Is Athleisure Killing Denim?

Last week, VF Corporation decided to spin off its denim brands Wrangler and Lee, forming two separate, independent companies. While VF said the new company, yet to be named, has significant potential for growth, market analysts quickly attributed the move to declining denim sales, with many of them saying leggings and yoga pants were to blame for the fall of the two American heritage brands.

Last year, for the first time in US history, imports of elastic knits (leggings, yoga pants and the like) exceeded those of blue jeans, according to the US Census Bureau. Elastic knits imports went from 50 million pairs in 2010 to 200 million in 2017, an average growth of 25.7 percent each year, while denim imports declined an average of 3.9 percent each year over the same period.

Athletic wear is one of the fastest growing segments in the US apparel industry, rising an average of 7 percent a year, compared to 1 percent of the apparel sector in general, according to Wells Fargo. Today, athletic wear represents 30 percent of the US clothing and footwear industry, with 48 million dollars in sales last year alone, as stated by The NPD Group.


‘Innovation is essential for denim’

But don’t light a candle for denim just yet. While athleisure is still going strong, it seems unlikely that the category maintains such meteoric growth. It remains to be seen whether leggings and yoga pants are to achieve the same longevity denim has. Remember Lee dates back to 1889 and Wrangler was founded in 1947.

In fact, denim might make a comeback sooner than many think. PVH, owner of brands Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, for example, said the jeans category has shown “incredible improvement” last year. Levi Strauss & Co reported an 8 percent increase in revenue in 2017 — its strongest growth since 2011.

Levi’s growth may be partially attributed to the company’s decision to accompany the times. Over the last two years, the brand has launched a stretchier version of its iconic 501 jeans (looking to please the legging fans), collaborated with Off-White’s Virgil Abloh, and even experimented with sneaker drops.

According to The NPD Group, innovation is essential to denim. “How many more of the same style jeans do women need?”, wrote Marshal Cohen, NPD’s Chief Industry Analyst, on its report about the denim industry. “The denim market needs to find ways to break consumers of comfortable shopping habits with new product offerings that are worthy of both the change and the spend, ultimately driving the market forward into its rightful place of strength”.

Photos: courtesy of Lululemon, Levi’s Facebook