For the first time ever, imports of elastic knit pants surpassed imports of jeans in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But big denim-makers are fighting back, says Bloomberg reporter Kim Bhasin.
The blue jeans-stretchy pants rivalry started around 2011, says Bhasin, with athleisure brand Lululemon's push to sell yoga pants and leggings.
"People were really wanting this kind of comfortable feeling on their legs instead of thick denim," he says. "And they would wear it in the gym and slowly that trickled out of the gym and onto the streets."
But after the denim industry hit a snag in the mid-2010s, companies like Levi's are on the rebound, Bhasin reports. He says that in 2017, the brand posted an 8 percent increase in revenue — its strongest growth since 2011.
On innovations in the denim world
The denim world was a little slow to react to the encroaching leggings trend. In 2012 and '13, they started to finally realize, "Oh, we have to do something here. We just can't keep selling the same denim that we've sold forever." And Levi's in particular changed the way their women's jeans worked. They added a lot of stretch [and] they added moisture-wicking properties to their jeans. They just wanted more function because that's what people demanded.
On whether a denim revival will banish leggings from U.S. closets
The rise of leggings has earned that style a place in every woman's closet. Those aren't going away. Now, that doesn't mean that denim can't reclaim some of that closet space. ...
Athleisure, at this point, since it's been around for five or six years now, and still now increasing, it seems here to stay. And also, comfort just makes sense.
The broadcast version of this story was produced and edited by Dina Kesbeh, Mallory Yu and Renita Jablonski. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Why write about the business of denim if you can't throw in a few puns? Bloomberg's Kim Bhasin says the jean-making industry has been just as distressed as the ripped denim of the same name. The reason - elastic knit pants, yoga pants, athleisure wear, leggings, whatever you want to call them. The U.S. Census Bureau says that last year for the first time ever, imports of elastic knit pants surpassed denim - distress, indeed.
And Kim Bhasin reports that denim makers, big brands like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, are mounting a comeback. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the show.
KIM BHASIN: Glad to be here.
CORNISH: So how far does this fight go back now?
BHASIN: This fight goes back to about 2011, 2012. Back then, Lululemon was coming up real hard selling leggings and yoga pants to everyone. People were really wanting this kind of comfortable feeling on their legs instead of thick denim. And they would wear in the gym and slowly that trickled out of the gym and onto the streets.
CORNISH: Give us some context in terms of the numbers because I don't think of the American denim industry as being one that is in trouble. But what do you see when you look at the data?
BHASIN: Levi's is the most iconic brand in denim. And it's kind of a bellwether for the industry. And it had troubles in the mid-2010s. So that's 2012, '13, '14, '15. It was a slowdown. And finally, in 2017, it posted an 8 percent increase in revenue. And that was its strongest growth since 2011.
CORNISH: So you know that not only are jeans being challenged because they're not as comfortable but the actual styles of blue jeans haven't really evolved over the last 10 years. Is that true?
BHASIN: Skinny jeans have remained the dominant style of denim for more than a decade now. Little has changed on the silhouette front. And this is going all the way back to the, like, early 2000s back when the Britney Spears boot cut trend from back then - it's been skinny ever since.
CORNISH: So what's going on in terms of innovation? I mean, where it exists, are there any wins for the denim world?
BHASIN: The denim world was a little slow to react. In 2012 and '13, they started to finally realize, oh, we have to do something here. We just can't keep selling the same denim that we've sold forever. And Levi's in particular changed the way their women's jeans work. They added a lot of stretch. They added moisture-wicking properties to their jeans.
They just wanted more function because that's what people demanded.
CORNISH: So are you convinced the denim revival's really going to happen?
BHASIN: I'm convinced that it's already happening. The rise of leggings has earned that style a place in every woman's closet. Now, that doesn't mean denim can't reclaim some of that closet space.
CORNISH: Are you sure about that though? I mean, is athleisure a trend we could be seeing the end of at some point?
BHASIN: I think athleisure at this point, since it's been around for five or six years now and still now increasing, it seems here to stay. And also, comfort just makes sense.
CORNISH: I don't know, friend. I still wear high heels, so we do irrational things sometimes.
BHASIN: Oh, yeah, of course. People are trying to fix that too.
BHASIN: It hasn't really worked yet.
CORNISH: Kim Bhasin covers fashion for Bloomberg. His latest piece is titled "Blue Jeans Are Mounting A Comeback." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
BHASIN: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.