New fashion trends look to squeeze out skinny pants

by Selina Wang

Bloomberg

It shouldn’t be hard to kill skinny jeans. After all, women love and loathe them in equal measure.

Three years ago, clothing merchants tried to snuff out the trend with flares. Now, chains — from mass market Gap Inc. to luxury-leaning Bloomingdale’s — are trying again with looser styles. Gap’s answer: dressy sweat pants.

The goal is to get women to buy new wardrobes and jolt anemic apparel sales. This time, the industry may pull it off, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at New York-based market research company NPD Group Inc.

“Women basically said, ‘I’m not wearing tight jeans — I’m done with them,’ ” he said.

Busy women want clothes they can wear to yoga and work, said Nancy Green, general manager of Gap’s Athleta brand.

“Women don’t want to change five times a day,” she said.

After years of squeezing themselves into skinny jeans, many women are ready for comfort, said Wendy Liebmann, who runs WSL Strategic Retail, a New York-based research firm.

“The trend fits the size of the American shopper,” she said. “It is much more forgiving for most or many women.”

For the past several years, women in the U.S. have been snapping up athletic apparel from Lululemon Athletica Inc. and Athleta. Last year, dressier versions of the athletic look began showing up on the runway in fabrics from linen to cotton to silk. Gap’s latest styles include zippered sweats and capri track pants, though the chain still sells skinny jeans as it says some of its looser fashions work well with them, too.

New fashion trends, when they catch on, have a multiplying effect. Women find themselves buying new shoes, blouses, jackets and so on. With skinny pants, women began buying a lot of boots, such as Australian Uggs, because they could tuck their jeans inside them.

By pushing looser fitting pants, retailers are hoping they can persuade women to replace existing tops with more structured and fitted blouses that work with the look. This year Bloomingdale’s has been carrying coordinated blouse-and-pants combos for customers uncomfortable with mixing and matching.

While women’s apparel sales rose 1 percent to $116.2 billion in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in June, sales of women’s pants grew twice as fast to $8.2 billion, according to NPD. Looser fitting styles are largely responsible, Cohen said.

Retailers could use a lift. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Macy’s Inc. all reported disappointing results this month. The Commerce Department’s report on July retail sales was the weakest in six months, hurt by tepid wage growth.

The big question is whether women are really ready to move on from skinny jeans, a garment whose staying power in recent years has confounded many fashion watchers.

The look originated in the 1950s when the likes of Gene Autry squeezed into them. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones reprised skinny trousers in the early 1960s. Hippies responded with flares and bell-bottoms until the Sex Pistols and the Ramones made sprayed-on denim de rigeur for suburban punks.

The look re-emerged in the 1990s, when women’s magazines began looking more to the boyishly slim Kate Moss than curvy Cindy Crawford. Skinnies, leggings and jeggings (leggings that look like jeans) showed up from Manhattan to Minneapolis.

More recently, denim sales have slipped, hurting retailers unwilling to adapt to new trends, said Betty Chen, an analyst at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in San Francisco. While a craze for colored denim temporarily lifted the business, that trend’s “newness” has evaporated, she said.

“Until we see another big fashion innovation around denim, we could see it languish around these levels or continue to be sideways in terms of sales,” Chen said.