That Denim's Looking a Little Worn

Monday, June 4, 2007

Has denim faded?

When we asked all 61 teen shoppers to name the coolest thing they owned, their answers included high-tech gear, beloved pets and items of clothing. Only one girl, 15-year-old Michelle Bedker of Fairfax, listed her jeans, which she bought at Abercrombie.

A year ago, jeans were the darlings of retail. Stores specializing in expensive, hand-distressed jeans sprouted like dandelions in spring. But the blasé attitude of the teens at Tysons may reflect the beginnings of a broader slowdown in the market.

Sales of jeans fell 1.2 percent for the year ended in March, compared with a 5 percent increase a year earlier, according to NPD Group, a consumer research firm. Sales growth of jeans that cost $100 or more halved, to 24 percent compared with 48 percent the previous year. Jeans that cost $60 or more accounted for about 5 percent of the market in 2006 calendar year compared with 1.6 percent in 2004.

"We sure need to watch this very carefully," said Marshal Cohen, senior fashion analyst for NPD. "While the sales are not going to fall out, they are likely to slow."

Denim has been a staple of the clothing industry for decades, and it is certainly not going out of style now. But growth in recent years has been almost entirely in jeans that cost $75 and up -- labels such as 7 for All Mankind, True Religion and Rock & Republic. This segment has begun losing steam even as it continues to churn out double-digit growth, while sales of lower-priced denim have fallen.

Taking denim's place in teens' hearts and closets are dresses, accessories and cute tops.

In the dressing room at American Eagle, Antonia Aragon, 16, and Alexis Sherman, 17, both of Fairfax, modeled a stack of clothes for each other. They were impressed by the cleavage-enhancing qualities of their matching lacy tank tops.

"Wow," Antonia said. "I feel so much better about myself!"

But she tossed the jeans aside. "They make my butt look wide," she lamented.

-- Ylan Q. Mui

© 2007 The Washington Post Company