by John Jones

Back in 1919, vaudevillian Sophie Tucker topped the charts with the song “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (Once They’ve Seen Paree)?” Fast forward to today, and those of us in the fashion biz might do well to create our own version of the ditty: “How Ya Gonna Get ‘em Wearing Pants (Once They’ve Lived In Sweats)?”

Clearly, today’s workforce has adopted dress code that’s even more relaxed than where it was headed pre-pandemic, reinforced by Work-From-Home. Although the classic 5-pocket model still dominates the men’s bottoms mix, accounting for as much as 70 percent of pants sales, the silhouette is suddenly appearing in relaxed fits, and in an extended range of colors and fabrics.

Featured image above: Liverpool

In a third quarter earnings call, denim giant Levi Strauss’s Chip Bergh noted, “New looser fit silhouettes are definitely driving a new denim cycle. The total jeans category in the past nine-month basis is up to $11.2 billion here in the US. That’s higher than it was pre-pandemic. During the same nine-month period, it was $10.6 billion and way higher than it was during the pandemic at $8.5 billion.”

34 Heritage

Adding New

Retailers emphasize that as customers adapt to an evolving workplace, they’re looking for career wardrobes that look and feel good. “As our customer returns to the office and social occasions, he’s looking to add new pieces to his wardrobe that are casual, but polished,” says Justin Berkowitz, Bloomingdale’s Men’s Fashion Director. “We’ve been seeing a strong performance in the denim department these last several months due to an increased desire to look more professional.”

But while some guys are wanting to dress up a bit, others are moving in the opposite direction. “Our traditional guy is looking to be more casual, having gotten used to wearing sweatpants during the pandemic. So instead of dress pants, he’ll wear a five-pocket model with a sportcoat to work,” says Alan Gibeley of Giblees in Danvers, Mass. “He might also have gained a bit of weight during the pandemic so these stretch styles help with that.”

“In the denim world, it’s all about comfort, stretch, and slim,” says Gary Flynn of M. Dumas and Sons in Charleston, South Carolina. “The true denim customer is interested in non-denim, five-pockets right now. 34 Heritage, for example, has really nailed the market. Their fit is great, the fabrics are comfortable and soft, and once a customer tries them on, they want to buy multiples!”

David Perlis of Perlis in Louisiana concurs, pointing out that 5-pocket twills, as opposed to true denim, have been the store’s fasting growing category for three years. “We’re not a denim store, per se,” he notes, “but this category has grown from five percent of our pants business to 65 percent. It’s about stretch and comfort. Men who weren’t wearing five-pockets before can’t get over the comfort and come back to buy four or five more pair in other colors.” Perlis also points out that the trend spans generations so it’s important to have the right fit for both young and older guys.

Tommy Bahama reports strong sales of its Boracay Jean at its stores: online and through its wholesale partners. The jean features a cotton/polyester/lyocell/spandex blend at $138 suggested retail. “It’s an incredibly soft, comfortable jean,” says Tommy Bahama’s Dawn Brandl, Senior Vice President of Men’s Design. “The spandex gives it movement, and we offer five washes so it’s versatile. Men are ready to start wearing their 5-pocket pants again after a hiatus, but they don’t want to give up the comfort they’ve been enjoying while working from home in their joggers.”

Beyond Denim

Retailers report they’re seeing more interest in non-denim and novelty fabrics. Raw, indigo-dyed 100 percent cotton no longer holds the attraction it once did because it doesn’t offer the comfort of modern blends. “Rinse denim is a challenge in the store because it’s not soft and stretchy,” says Flynn. “Most of our customers don’t want traditional denim, so even though the denim business is strong, it’s evolved away from what we grew up with. We’ve had a lot of success with luxury denim and 5-pockets, particularly from brands like PT Torino, Jacob Cohen, Kiton, and Pescarolo.”

As Gibeley puts it, “Our client views denim as any fabric in that 5-pocket model.”

At Bloomingdales, fashion forward customers (specifically those leaning toward streetwear) are looking for elevated and novel washes, wax and resin coatings, and bold detailing, especially from the popular Purple brand. According to Berkowitz, non-denim options have been a particular highlight. “We’re finding success in denim jeans and casual, non-denim bottoms like easy pants, 5-pocket twill and cargo styles. In 2021, we began offering a broader assortment of ‘easy’ pants with drawstring or elastic waists; these offer comfort with an elevated appeal. We’ve also seen our customer gravitate toward cargo silhouettes, which is likely tied to the overall outdoor trend that’s been growing the last couple of years.”

Denim manufacturers recognize the opportunity to reach customers with something new, even incorporating elements of activewear into their denim offerings. Although slim-fits are not going away, a retro 1980s trend lends itself to more voluminous styles and looser comfort. Says Wrangler’s Jenni Broyles, “We’re seeing increasing interest in loose fit and workwear/utility fits, a spinoff of the late 80s/early 90s trend, harnessing an attitude of nostalgia while providing undeniable comfort. But even with growth in looser fits, slim and tapered fits are here to stay. In many ways, they’ve replaced the non-denim pants of the past. As denim continues to become an acceptable option for more occasions, we believe men will continue to wear slimmer fit jeans to maintain a smart look.”

Elevated Looks, Elevated Prices?

Price seems to be having minimal impact on denim sales, as customers seem willing to pay more for increased comfort. 

“Premium comfort has never been more important,” points out Arkun Durmaz of Mavi. “We’re seeing denim lovers buy better, making purchase decisions based on style, quality, and sustainability.” Heading into fall 22 market, Mavi is showing authentic selvedge denim using organic cotton with a touch of stretch, as well as denim that’s designed to perform like activewear. Says Durmaz, “Our athletic group is a big win for men. The French terry construction delivers ultimate comfort and stretch with the look of a jean, that will wear and fade like a true woven denim.”

As Flynn puts it, “Having denim under $200 is important, but for the right combination of brand, fabric, and fit, customers are willing to spend above that. AG, Citizens, Paige, S.M.N., and Monfrere all have products in the $200 to $250 range that are performing well.”

Gibeley sees a difference between his brick-and-mortar versus web sales, with in-store sales averaging $185 and online sales maxing out at $150.