Advertisement
Culture

The Death of Denim

It's been a slow creep, but a defining trope of the modern man has become not just his love of a face wash or beard oil but his lack of jeans.

by Ryan Bassil
19 November 2019, 1:59pm

Kanye West by EDB Image Archive; N*Sync by Paul Smith - via Alamy; Bruce Springsteen Born In The Usa album artwork; a still from Seinfeld; Denim Jean background image, via Peak Px

When did you last buy some jeans?

Totter down the high street and you’ll (hopefully) come across men wearing trousers. Or tracksuit bottoms. Or bright coloured utility pants from Nike’s ACG brand, olive toned corduroy numbers from UniQlo, and various shell, cargo, tapered or wool iterations, from plenty of luxury and multi-national, fast fashion vendors. But jeans? Big ol’ denim jeans? Tight, slim or otherwise-cut jeans?

Men still wear them, sure. Like the white t-shirt, duffle coat, leather jacket and fitted pair of Calvin Klein briefs, the denim jean is a wardrobe staple. A classic. However there’s also a growing trend destabilising denim’s prime spot as the casual, comfortable, spill-anything-you-want-on-it trouser. Stats back this up. H&M closed their denim jeans brand Cheap Monday this time last year due to poor sales. Diesel USA filed for bankruptcy in 2019. Levi's, meanwhile, are surviving – because they’re the classic – however in this quarter their profits and shares fell. Witnessed in town and on year-end profit sheets, the jean has fallen out of favour. This is especially true among the modern man.

As a fashion item (rather than workwear, as originally intended) the jean itself has journeyed from boxy and cuffed (1950s), flared and bootcut (1960s) and slim (1970s), to 50 inch-wide in the post-Y2K era and then tightened under third wave emo and elastene's joint influence. And along with it, the archetypal modern man has gone on a voyage. He’s into skincare now. He might have a nose piercing and is (supposedly??) open about his feelings. Snapping a selfie may now be NBD to him.

He’s the next evolutionary stage of the metrosexual – a retrospectively cursed term, let’s be honest, used at the century’s turn to define men who were into fashion and grooming. Coined by British journalist Mark Simpson (initially in The Independent; famously in Salon) and further pondered in NYT Style, then acted out in GQ styling and coverage, at best the term boiled down to a catch-all descriptor for men who leaned away from the laddy aesthetic of the 90s by virtue of face wash.

Though the decade’s most famous metrosexual icon, David Beckham, helped shave away at the heterosexual conforming ideals of the time – braiding his hair, starring on the cover of the UK’s biggest gay lifestyle magazine, painting his nails – the men on the street were largely less adventurous. They liked shopping. They wanted to smell good. They mostly went around in blue jeans from FCUK.

Newspaper articles may have marketed these lads as overwhelmingly progressive – and perhaps they were at the time – but they were mostly the same as the previous decade’s men, just with added stubble and designer jeans. It wouldn’t be until a decade or so later, sometime around 2015, when real aesthetic change started to take place – one that went beyond slapping on Emporio Armani aftershave and using some Bedhead matte wax, and truly started to overhaul how men presented themselves.

Like previous transitional shifts, this was led by celebrities. And, most pertinently, by celebrities who had doubled down on the metrosexual “trend” of the 2000s. This was the decade of Kanye West’s Givenchy leather kilt. The one where A$AP Rocky stepped through Harlem in bold colour-coordinated high-end casual looks; and the one where he also rocked smart casual ensembles that blended the tropes of Arena Homme + with those of The Source (E.G this snazzy striped trouser and loafer plus hoodie get-up). It was Jared Leto in a bright pink t-shirt. Young Thug in a dress. Pastel coloured haircuts – for everyone.

Though the famous folk above represent a far end of the spectrum, their media visibility has trickled into the average man’s wardrobe. The 2010s began with a hyper-pronounced expression of masculinity (lumberjack beards, thick flannel shirts, dark blue jeans) – a kick-back perhaps against the metrosexual era. However, as the decade comes to an end, today’s men are expressing themselves with a higher level of aesthetic openness than at any other point in history.

Ostensibly, this willingness to experiment with style has resulted in man’s move away from denim. As Jaana Jatyri, founder of trend forecasting agency Trendstop, tells me: “Traditional denim is a masculine look, and the female empowerment and gender neutral movements are creating a more varied and softer expression of style.” Something that’s less apparent when it comes to silhouettes (which are largely just… loose?) but clear in menswear’s expanding colour palette.

But it’s not simply the brightly dressed and experimental. Even traditional men have moved away from denim. This is because their image of the man in blue jeans and white t-shirt has been replaced by the man in sportswear, streetwear or – at the other end of the scale – the man gone full suave. Less James Dean than they are Peaky Blinders character, the late 2010s man is either stepping out in a carefully curated fit from Instagram-ready-store ‘END’ or adopting the smart, roll-neck ‘n’ trousers combo from H&M.

Of course, the trackie bottom has muscled into this space, too. Washed block colour sweatpants by high-end brands like Aimé Leon Dore plus the iconic three striped Adidas two-piece have swung heavily back into style this decade. Pushed along by Stormzy and his Adidas deal, specifically his red number in the “Shut Up” video, and Skepta bragging about hitting up fashion week in his black tracksuit, what’s essentially a functional look (warm, comfortable, looks sick) is fashion property again. Denim cannot compete.

Still, it’s not getting fucked off completely. That much is demonstrated by high-end trappers dripping in Fendi denim, the classic black jean and the overall continued presence of denim on young and old men. Rather, as Volker Ketteniss, Head of Menswear at trend forecasting company WGSN, states, “it’s less about the death of denim and more about a transformation”. This shift, he says, will live on in reinvention, citing a recent capsule from North Face where the iconic coat brand incorporated denim into their classic jacket.

Fashion is, of course, cyclical. Currently, the chunky, all-terrain sneaker trend is getting started, with brands like Nike and Prada reworking the shoe from its hiking and camping origins. Classic companies such as Ralph Lauren and Champion are getting renewed leases of life thanks to the streetwear boom. Fila is a hot logo again. Trends come and go, slowly filtering in before ultimately reaching saturation point, then the bargain bin in an Urban Outfitters. Then, finally, quietly un-bidded on eBay listings.

But unlike a specific brand, the denim jean has never gone away. In fact it’s been omnipresent in menswear since its inception in the 50s. The look has changed, sure – hippies turned their pairs alternative with painted on smiley faces and rainbows; people who liked The Strokes ripped holes in theirs with a cheesegrater. Yet the denim jean has always been here, at the forefront of every cultural movement, brand and trend – whether Jay Z’s Rocawear in the 2000s or Bob Dylan in the freewheelin’ early 60s. This is why it’s notable it’s no longer at the top of the menu.

We live in an era of accelerated flux. In particular for men, this presents in a variety of forms. Self-care. Being extremely vocal about liking the new Ariana Grande album when five years earlier not many would have dared. The changing face of masculinity and what it means to be a man (literally: be yourself and don’t be a dick). Opening up about mental health. The loss of denim on every single man when they’re not at work isn’t inconsequential to these things; it’s another component in men hammering away at the image they’ve previously held themselves up to.

So, go. Head to your high street. Grab some peach coloured jogging bottoms. Try black corduroy. Slip yourself into something sparkly if you desire, or keep it muted with forest greens and autumnal reds. But do so knowing you don’t have to wear jeans every day of the week anymore. The next man on the street isn’t; and now, neither are you. RIP to the denim jean.

@ryanbassil

Tagged:
Menswear
denim
Streetwear
Men's fashion