SHAPE SHIFTERS

Experts agree: We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift in women’s trousers

Moving on.
Moving on.
Image: Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images
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Richard Hayne, the CEO of Urban Outfitters, is excited. For the past year, shoppers at the American high street fashion brand’s stores have been steadily increasing. At first it was a trickle, but in the last few months, it has become a deluge.

There are a few reasons for the rush of customers, including a healthy US economy and rising consumer confidence (paywall) that has Americans happily spending. But for several months now, on earnings calls with investors, Hayne has been highlighting another important contributor to Urban Outfitters’ recent success.

He says we’re in the early stages of a tipping point in fashion: not just a new seasonal turn in colors and prints, but the sort of macro-level shift in proportions and silhouette that can come to define the look of an entire decade. Think bellbottoms in the 1970s, tapered jeans in the 1980s, bootcuts in the 1990s, and since about 2006, skinny jeans—a stubbornly persistent silhouette that, despite predictions of its demise, consumers have remained reluctant to quit.

Hayne has been careful not to elaborate on the details of this change. He once explained he wants to avoid tipping off competitors. (Urban Outfitters did not return a request for comment.)

But if you pay attention to what Urban Outfitters and other fashion companies are selling and promoting, what designers have been sending down runways, and what trend forecasters say they’re seeing, a new pant shape is gathering momentum. High-waisted and wide-legged, it’s slightly “A” in frame, a little more generous with movement, but still structured. The exact proportions and the roominess of the leg can vary, but you’ll spot versions of the look all over, including at many mainstream brands and retailers, where it’s gaining on the skinny silhouette.

Pants, Hayne has said, are the key to the “macro” upheaval he sees underway in the way women dress: The changes his company is seeing in bottoms, he says, are driving changes in tops, too. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s still in the process of being adopted by many people and we’re not even fully adopted in it yet,” he said on the company’s recent earnings call. “So I would say that the macro fashion switch is here for quite a while, certainly through next spring, if not through four, five, or even ten other springs.”

He added: “Now, why it’s so important, let me explain, is that when the macro fashion changes, the proportion changes. The customer is bound to go out and basically and redo her whole wardrobe.”

Macro and micro trends

Trends can come and go quickly, especially in the Instagram age, but a shift of this sort tends to happen slowly and hang around a long time. That’s the difference between macro and micro trends, Hayne said: “the macro being much more about proportion and silhouette and the micro being much more about things like fabrication and color.” Micro trends may bubble up and dissipate in as little as a few months. A macro shift can last years.

It starts among early adopters, the fashion customer always on the lookout for the newest thing. Eventually, others begin to copy the look, which then gradually trickles down into the mainstream, until ultimately it becomes the standard across the market.

For years now, the skinny jean has been that standard—a few too many years for some, prompting industry onlookers to start predicting a new proportion overtaking the skinny bottom. So far, they’ve been wrong: Skinny jeans are still on store shelves and piling up in women’s closets. Brands, of course, are always adjusting to what customers want, and they’ve been updating their jeans in the face of ongoing pressure from leggings and athleisure, adding stretch and making them in softer fabrics to keep shoppers interested.

At the same time, influential brands such as Off-White, Gucci, and Vetements have been pushing a fuller, retro silhouette in their jeans that fashion’s leading edge has embraced. In 2016, while acknowledging that the skinny jean was far from dead, Sidney Morgan-Petro, the retail analyst at forecasting firm WGSN, told the Washington Post (paywall) that a culotte-style pant was emerging as its heir.

It’s been two years since then. Are women’s jeans finally moving on a large scale toward a new shape?

“Absolutely,” Morgan-Petro says in an email. “The shift has pushed past the initial ‘early adopter’ stage in 2016 & 2017 into more mass commercial appeal in 2018—and looks set to continue pushing into the mainstream audience for years to come,” she writes. “A few different styles have contributed to the new look, ranging from wide, cropped styles with high waists to ’90s ‘mom’ jeans and the resurgence of the straight leg.”

That doesn’t mean stores are already packed with these styles, though. As if to underscore how long a macro shift can take, when Edited, a retail technology firm that tracks millions of products online, released a detailed report on the denim market recently, it found skinny jeans still accounted for most of the denim stocked.

Notably, however, they were losing share, and didn’t account for most of the best sellers. Those tended to be wide leg and flared styles. The turnover becomes clearer when you compare the recent numbers with how the market stood a couple years ago. ”It’s easiest to detect this shifting trend in the bottoms category, with a 32% increase in wide-leg silhouettes in stock this quarter (July 1 – Aug 27) compared to the same timeframe two years ago,” says Katie Smith, Edited’s director of retail analysis and insights.

Wide-leg styles are selling out more often, she adds, while their average price has grown 23% in the last two years. The suggestion is that the look is slowly but steadily on the rise—and women are willing to pay for it.

Causes and consequences

“If you look at denim from a historical perspective, it makes sense that consumers would embrace this change around 2017,” says Morgan-Petro. “Denim silhouettes shift in a major way about every 10 years, enough to define the decade when you look back on it. We entered the skinny jean phase around 2007 when we left bootcut behind and stuck with that silhouette for about 10 years without fatigue. It was time for a change.”

But why this look in particular? There are a few theories.

Both Morgan-Petro and Smith point to the desire for comfort and easy movement as having an influence. These have become big priorities, and were among the factors that led shoppers to embrace athleisure. According to Morgan-Petro, people have grown a little tired of being perpetually in either leggings or jeggings, and are looking for a slightly more tailored option in bottoms—but one that still lets them move.

Both also note a change in what women consider sexy. Many are moving away from the skin-tight and toward something a bit more subtly confident, and maybe less overtly gendered.

Then there are other possible factors. The ascendance of sneakers to the status of fashion focal point, rather than just an everyday staple, may have something to do with it. Bulked-up shoes from Balenciaga’s Triple S to the Fila Disruptor II have been huge hits over the past couple years, in part thanks to the sneaker-centric ascendance of streetwear.

And they look great with this new silhouette. “Chunky sneakers, made popular by Balenciaga and co, are balanced out better with wider-fit legwear,” Smith says.

Womenswear’s roomier new silhouette also mixes with streetwear’s relaxed look, Smith notes, and Morgan-Petro makes a similar point about the ongoing resurgence of 1990s style, taken up most avidly by young shoppers. ”This silhouette also pairs nicely with the slew of cropped tops, heritage athletic branding, and retro sneakers permeating this demographic,” she says.

The high-rise, relaxed shape is a match on all of these points. If it is finally—finally!—replacing the skinny jean, it’s good news for fashion retailers like Hayne, who had lamented the endurance of the skinny jean in the past: The industry relies on people wanting new styles to drive sales, and a woman with a closet full of skinnies isn’t likely to go out and buy more.

But when the look changes, she has to go shopping if she wants to avoid looking outdated. Moments like these, Hayne said on a recent call, is when demand is at its highest. That’s what he’s excited about.