last 2020, runway shows featuring ladies’ denim looks continued the movement away from form-fitting skinny jeans towards roomier styles. There were plenty of baggy and slouchy looks, but some of the strongest looks saw women’s fashion picking up on more vintage-infused pieces that veer decidedly into the world of well-made workwear. Take the outfit below from a recent Chloé exhibition. The leather jacket and high-waisted faded denim combination topped off with leather boots and belt is clearly playing with and re-interpreting iconic vintage menswear tropes. Workwear brands should take notice of this convergence. **First Photo from Chloé’s Fall 2020 collection**
They should take notice as well that these looks work, both on and off the runway. If female consumers start moving street style in this direction, traditionally male-focused workwear brands will be perfectly situated to draw upon their experience in this niche. There is a catch, though. If premium workwear brands want to reach female consumers in any significant numbers, they need to do more than release versions of their made-for-men products in female sizes. Workwear brands need to build products from the ground up with women’s bodies in mind. This means a considerable investment in terms of both design and marketing, but female consumers may be primed to repay this investment and then some.
There is one more wild card that needs to be considered. Women in denim enthusiast circles are intensely passionate about fading denim themselves rather than having it faded for them by the manufacturer, but, as I noted above, these women are rare birds. If brands expend considerable effort and resources to create fade-it-yourself workwear lines for women, will women consumers respond by filling these brands’ registers? If brands build it, will they come? I believe the answer is a resounding yes. While it is true that the vast majority of jeans sold to women are in the lower and middle tiers in terms of price and quality, the same is true for men. Brands like Rag & Bone, Citizens of Humanity, 7 For All Mankind, and Stella McCartney have all proved that female consumers are willing to spend just as liberally as men on top-shelf denim. What’s more, women want higher-quality denim options. A recent denim research report from Lifestyle Monitor found that nearly 80% of female consumers would be willing to pay more for denim that was higher quality and lasted longer (this is precisely the value proposition of workwear brands). They also found that issues with quality were the top reason that female consumers returned their denim purchases. A lot of jeans that look great in the store or online aren’t able to keep looking good for long enough to satisfy consumers. This is where raw denim (which only gets better as it ages) can make a strong case for itself.
**Pure Blue Japan’s Well-Made Denim for Ladies: Picture courtesy of Okayama Denim** Workwear denim brands have built their reputations on the back of their exceptional denims, which look and feel like nothing else on the market. If they can do more to guarantee that women who come to them have an overwhelmingly positive experience with their first pair of raw denim, they’ll be able to draw more and more women into the world of well-made workwear. When these customers come, the brands that have worked the hardest to speak directly to female consumers will be primed to capture the lion’s share of the growing market. Photo credit: Benzak Denim Developers, Lennaert