In or Out?

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

If you've walked around Adams Morgan on a Friday night over the past five years, you've seen the fashion formula: dressy top, strappy heels, killer jeans. Predictably, the jeans are designed by an obscure brand (Seven? Try Sass & Bide), but they bear a subtle pocket stitch that says to the savvy, "Why yes, these did cost $275."

A couple of years ago, the uniform started looking passe; even the neighborhood's glam girls moved on. Nationally, women's denim sales have taken a nose dive. U.S. sales were down 6.2 percent for the 12 months through June, according to market research firm NPD Group. In the coveted 18 to 34 demographic, they plummeted 15.5 percent.

So, is denim really fading out of fashion?

It depends on whom you ask. Many area stores say their business is as strong as ever. But to some industry watchers, there is a problem, and it may start with premium denim -- those fastidiously faded, hand-whiskered blues that promise to perfect your posterior for $200 to $500 a pop.

"Premium denim doesn't seem to be so elite as it once was," says Jackie Flanagan, owner of D.C. boutique Nana. Indeed, high-end jeans are so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget that Sevens didn't even exist 10 years ago. Now the brand shares shelf space with Blue Cult, True Religion, Citizens of Humanity, Paige and a dozen more labels most shoppers would struggle to distinguish.

Though many brands were once sold exclusively at swish boutiques, now you can add Rock & Republic jeans to your shopping cart at Costco along with Kirkland Signature sheets and a 24-pack of mac and cheese. Shoppers have never been exposed to so much designer denim -- and some of them, overwhelmed by options, are buying less. "People are more educated and more selective," Flanagan says. "They are not blindly consuming the trends."

The trends themselves have proved problematic. "The product has been kind of dull," says Eric Beder, retail analyst at Brean Murray, Carret & Co. By contrast, the late 1990s offered a dizzying array of options: The ultra-low rise seemed new and exciting (much to the chagrin of parents nationwide), and embellishments were extravagant, be they Gucci's feather-trimmed jeans or denim strewn with chunky grommets and tough zippers.

But for the past few seasons, dark, straight-leg, unadorned denim has dominated the racks. The style is classic and generally flattering, infinitely more tasteful than flashing your thong to the world. But in its simplicity, it lacks the razzle-dazzle some consumers have come to expect from denim. "There's been no real reason to shop," Beder says.

If basic denim styles haven't impressed consumers, neither have flashier trends. Consider the skinny jean, a style that gave women everywhere a new reason to hate their hips. It was splashed all over fashion magazines and sported by swizzle-stick stars, but it didn't do well at certain stores for a simple reason: "The skinny denim look doesn't work for most women," Beder says.

"I think people wanted to try it, but not necessarily wanted to buy it," Flanagan says.

There's also the celeb factor. "If you look at what young Hollywood is wearing, it isn't Seven jeans anymore," Claire Brooks, president of brand consulting company ModelPeople, wrote in an e-mail. Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley and other starlets du jour have all but abandoned denim on the red carpet in favor of dresses -- long, short, sparkly, sleeveless. And what the A-list wears, everyone else wants. "It was the spring of the dress, and then the summer of the dress, and now it's just the year of the dress," Flanagan says.

It may not be the year of the jean, but most trend watchers are confident that denim will get its groove back. "Denim has had an iconic staying power since James Dean," Brooks wrote. Many local stores seem unaffected by the national sales slump. "No matter what, every change of season, we're always selling a ton of denim," says Jessica Baca, store manager and buyer for Wink in Georgetown. "Even when people don't really like the trends."

As it happens, this fall brings looks that retailers believe shoppers will like, such as 1970s-inspired wide-leg styles and the revamped skinny jean, souped up in rainbow-bright hues. But whatever you choose, don't ditch those basic blues quite yet. Thanks to an ever-quickening fashion cycle, with one perfect paparazzi shot a style can go from "out" to "in" overnight.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company