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35% of American waistlines changed during COVID, says Levi’s

July 9, 2021, 5:12 PM UTC

While apparel makers took a massive beating in the initial months of the pandemic, they now stand to benefit nicely as Americans adjust to what more than a year of lifestyle changes have done to their waistlines.

Levi Strauss & Co, for one, on Thursday said business is rebounding so well, fueled by denim’s rebirth, that it now expects revenue in the next two quarters to be four to five percentage points higher than 2019 levels, showing how sales have now more than recovered ground lost to the pandemic.

In addition to needing to refresh their wardrobe after a long period of spending on things other than apparel (with the notable exception of yoga pants), consumers are now dealing with having different body shapes than before the pandemic.

“About 35% of consumers in the U.S. have changed waist sizes — and some of it is up and some of it is down,” Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh told analysts on Thursday. “But either way, it creates another reason for people to go out and update their wardrobe.”

Industry data bears Bergh out: NPD Group said in April that some 40% of women and girls said they wore a new size (25% a larger size, 15% a lower one.)

Yet updating that wardrobe doesn’t mean just getting new versions of the old jeans people wore before COVID. After months of wearing comfortable clothing, consumers are gravitating toward loose-fitting, comfier jeans with different silhouettes.

Levi’s rivals are seeing similar trends, with Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle also getting some energy from denim’s rebound. At Madewell, the fast-growing denim-focused brand owned by J.Crew Group, shoppers’ fit preferences are also changing post-pandemic peak.

“Getting out of her skinny jeans or getting into a post COVID size has been also a great tailwind,” J.Crew CEO Libby Wadle recently told Fortune. Yes, many people have gained weight, she said. But tastes have also changed.

“Getting a relevant leg shape right is sort of the number one conversation that’s happening at the denim bar at Madewell.” She noted that shoppers want straighter legs among other changing tastes. Her goal, as she seeks to turn J.Crew around, is to put “more butts in jeans” at the company’s two brands.

Some of this was brewing before the pandemic, Levi’s Bergh said. His company had been adding more loose-fitting clothes before the COVID-19 outbreak, getting a jump on a trend that is paying off handsomely now.

“We launched our first kind of baggy fits, and it really took hold. And then as the pandemic kind of started to happen, we just kept doubling down,” he said. And this contributed to Levi’s faster-than-expected return to form. Levi Strauss’ net revenue more than doubled to $1.28 billion in the second quarter ended May 30, above Refinitiv IBES estimates for $1.21 billion.

That’s not to say that skinny jeans are passé. Far from it. NPD Group said in May that skinny jeans are still the biggest category within women’s jeans, representing just over one-third of sales, even though they lost several market share points from 2020 levels.

What’s happening is that skinny jeans are adapting to changing tastes, adding comfort components like stretch, tummy panels and slimming properties, according to NPD. At the same time, NPD sees growth in wider style jeans coming. And after years of talk of denim dying at the hands of yoga pants, these trends are music to the ears of any denim-maker’s CEO.

“I think we are in the early innings of the new denim cycle driven by this new silhouette, that is kind of a throwback to the early 1990s,” said Bergh.

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