Few things capture an era’s zeitgeist quite like denim trends. Bellbottoms epitomized the swinging ‘60s and groovy ‘70s; acid wash silhouettes ruled the ‘80s Brat Pack scene. And, of course, pretty much everyone around in the ‘90s had a pair of faded, high-rise Levi’s 501s.
But the denim look of this moment is less clear. We live in a time of TikTokers squabbling over the state of skinny silhouettes, models strutting the runway in hip-bone bearing blues, and clean, minimalist, “timeless” jean brands launching left and right. The teenagers at the middle school across the street from my apartment wear what looks a lot like my embellished True Religions from college, while my sister in-law swears by her stretchy Madewell stovepipes. And within my professional bubble of New York City-based fashion editors, everyone seems to live in lean straight leg jeans (most likely Khaite).
All of which begs the question: When it comes to denim in the 2020s, how will the (fashion) history books define it?
“It’s really sort of an ‘anything goes’ sentiment right now,” says Jessica Richards, a trend forecaster and the founder of JMR Trend + Creative. The way she sees it, the actual denim you wear this decade is less important than the mood it evokes.
Want to feel sexy and feminine for a night out? Perhaps exaggerated retro flares are your best bet. Need something cool and casual? Try a relaxed, painter silhouette. And if you’re looking for a polished alternative to your favorite leggings? Don’t discount stretchy skinny jeans — no matter what Gen Z says.
“They [skinny jeans] have felt good and flattering to us [millennials] for so long that they’ve become a key item,” Richards explains. In her opinion, the ubiquitous design has reached the same level as staples like white T-shirts and LBDs. “It’s not even a trend anymore: It’s just a key basic.”
Tim Kaeding, the creative director and co-founder of the popular denim-focused brand Mother, is also hesitant to declare certain cuts “in” or “out.”
“One the best parts about being in [this industry] these days is that every silhouette looks good,” Kaeding says. Citing rising white pant sales throughout stay-at-home lockdowns as example, he says that his clientele is all about following instincts over fly-by-night fads. “After what everyone has been through, it seems like customers don’t care about the old rules anymore. They are wearing what they want, when they want.”
Perhaps this caution-to-the-wind attitude might also account for the sudden turn of interest to daring, low-rise cuts inspired by the early aughts. Not since the days of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake (truly denim legends in their own right), have I seen so many belly-button baring pants on the runway — or reasonable people willingly wearing them.
“In general, denim trends are departing from 2010s fashion and [being] particularly influenced by Y2K,” says Patricia Maeda, the director of womenswear at consumer insight and trend forecasting company FashionSnoops. Still, she points out, there are significant differences between the way denim was styled in the aughts and how we’re interpreting it now.
“While the early 2000s version was all about sexiness with ultra-tight fits and tiny zippers, today’s low-rise has evolved to a low-slung and relaxed jean,” she says. “It’s baggier and delivers a sense of comfort and ease, adding a casual slant to the everyday staple.” And for older millennials like me, she points out, it’s also a chance to make right the sartorial mistakes of our past. “I think that is the key characteristic of 2020s denim trends: reclaiming the styles that were once cringeworthy, inappropriate, or uncomfortable.”
Brands are also revisiting the past through repurposed pieces: consider Re/Done’s wildly popular reworked designs, Miu Miu’s bedazzled Levi’s collaboration last spring, and sustainable streetwear label Gypsy Sport’s upcycled capsule collection with The RealReal. Meanwhile, the luxury consignment service is seeing more demand than ever for straight-up vintage jeans, a less expensive and more eco-friendly way to experiment with trends of yore.
“We’ve definitely had a rise in people consigning denim [over the last two years], but also buying denim as well,” says Kelly McSweeney, the women's merchandising manager at luxury consignment service The RealReal. Since the start of 2020, the company has seen a 240% increase in the sale of wide leg jeans, closely followed by growing sales of straight leg and flared cuts.
Noelle Sciacca, The RealReal’s women's editorial lead, has also noticed a growing interest in bling-y designs from a few decades ago.
“There’s increased demand for anything embroidered and embellished,” she says. “Vintage denim from over-the-top brands like Roberto Cavalli and Versace is really trending.”
Of course, picking the right pair of blues is only half the battle: Styling plays a huge part in pulling anything off. And according to Richards, we’re moving in a direction in which denim should be able to fluidly move from one aspect of your day to another.
“We’re in high-low moment where everyone wants be comfortable but also get dressed up again,” she explains. There were examples of this all throughout the Fall 2022 shows, from the edgy bustiers and wide-leg jean pairings at Tibi to Brandon Maxwell’s distressed denim and silky shirt combinations. “Those are very directional of where denim dressing is going in these modern times.” All that said, Richards stresses, the real key to keeping denim current right now is to find an option that works for you.
“Denim is so personal to who we are; it lets us dress for our true selves,” she says. “So don’t be driven by the silhouette: think of what’s feeling good for you and why.”