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Marketplace Morning Report

Denim makers are making jeans stretchier to get in on the athleisure market

Andy Uhler Aug 1, 2017
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“Comfort is a key attribute that consumers are looking for in their denim jeans," said Kara Nicholas, vice president of product design and marketing at Cone Denim.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

If you walk into a blue jean manufacturing factory, among the piles of indigo fabric and spools of thread, you’ll find a material that’s a little different. There’s a good chance a lot of that material comes from one of the oldest denim mills in the country — Cone Denim. Kara Nicholas, vice president of product design and marketing, said they’ve been noticing a trend for some time.

“Comfort is a key attribute that consumers are looking for in their denim jeans,” Nicholas said. “People are multitasking, they need to move, they need to get things done so they want to be comfortable.”

Ten years ago, Cone Denim noticed that more women were wearing leggings, so the company invested millions in developing fabrics that would help jean makers compete.

“The way that that’s addressed is: let’s increase the amount of stretch,” she explained. “The technology in the stretch yarn advances for denim fabric and we increase the amount of stretch we put into the jean.”

The new denim fabric is a combination of spandex, polyester and cotton that gives stretch while maintaining its shape. It’s been popular. Big manufacturers like Levi’s and Old Navy along with smaller designer brands have picked it up and incorporated it into both women’s and men’s jeans.

Ken Morris, co-founder of Boston Retail Partners, said the shift comes at a time when there’s not just demand for comfort, but also when 1970s skin-tight jeans are back in fashion. He said jean makers are hitting certain reference points.

“The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Twiggy, that time frame,” he said. “And then the infamous move with Brooke Shields with Calvin Klein jeans.”

After taking a dip for a couple of years in a row, jean sales are expected to rise more than two percent in 2017. Many fashion and retail analysts credit the advanced denim fabric technology. Nicholas isn’t worried about the future of the denim jean business.

“They’re not going anywhere,” Nicholas said confidently. “They’re just going to continue to evolve and keep up with the trends.”

Trends like a combination of jeans and leggings — jeggings. A concept a lot of people (including this reporter) are still struggling to wrap their heads around.

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