America, with its glamorous image of cowboys and rock stars, gave jeans to the world, but now denim is suffering from the blues.
Domestic sales of jeans dropped 6 percent last year, worrying some manufacturers and prompting VF Corp, the maker of Wrangler and Lee brand jeans to set up a think-tank to come up with other ways of using the distinctive and hard-wearing dyed blue cotton twill.
Thirty years ago, actress Brooke Shields famously said nothing came between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. Nowadays, young women can't seem to get far enough away from denim and even guys are forsaking the pants that became the uniform of several post-war generations.
Even Levi Strauss & Co, a name synonymous with jeans, is struggling, with second-quarter revenue dropping 2 percent from last year and net profit falling a whopping 76 percent because of falling sales in the U.S. It also cut 800 jobs -- 20 percent of its non-retail and non-factory positions -- as part of a plan to save up to $200 million a year.
A growing trend in casual wear is all about comfort, and denim is struggling to find its place. Retail and fashion experts alike are not afraid to admit the new look, coined "athleisure," is all the rage from teens turning to leggings instead of jeans and moms sporting their yoga-wear everywhere and all day long.
"There isn't an 'it' item for back-to-school like we had two years ago," said Dana Telsey, CEO and chief research officer at Telsey Advisory Group. "What there are, there are certainly dusters and dresses, there's these crop tops that seem to be working and anything with the athletic bent. Athletic and activewear are certainly the new everyday wear and that's happening no matter what age people are."
So is denim suffering a slow death or is it just a victim of fickle fashion trends? Only time will tell. Jean sales are down 6 percent year-over-year, according to NPD Group and retailers have taken notice.
"A 6-percent drop may not seem like much, but it's rare for denim to take such a dramatic drop. It's a commodity business, we buy it and replenish it all the time," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of The NPD Group.
VF Corp has noted the decline, with Scott Baxter who heads the company's jeanswear business, recently saying that its Lee brand, with a 60:40 ratio of women-to-men sales suffered a decline of about 15 percent in the United States. Interestingly, Wrangler, with only 20 percent of revenue coming from the women's category, saw a single-digit increase in the Americas.
Baxter told investors that In the Americas, the jeanswear business was facing continued challenges "due to the ongoing unfavorable women's denim trend."
Denim innovation center
To combat the denim doldrums, VF Corp said it will soon open a "global denim innovation center," but declined to give further details.
VF Corp isn't the only retailer feeling the hurt. Piper Jaffray's biannual "Taking Stock of Teens" survey shows over the last two years teen girls' brand preferences have moved away from denim names like Levi's, Guess, and American Eagle toward athletic names like Nike, Lululemon, Athleta, Urban Outfitters and Victoria's Secret.
Affluent teens surveyed by Piper Jaffray listed leggings/Lululemon as the top fashion trend for two seasons in a row. Part of the blame for the denim doldrums, according to Piper Jaffray', is the lack of "fashion newness" in the market and the innovation of fabric technology in recent years.
That innovation is now driving jeans companies to diversify in order to stay current with the consumer.
Joe's Jeans is turning to "alternative fabrication" and will be introducing several non-denim programs for the fall to include leggings made with "innovative textiles." The company said in July it recognizes leggings as one of the fastest-growing segments in the market.
The Gap, which may be bucking the trend through its sportswear retailer Athleta, told CNBC the denim fatigue fad is not new.
"Fashion denim is cyclical. Currently, mid- and high-waist denim styles are trending, in addition to soft pants. Denim is still a dominant category for us at Gap and Old Navy, and we are committed to continuous innovation," said spokeswoman Edie Kissko.
But the NPD Group's Cohen begs to differ, saying the risk for retailers is that the "athleisure" love affair could have a lasting effect.
"It caught the denim makers by surprise because they have never really seen it before," said Cohen, "Trends today don't come and go, they come and linger. So if the consumer has migrated away from denim, it's going to be very hard to win them back."