SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.
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DARIAN WOODS, HOST:
Amy Leverton remembers when the skinny jean trend was born. She had just gotten her first job in the fashion industry.
AMY LEVERTON: And it was very early 2000s. The Strokes, their first album...
STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
The Strokes, their first album, "Is This It," was a huge hit. And the band was photographed by everyone in all these magazines. And they were wearing this kind of, like, punky (ph), Ramones-style outfits, like, graphic tee shirts, you know, skinny ties, skinny jeans.
LEVERTON: ...That was almost the first time we'd seen slimmer jeans, especially on dudes as well.
SMITH: That was, like, a jean moment.
LEVERTON: Yeah, exactly.
SMITH: And Amy was working at the company where it happened. It was this brand called Superfine, started by stylist Lucy Pinter, who got on a plane to Tunisia with designer Amy Robertson. And the two of them worked with tailors and textile manufacturers to develop a collection of skinny jeans.
LEVERTON: They went out to work with the factory. And she talked to me about it. She's like, they just pinned it in and in and in and in. They were like, smaller, tighter, smaller.
SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods, wearing my finest pair of skinny jeans. Today on the show, these smaller, tighter pants that turned out to be an economic mammoth dominating the $70 billion global jeans market for decades. Recently, though, the seams have started to loosen, and now it looks like the reign of the skinny jeans is ending.
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SMITH: Amy Leverton is a denim expert and consultant, and she was at the company, Superfine, that rolled out one of the first collections of skinny jeans in the early 2000s. She says they were like this revelation. They were so edgy and cool. There was, though, one kind of big problem.
LEVERTON: They were hard to get on. They were hard to get off. Oh, my gosh. Getting them off - nightmare. I can just see myself in the bedroom, drunk (laughter), you know, early 20s, trying to get my damn skinny jeans off, standing on them and pulling.
WOODS: It was a real thing. But then - innovation. So mills in Italy easily started producing stretched denim, which meant skinny jeans - easy to get on and pretty comfortable and flattering. Customers went crazy for them. Skinny jeans dominated runways and city streets in 2002, 2005, 2010, 2015.
SMITH: In the land of fast fashion and seasonal trends, the skinny Jean was like Caesar, dominating everything, refusing to let go of his grip of power. And Amy Leverton said this actually was kind of hard on fashion companies.
LEVERTON: It's something that I feel quite guilty about working in trend forecasting because, obviously, we all have enough stuff as it is, but obviously a part of the apparel industry, you know, the - a part of it - the whole point of it is to make money. So (laughter), yeah, it made it harder because, obviously, if you've already got your five pairs, say, of skinny jeans, how do you sell?
WOODS: Amy says designers just gave up on trying to push new silhouettes onto customers and they just surrendered to the skinny.
SMITH: In fact, 20 years went by and skinny jeans and all of their various forms just kept outselling everything. And it started to seem like nothing could kill the skinny jean.
MONETTE KUITTINEN DOWEY: Hi, my name is Monette. I currently live in Toronto right now. And I'm a fashion design student.
WOODS: Monette Kuittinen Dowey (ph) is 21. And while she was in quarantine, she started using TikTok videos to style her friends.
KUITTINEN DOWEY: I, like, put together the outfits and that video blew up. And so then I started doing it with other people. But that's how it started.
SMITH: So one day, Monette is going through her clothes and she spots this old pair of skinny jeans.
KUITTINEN DOWEY: And I was like, yeah, I don't wear them anymore because, one, if I'm waking up at 7:30 in the morning, I don't want to put on some skinny jeans, try to pull them up. They're uncomfortable. They're not the most flattering. But I just held on to this pair that I've had since 2015. My idea popped into my head. Like, why don't I just do a little short TikTok? Not thinking anything of it, of course.
WOODS: In Monette's video, there's a Zenorachi song playing and the words three ways to style skinny jeans appear on the screen.
KUITTINEN DOWEY: And, like, the first one was, like, putting them in the garbage. The second one is, like, cutting it up. And the third one is burning it (laughter).
SMITH: It's so harsh.
SMITH: I mean, honestly, this TikTok is delightful to watch. It's, like, charming and it's smart. And, you know, Monette says she has a lot of fun making it, but it's a little devastating, honestly.
WOODS: It's a declaration of intergenerational war (laughter).
SMITH: Well, I don't think Monette meant it that way, but that is, in fact, how it turned out. And she didn't realize any of this was happening until a friend of hers told her that, like, her TikTok had been featured in an article.
KUITTINEN DOWEY: And I was like, what? So they sent me the link. And they are talking about how, yeah, it's, like, such a, like, millennials versus Gen Z with the skinny jeans.
WOODS: Hundreds of thousands of people had watched Monette's TikTok, and that video, along with a handful of others, had sparked a huge intergenerational battle, including a raft of backlash TikToks from angry millennials furiously defending the skinny jeans.
SMITH: Oh, my gosh. Yes. And everyone kind of freaked out about this. People were just, like, feeling their feelings about skinny jeans. Social media went nuts. The media went nuts. There were all these headlines about the death of the skinny jean, you know, saying, like, Gen Zers on TikTok were, like, trying to kill the skinny jean.
WOODS: It cuts to the soul.
SMITH: It did cut to the soul. I mean, Monette said that she did not see this coming at all. She honestly said she could not figure out why everyone was so emotional about this.
WOODS: But denim expert Amy Leverton says she gets it.
LEVERTON: The humble denim jean, it means a lot to people. It really means a lot. We imprint on it, you know? Wear patterns where we put our wallets, you know - I don't know - we're kneeling down, looking after kids or what have you, it's all of these memories that we imprint on it. So the jean is an emotional thing. It is like somebody tearing down your best friend in a way.
WOODS: Skinny jeans have gone from dominating jean sales to making up about a third of them now and falling. Amy, though, says the timing couldn't be better for the fashion industry. 2020 was a terrible year for most clothing companies, and the decline of skinny jeans will mean lots of people buying lots of new pants.
SMITH: People like me. I mean, Darian, I have five pairs of jeans. They are all skinny jeans. I actually asked Monette - I went to the source and I was like, listen, do I need to buy all new pants? And she was like, you do not need to buy new pants. You should wear what makes you comfortable. You should do you. And I was so relieved. So if you saw me walking down the street in skinny jeans, I would not, like, seem, like, a tragic figure or anything like that.
KUITTINEN DOWEY: No, my mom still wear skinny jeans. And I think she looks really good in them.
SMITH: (Laughter) I have to buy new pants. That's - yeah.
WOODS: (Laughter) I mean, it's killing us with kindness, that comment.
SMITH: It's so bad. In fact, actually, denim expert Amy Leverton thinks the reason the skinny jean conversation got so emotional is that, you know, like, having, like, a cool 21-year-old kind of mocking your style means basically that you are no longer cool or 21.
LEVERTON: I'm 40 now, so I've been on the other end of this, and it happens every generation, you know? So it's like we're not meant to look cool. It's just the way we were - you know, like, millennials were cool and it's just - they're just getting older and, basically, that's just aging. So what they're struggling with is, I think, aging, and it's attached to this jean. This poor jean is, like, oh, taking all the flak.
SMITH: Perhaps, Darian, the fault lies not in our skinny jeans but in ourselves.
WOODS: Amy says nobody really knows what will replace the skinny jeans. She says there is a jean silhouette power vacuum.
SMITH: What Amy and Monette both told me was that the baggy boyfriend jean is kind of a contender. Mom jeans are a contender. Low-rise jeans are in there.
WOODS: Slightly questioning that one.
SMITH: Also, bell bottoms and something called a column pant.
WOODS: Right, like wide-leg jeans.
SMITH: I don't know what it is (laughter). I just wrote it down on a piece of paper.
WOODS: Yeah, the column pant.
WOODS: But still, Amy says, no matter who grabs the denim thrown, probably nothing will reign as long as skinny jeans did. That's the kind of trend that comes along once in a generation.
SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Emma Peaslee and fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.
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