From traditional Japanese sashiko stitching to vintage-inspired washes, the men’s denim market has come a long way since the original Levi’s blue jeans were designed for cowboys and miners in the 1870s.
In this crowded and competitive marketplace, founder members Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler are now surrounded by strong offers from multiples such as New Look and Topman, supermarkets’ own labels and luxury brands, such as Hugo Boss.
Denim is as relevant as it has ever been: not only do most retailers offer the fabric in some form, it often plays a central role on the catwalk and men’s street style.
“It’s no longer just a casual item of clothing,” says Richard Hurren, vice-president north Europe, at Levi Strauss & Co. “Jeans are being worn for all occasions, be it smart or casual. You only have to open up a magazine to see the huge popularity of denim – whether it’s worn with rock ’n’ roll attitude by musicians like James Bay and The Vaccines, or styled for a more refined and dressed-up look like [model] Oliver Cheshire and [actor] Freddie Fox.”
Being so in vogue is helping the UK’s men’s denim market to grow at a steady pace. The sector is expected to be worth £1.37bn in 2017, up from £1.34bn in 2015, reports Euromonitor International.
Jeans are being worn for all occasions, be it smart or casual
Richard Hurren, vice-president north Europe, at Levi Strauss & Co
However, there has been a noticeable change in consumer behaviour in recent years. While men used to spend more on higher-quality jeans, Euromonitor notes this trend is now in decline because “economy”, or affordable denim, is improving in style and fit. Thanks to this, economy jeans were the fastest-growing men’s denim category by volume terms in 2014.
That said, as with other fashion categories, men tend to remain loyal to their favourite denim brands.
“Men find a pair of jeans that work for their body type and stay loyal,” says WGSN director of denim Dio Kurazawa. “In Levi’s terms, this could be a 501, 505, 511 etc, which all offer a different fit and comfort level.
Hurren says how faithful men are depends on the consumer profile: “There are those who don’t like shopping and will purchase multiple pairs of their favourite jeans once a year, and those who want to update their wardrobe more seasonally with the latest fits and finishes, be it a 501 CT or vintage-inspired wash.”
However, market researcher Kantar Worldpanel says the defining factor for men is cost: almost a third of consumers who bought men’s jeans in the last year say price is the most important factor. Fit came second, while look and quality shared third place.
Robyn Ferris, junior buyer at menswear etailer Mr Porter, emphasises the importance of fit: “Once a guy knows the brand and fit he feels comfortable in, he will stay loyal and continue buying season upon season. Stretch is more relevant for either the guy wearing spray-on super-skinny jeans, or the more classic customer who simply wants to be comfortable.” Hurren adds that men are looking for a pair of jeans “that they know will stand the test of time and become a staple of their wardrobe: a hero item that they can wear whatever the occasion”.
Trends that have been seeping through to the men’s denim market include vintage washes, long-length shirts and a strong utilitarian and military influence.
“We are seeing a move towards a wider/straight fit, styled in a more fashion way,” adds Ferris. “For a while the trend was to have a tapered look – roomy at the top and nipping in from the ankle – but there is a definite move towards a wide leg. Online we find the more visual washes perform really well.”
The Massa, with traditional sashiko stitching, became a bestseller for Mr Porter
Attention to detail has become even more significant – last season Mr Porter exclusively offered a style by Fabric-Brand & Co called The Massa, which had sashiko stitching – a traditional Japanese technique used to repair and reinforce fabrics. It became a bestseller. Meanwhile, for spring 16, Superdry launched a biker jacket with black twill pocket bags with a motorcycle print, special taffeta woven labels and two-colour back-pocket embroidery, which retails at £84.99.
Stylish men are also hankering after bespoke denim. One brand to have capitalised on this is Levi’s, which opened a denim atelier called Lot No 1 at its flagship store in London in 2013, enabling people to customise design details such as thread colour and back patch design.
In such a competitive market, the biggest challenge for brands is justifying their price point, says Kantar Worldpanel analyst Anne Westphal: “With consumers now able to easily compare prices, it’s important they are able to understand that they are paying for better construction and quality, rather than for the brand. Brands need to ask themselves whether they’ve earned the right to charge a higher price – especially when retailers selling jeans with an average price of under £15 are those doing better in the market.”
To be successful against a tough economic backdrop, brands need to be versatile, argues Kurazawa. “Focusing too narrowly on traditional trucker jackets, sawtooth shirts and five-pocket bottoms is no longer enough. Brands need to consider innovative fabrics for comfort and performance. They also need to consider new silhouettes, washes and finishes all while keeping a keen eye on sustainability.”
Demonstrating such forward thinking will help men’s denim brands to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.