What a difference a year makes. A year ago, or even a season ago, it was almost impossible to find a pair of jeans at the mall that weren't whisker-washed or sanded. Overt mechanical methods of distressing and deconstruction had taken over the marketplace.

In styles for younger consumers - especially teenage girls and young women - wild details prevailed. Leather laces joined the seams. Edges were frayed. Plastic finishes added shine. And some brands' fits were extremely risque, with rises as low as four inches.

But the denim styles on tap for spring and fall 2003 are the first to be influenced by the events of September 2001. Perhaps that's why the jeans wear world has suddenly become a much more conservative place.

Now, many U.S. consumers seem to value fashions that remind them of their country's values and history. The dour economy has also influenced style. Thanks to high unemployment, casual Fridays were already losing favor last year. Now, the move toward formality has spread to the home, where people wear jeans most often. Even in their spare time, adults prefer to look more pulled-together.

"It's almost a desire to have more structure in their lives and the way they're dressing," says Liz Cahill, director of advertising and marketing at Lee Jeans, Merriam, KS. "It's moving away from the super-sloppy casual look we saw before. People are saying, 'I still want to be casual and comfortable, but with almost a dressed-up feeling.'"

For example, she says denim trousers continue to be important on the misses' side, because they provide a denim feel with a more dressed-up attitude. And the appearance of traditionally styled jeans has changed to reflect the new neatness.

The Simple Life

Denim geared toward teens and young adults almost always leans toward modernity and innovation. David Panitz, president of the men's division at New York City-based Ecko Unlimited, says his company's jeans wear is no exception. "We're influenced by the youth culture market, such as video games, hip hop, movies, magazines and design," he says.

Still, the "street" excesses have been toned down. In the past year, Panitz says, his brand has focused on "simple silhouettes, heavy distressing, novel washes, and embroidery." It turns out these are almost exactly the same features that typify the more conservative jeans wear in the rest of the market.

Levi, for one, plans to focus on embroidery and vintage detailing to evoke a simpler time. "We're moving away from the 'whiskering' look and giving Levi's jeans customers ... a bolder, deep, rich denim," says Rick Gomes, Levi's brand publicist at Levi Strauss & Co., New York, NY "Levi's Type 1 jeans are inspired by Levi's heritage. It's a modern interpretation of our iconic signature features - rivets, buttons, pockets, the 'two-horse' patch, belt loops, and the 'bird in flight' pattern that's found on each back pocket."

Cahill says Lee has reined in heavily street-influenced fashion in favor of a less edgy vintage look that reminds people of their childhoods. "Instead of being so absolutely patriotic [as many products were immediately after September 11], it's inspired by icons from the '50s, and a little bit of western influence," she says. "Also, we see a really big movement toward the influence of larger-than-life comic-book heroes."

Thanks to recent shows by high-fashion houses such as Juicy Couture, the '70s and '80s are back in the form of velour tracksuits and other vintage-inspired athletic separates. When it's time to dress casually, consumers tend to mix and match these pieces with denim.

"Anything extreme has been pulled back," says Cahill. "It's that whole feeling of looking back to things that were comfortable. Last season or last year, we were really showing whiskers and striping and things like that. It's really come back a lot from there."

Fashion now - and fashion in 2003 - is about nostalgia for the good life, when all things were perceived as being simple and safe, Cahill says. "Things are going to be very cleaned-up," she predicts. "We think that'll be going forward for at least another season."

Deep, Dark Color

Here's the big news when it comes to color: Dark colors are back. There's evidence of the shift already. French Dressing Jeans focused strongly on black denim in its fall 2002 women's collection, and San Francisco-based Gap Inc. currently offers several women's jeans styles in both a soft black-washed look and a basic black. Most men's jeans are now available in black, too.

And the brown-tinted boot-cut flare offered by the Gap is evidence of a larger trend toward somber, dark and neutral denim colors. "It's a color palette we've seen over in Europe," says Lee's Cahill. "Again, it's speaking to a need to look to the past. These are uncomplicated colors."

For Lee, an organic, natural green will be one of the biggest colors this year. "The blue of the denim is going to be tarnished with yellow to give it a green cast," Cahill says. This denim style ties in with the blackened, olive-moss green that Lee is introducing for its twills.

Lee also expects grays and naturals to be important. "The gray is kind of the mixer for all the colors," says Cahill. "Everything is very blackened and dark. But there will be a blue cast to the gray, influenced by metals and mineral colors."

Elsewhere, denim manufacturers are expressing the dark trend by further saturating the indigo dye of blue jeans. Think of it as another expression of the mid-century nostalgia trend. These new dark denims are like the clean, just-bought jeans worn by rock 'n' rollers of the 1950s.

Distressed jeans will still be available - indeed, many customers are extremely devoted to them. But you won't see the obvious sanded patches, sliced seams, or whiskers that were so prevalent in early 2002. The subtle new vintage washes evoke ranch hands, not rock stars and renegades.

Sexy and Soft

Stretch denim was important in the fashion-forward women's styles of 2002, and it will continue to be important in the near future. That's because of the multiple benefits it offers. It lets young women wear their jeans quite tight while still walking and sitting without pain. And for older women, it offers comfort above all else.

But now men's jeans are beginning to feature stretch denim, too. "It's important for sales as a comfort and performance-enhancing feature," Cahill says. "Especially the younger guys want to be able to move in their jeans. If they're skateboarding or biking or any of the athletic things they're doing in their jeans, they want to have that stretch, but it still has to look and feel like denim to them."

Overall, U.S. denim consumers seem adamant about comfort. In fall 2002, Balenciaga and several other couture labels introduced a high-waisted trouser silhouette reminiscent of the late 1970s. Some fashion editors feared it would bring about the return of the high-waisted jean. But apparently, most women have become fond of the non-binding comfort of a low rise and are reluctant to give it up.

The new low-rise shape is slightly more conservative, however. "The extremely low rise is still out there, but I don't think anybody's real fond of having everything hang out," says Cahill. "It's that moderate low rise that's very important. And with stretch being such a key fabric feature, it really gives a young, sexy feel to it."

Perhaps because of the comfort issue, the low-rise slim cut introduced in some brands' men's jeans last year didn't develop much of a following. This year, retailers and brand such as Gap, Old Navy and Ecko are focusing strongly on carpenter, painter and loose-fit jeans.

The street influence is there, but it's toned down in favor of clean details and relaxed fit.

But no matter what consumers prefer, they're likely to find it in the stores now. Denim purveyors seem to be trying to fit every conceivable body shape and style sensibility.

"Our assortments have grown so much recently," says Rebecca Weill, a spokesperson for Gap, Inc. "They will continue to do so throughout 2003. With the range of fits, styles and washes we offer, there's always going to be something for everyone."

Likewise, Cahill says: "The one thing we're most proud of is that we offer multiple fits... Anywhere from a low-rise to a mid-rise to a slim cut, a relaxed fit or a loose fit."

Denim is Still King

You'd think a move toward formality - spurred both by the weak economy and by a desire for stability - would reduce denim's role in the overall apparel marketplace. But teens aren't as strongly affected by these dynamics. Young consumers live in jeans, and influence denim fashions for older buyers. So even in these serious times, denim seems stronger than ever.

"Sneakers and denim are the two basic things our consumers - teens - buy," says Ecko's Panitz. "Denim is still the driver, and it dominates trends." Even companies such as Lee, which cater largely to non-teen consumers, find that denim is their customers' number-one wardrobe piece. Maybe that's because customers prefer to mix non-denim pieces, such as athletic separates, with their jeans. Tracksuits were a significant trend last year, but they never approached the popularity of denim jeans.

Denim is so enduringly popular that jeans styling is creeping into other segments of the clothing market. At the Gap, boot-cut jeans are currently appearing in non-denim materials. There's a gray flannel that looks for all the world like a dress pant, except for its snug, stretchy, sexy five-pocket styling. Instead of a classic chino, there's a khaki twill boot-cut jean.

And for clubbing, the Gap offers the jean in black leather. At Lee, some misses' jeans are cut like trousers to appeal to society's need for neatness. But the cross-pollination works both ways; twill and easy-care linen will be cut like denim in 2003. Says Cahill: "It's still very much a denim look that they're going for."

Consumers seem to perceive that there's something essentially American about denim. It offers comfort in uncertain times. Perceiving this, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council recently commented on its Web site, "Denim and jeans continue to sit at the heart of the American psyche. [It's] not tracksuit sloppiness, but rather a nostalgia that reflects the desire for nesting, home values, well-being and a wistfulness for the peace of mind of the past."

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Athens, GA. She specializes in writing articles for textile, apparel and business publications.

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