How The Global Pandemic is Ushering in a New Era of Comfort for Jeans
Despite the uphill challenges faced by COVID-19, the skinny jean proves it will take more than a global pandemic to silence its reign. Here’s how the denim industry is employing sustainability and size-sizing to keep the skinny on top.
Despite the uphill challenges faced by COVID-19, the skinny jean proves it will take more than a global pandemic to silence its reign. Here’s how the denim industry is employing sustainability and size-sizing to keep the skinny on top. For more than a decade now, skinny jeans have dominated denim sales. Many women and men consider them their best friend thanks to the comfort they offer and the illusion of a lean figure, they instantly provide. What started off as a subverted pant choice for skinny hipsters in East London and Brooklyn in the early 00s, has gone on to become one of the most ubiquitous wardrobe-essentials worn by everyone from Duchess Kate Middleton to rappers like The Migos. Skinnies owe their existence and money-grabbing allure to elastane, also known as Lycra, the stretchy synthetic fiber that allows for figure-sculpting cuts that Mr. Levi Strauss could never have imagined. But recently, the success of the skinny has reached its tipping point thanks to the return of “rigid” regular cut jeans and questions around the environmental impact of the skinny, in particular the microplastic fibers that are shed during home washing. Despite the stretch backlash, many denim mills and brands continue to invest in the commercial success that the skinny continues to draw. Sure they have certainly lost their luster, especially for men, but reports show that the item still acts as the bread and butter for retailers’ denim buys. In March, retail data analytics firm Edited published a report that showed 23 percent more consumers purchased women’s stretch denim year over year, highlighting the opportunity for comfort-focused denim. It is a similar scenario for men too with stretch denim expanding three to five times over the past year, with demand following suit, according to a recent report by Sourcing Journal. So where are the denim brands winning right now with the skinny? One of the biggest areas of focus is around sustainability. Due to the considerable amount of pollution denim production has caused the environment combined with the pressure on retailers to make critical changes, the demand for eco-friendly alternatives continues to rise. In an April 2020 study from Accenture, 45 percent of consumers said they were making more sustainable shopping choices than before Covid, with plans to continue doing so. What this has proved is that price is no longer an issue for consumers looking to make the switch to conscious purchases. While historically cost has been a barrier for most consumers, the global pandemic has only strengthened the empathy around circularity, sustainability, and eco-friendliness. As the climate emergency continues to sit at the top of mind for consumers, retailers have been quick to accelerate their sustainable efforts across denim assortments. Lee and Wrangler continue to pave the way with their ‘Indigood’ foam dyeing process on specific lines, which requires no water and significantly fewer chemicals, Levi’s has introduced its cottonized hemp which dramatically reduces the amount of natural resources required to farm the crop, while H&M made headlines with its revolutionary Circulose fabrics which close the loop on fashion. Stretch denim has also seen an uptick in the number of sustainable innovations that have hit the market - specifically the replacement of non recyclable poly fibres with circular ones. Last year Denham, Stella McCartney, and Outerknown launched their biodegradable stretch jeans made from plant-based rubber as opposed to the standard petrol-based elastane that wreaks havoc on the environment, while Esprit switched out virgin polyester in place of REPREVE, a sustainable fibre that uses recycled polyester. G-Star continued to build on it’s 'most sustainable jean ever' too with its fully recyclable, Gold-certified C2C stretch jeans, made using organic cotton. The stretch innovations emerging in the market go beyond just the eco-credentials of fiber compositions. One of the biggest issues facing the denim market, in particular for stretch jeans, has been around sizing issues and lack of universal sizing systems across retail. This problem has only been magnified with the global pandemic which has forced all purchases online, meaning consumers can no longer try on jeans in-store. Given the inherent sizing problem around jeans, the rise in e-commerce has presented brands with a greater risk for returns. A consumer study from Wair, formerly BodyBlock AI, found that jeans and pants are the most frequently returned apparel items by both men and women. Responding to this market crisis, Calik Denim developed it’s game-changing Selfsized concept in order to offer brands size simplification through fabrics that with ultra-high elasticity for maximum comfort and softness. “The articles in this concept not only minimises the possibility of buying the wrong size, which is a common issue among consumers especially since online shopping has dramatically increased since the pandemic crisis, but also offers jeans that are soft and comfortable to move in '' detailed a spokesperson from mill. In October, Good American launched the specially developed fabric into the market with its ‘Always Fits’ denim, a skinny fit, high-rise jean with 100 percent stretchability, meaning jeans can accommodate a range of three to four sizes without sacrificing fit. The development which was created exclusively with Calik Denim aims to help eliminate the need for consumers to purchase new jeans as their weight fluctuates—something co-founder and CEO Emma Grede explained to Sourcing Journal as being crucial for a size-inclusive apparel brand during the pandemic. Each pair of Always Fits jeans covers a range of 3-4 sizes, remaining flexible for women throughout their lifetime. In turn, this contributes to sustainability as it mitigates the need to discard jeans that no longer fit. Aside from the inherent sustainability factor of having jeans that can accommodate changes on the scale, Calik Denim developed the denim using sustainable elements and processes, including its Denethic technology, a wash process that slashes water usage by 15 to 44 percent depending on the wash type: rinse-wash, rinse and enzyme-wash, or bleached. As these stretch technologies become increasingly popular among comfort-seeking consumers, other denim brands are seeking ways to innovate a highly flexible fabric that people will want to wear all day long. Los Angeles label, J Brand recently launched its new ‘Limitless Stretch’, a jean that expands to twice its size. Available exclusively in its new Sophia skinny fit, the fabric is able to stretch to twice its size and retract without any sagging. J Brand’s Limitless Stretch fabric also checks off the sustainability box too as the denim is washed using J Brand’s Eco Wash water-saving process. J brand reported that by the end of the year, it will incorporate sustainable technologies into 100 percent of its washed denim. And what about the conversation of sweatpants vs jeans? It was widely reported at the start of the pandemic that drawstring pants and athleisure was dramatically eating into the market share of jeans as consumers looked for comfy alternatives. Responding to the leisure trend and reacting to consumer data, Calik Denim has developed fabrics that stretch and move while maintaining an authentic, cool denim look. “It is believed that since the lockdowns due to the pandemic consumers are more inclined towards clothing that isn’t going to restrict their movement” explained a representative from the mill. “The focus will be on items that can transition between lounging and living, also supporting the idea of working from home.” The mill believes that even after the pandemic is over its effects are going to remain. “The habits that we have formed like dressing for comfort and leisure will be continued going forward.” To support this market shift, Calik Denim has developed two of the concepts that will act as a solution for denim brands looking to fight off sales of sweatpants and yoga style. The first, Skinlithe is a fabric that combines the look of denim with the comfort of tights. The concept offers lightweight fabrics with ultra flexibility with very high elasticity, adaptive to body shape. The mill promises that the articles offer freedom of movement and are easy to wear without feeling any pressure. Another bonus of some of the articles is that they are developed with an innovative yarn technology and they include different fibers in the composition to provide natural softness. There are even Zero cotton alternatives for brands looking to reduce their environmental footprint further. For those looking for comfortable and loose fabrics that are ideal for daily and home office life, Calik Denim is offering D-Leisure, a new concept that revolves around comfort but with an authentic appearance. The fabric is defined by Tencel Lyocell and Tencel Modal fiber to provide further softness, smoothness. The mill explains that the fabrics in the D-Leisure portfolio are best suited for wide leg, drapey, boyfriend or mom jeans and loose lounge fits. They even offer novelty finishes like CBD oil treated fabrics which promote pain relief, calming effects as well as being a powerful antioxidant. If these sleek options sound too clean for those looking for more rugged masculine looks, Calik Denim have also developed rigid and comfort stretch articles that are suited for men and vintage-inspired looks.