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RIP, skinny jeans

So what happened? The pandemic—and weight gain

1 H&M balloon jeans in dark wash
2 Levi’s The Barrel jeans
3 Levi’s balloon jean
4 Frame jeans
5 Gucci high-rise flared jeans

The big fashion news is also a big business story: after nearly two decades, the skinny jean may have finally bitten the dust.

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi’s, said in an April earnings call that high-rise, loose-fit jeans are driving a ‘denim resurgence’, not just for the denim brand but industry-wide.

According to researchers at the NPD Group, skinny jeans still make up the largest share of women’s jeans at 34 percent of American sales but, tellingly, lost six share points, year over year. Wider, baggier styles, on the other hand, constitute a fraction of the overall market but are gaining share.

So what happened?

First, mom jeans became a thing. The frumpier, high-waist, straight leg look was gaining fans.

Then a pandemic happened and, with it, weight gain from being homebound and gyms shutting down. Six out of 10 Americans reported undesired weight changes since COVID began. Two in five of those surveyed gained an average of 29 pounds; 10 percent said they had put on more than 50.

The NPD Group had an even more sobering factoid: Nearly 40 percent of women said they are now wearing a different dress size compared to a year ago.

For the battered denim industry however, the planets are aligning. Jean sales have fallen five percent in the last five years, according to NPR, while higher-end brands like True Religion and Lucky Brand filed for bankruptcy. The whole work-from-home phenomenon found joggers and leggings infinitely more comfortable than jeans.

Having a new denim “cycle”, as Levi’s Bergh calls it, gives women an excuse to overhaul their denim wardrobes. That and the promise of being able to go out again, thanks to vaccines.

What started it all: Kate Moss in her unhemmed skinny jeans

For all of us who have been doing skinnies for so long—15 years since Kate Moss, with her jeans pooling at her ankles, started it all—the new styles are disorienting at first. There’s. So. Much. Fabric. What the heck do you wear with it? And after we’ve disavowed pleats as the spawn of Satan, how could we go back to them?

Levi’s tailored High Loose jeans

But reuniting with pleats is our destiny. A good number of the new jeans—now called balloon or barrel jeans—sport pleats. All have satisfyingly deep pockets to stick your hands in. The waists are so high, belts might just suddenly come back.

H&M Loose Fit Mom Jeans, a collab with Lee. Out of stock and nowhere to be found.

In pursuit of scientific accuracy, I decided to attempt wearing balloon jeans. But since I’m cheap, I went to a thrift shop and bought the dowdiest jeans you could ever find for $7. Imagine a pleated, elastic-waisted, three-sizes-bigger-than-normal pair with that unmistakable funky thrift shop smell. The minute it got home I threw it into the washing machine to boil them at the hottest setting. Even if it shrank a few inches, that would be okay, it was that big.

My boyfriend saw me and wondered why I had clown pants on. “Can you juggle?” he asked.

I wore my cheap balloon jeans for a couple of days and, apart from occasionally tripping over the hems, can categorically say I am hooked. They are as comfy as yoga pants. If I overeat, I don’t have to surreptitiously unbutton my fly at the table while no one’s looking (c’mon, even you do this). Plus they won’t send me to the hospital, like this unfortunate woman who had to be rescued after her too-tight skinnies caused muscle and nerve damage.

I also think the relaxed silhouette looks fresher than the tired skinny jean. You could wear heels with it, sandals, or a trim flat. I prefer a pair of white Converses, a T-shirt and a tailored jacket. I liked them so much I thought it was time to pull the trigger and buy H&M’s mom jean collaboration with Lee. Alas, they’re out of stock and nowhere to be found.

The one complication with balloon jeans is that jackets now have to be a bit shorter, to balance the fuller proportions at the bottom. Rebalancing, in fact, is in order. As one astute commenter in the New York Times said, “You have to be pretty slim to avoid looking like a denim bolster … and the high waist doesn’t do a thick waist any favors.”

Still can’t come to terms with the new jean shape? They’ll take some getting used to, as skinny jeans took getting used to years ago. Fortunately, flares are also coming back, just like the Gucci ones in the image. And as we all know, flares are classic, leg-lengthening and more universally flattering than skinny jeans which really, truly, desperately need to be retired. Even Kate Moss has moved on.

About author


She started writing in 1988 for the Manila Chronicle. Before moving to Hong Kong in 1993, she was the lifestyle and travel editor for the Inquirer. She has lived in Hong Kong, Chicago and Dallas and conducted business all over the world. A marketer for many years, she now lives outside Seattle, Washington where she grows dahlias and feeds hummingbirds.

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