The beloved jeans are facing a mini-crisis, courtesy WFH

The universal affection for jeans can be attributed to their versatility: it’s that unique textile that is comfortable, stylish and durable all at the same time
In 1872, when Jacob W Davis, the American tailor widely credited as the inventor of the modern jeans, asked Levi Strauss for financial help to get his garment patented, little did he know that he was setting off on a journey that would monumentally alter the face of the American clothing industry. He understood the potential of his product, but it’s likely that he underestimated the scale of the global appeal his “working pants” would eventually be able to achieve.

Over the last 150 years, jeans have gone from something originally designed for miners to a piece of fabric that has become the defining symbol of cool casual, a ubiquitous presence across generations, cultures and lifestyles. In his 2012 book, Blue Jeans: The Art of the Ordinary, British anthropologist Daniel Miller noted that in most countries outside of South Asia and China, half the population wore denim on any given day. India featured low on that list, with a paltry 27 per cent professing their love for jeans. But with greater income and lavish access to online shopping, it’s safe to assume that that number can only have gone up since.

The universal affection for jeans can be attributed to their versatility: it’s that unique textile that is comfortable, stylish and durable all at the same time. You can wear the same pair to work in the morning, and then to a party in the evening. But what do you do with your denims if you have nowhere to go? What if your everyday life has been curtailed by a pandemic and you’re stuck indoors?

As a large number of people continue to work from home, and ditch their denims for sweatpants and shorts, the beloved jeans are facing a mini-crisis. In the US, True Religion, Lucky Brand and G-Star RAW have all declared bankruptcy. In July, Levi’s reported a 62 per cent drop in second-quarter revenue, and announced plans to cut 15 per cent of its corporate workforce. Athleisure sales, on the other hand, have predictably increased, with brands in the US and here at home moving their focus to loungewear. Lululemon, the deluxe brand that pioneered the athleisure trend in the US in the late 1990s, posted a gain of 157 per cent in online sales for the second quarter.

“I know people who haven’t worn jeans for over five months. Jeans are comfortable, but you can’t be wearing them for eight hours straight while working from home,” says Shweta Bajaj, a Delhi-based fashion blogger. “That’s where pyjamas or trackpants make more sense. It helps that athleisure is no longer viewed as something you wear only while exercising. It’s just more practical.”

Jeans once embodied the “relaxed look” that other garments couldn’t offer. They still do, but with athleisure giving much the same, that too with a trendy edge, the appeal of the once timeless jeans seems to have diluted. Further testament to that is the fact that the pandemic has rendered the concept of a “dress code” useless.

But no one is willing to write off the jeans. Not yet, anyway. “It’s a myth that needs to be dispelled,” argues Sanjeev Mohanty, managing director, Levi’s, South Asia, Middle East & North Africa, adding that “if you look at the data for what consumers are wearing from the waist down, non-active apparel is still 70 per cent of all waist-down wear. And of that, denim is about 50 per cent.” Data compiled by Levi’s shows that in April, 50 per cent of the people globally wore some 
form of denim.

At Spykar, in fact, sales have bounced back in the last month. Sales that had dropped to 35 per cent — from a value perspective — at the beginning of the lockdown soared to 65 per cent in August, an all-time high for the brand. CEO Sanjay Vakharia points to the fact that customers still view denims as a capital expense as opposed to impulse buys like t-shirts. “People are now realising that the pandemic will not last forever.  So, with the attractive offers available, customers are willing to invest in clothes that are seen as evergreen,” he says.

More than its enduring attraction, a pair of jeans, over the years, has acted as a great equaliser — a symbol of ordinariness that has doubled up as a means of social acceptability. In his book, Miller mentions how jeans allow people to present themselves as citizens of the world, the rare garment that is personal and global 
at the same time.

“Jeans have always been associated with casual. While you may stop wearing a formal shirt or trousers, you’ll still need your jeans whenever you go out to meet friends,” says Vakharia. He adds that India will always be welcoming of jeans, simply because we demand great value from our clothes. “People into athleisure have been predicting the death of jeans for years. The truth is that nothing can match the value that a pair of jeans can offer.”

At the same time, denim brands are aware that customer demands are changing. “It’s not only jeans, but all forms of apparel have been affected. Clothing is all need-based now,” feels Asha Esther Jaikishan, head of marketing at Numero Uno. The brand is adapting to the times through its “Hyper Jogg” denims, made from light, flexible fabric that breathes better than conventional jeans. “It’s not just about fashion. You need to look at what is required right now, which is comfort,” says Jaikishan. Similarly, Levi’s has come out with a “Stay Loose” collection. It has also collaborated with Royal Enfield, launching a capsule collection that promises to combine style with functionality. It includes jeans made from Cordura denim with a high abrasion resistance that is built to last. "We are seeing a lot of excitement within the biker community for this new range. The product aesthetics and the functionalities set this collection apart," says Mohanty.

Also, since jeans use up more water than any other piece of clothing — estimates say some 10,000 litres is expended in the entire product cycle of one pair —sustainability in these times has gained an altogether different importance. For a while, environment-conscious customers have abandoned jeans for that very reason. Numero Uno, for its part, launched “One-Glass Denims” in 2018, while Mohanty says that Levi’s is trying to limit the use of water in the manufacturing process, 
and also curb the amount of chemicals employed during finishing.

“We are facing a range of environmental challenges — from pollution to climate change to a paucity of resources. ‘Business as usual’ will no longer be enough to ensure our company survives and thrives in the future,” explains Mohanty.

In an industry that relies on innovation and freshness, jeans have long been the anomaly: thriving in more or less their original form. Fleeting trends have been unable to dislodge them. Now, denim makers are hoping for much the same — that jeans will defy time and circumstances once again. 

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel