NEW YORK — Blue jeans, for decades the uniform of rebels and conformists alike, are fading from the fashion forefront as aging baby boomers choose new--and more flattering--looks.
To put it bluntly, "as their pocketbooks have gotten thicker, so have their waists," said Alan Millstein, publisher of the New York-based newsletter Fashion Network Report.
Jeans don't fit the lives of the thirtysomething generation, which is starting to confront the flab of middle age and facing the fact that "gravity is the reality," Millstein said.
The biggest fans of jeans--traditionally tight-fitting, youth-oriented fare--are people ages 14 to 24, a segment of the population that has been shrinking for the last decade, said Dan Chew, marketing manager for Levi Strauss & Co., with headquarters in San Francisco.
Jeanswear Communications, a New York-based fashion industry group, said in a study released in June that total domestic jeans sales dropped from a 1981 peak of 502 million pairs to 387 million pairs in 1989.
Deborah Bronston, an analyst at Prudential-Bache Securities Inc., estimated the number of jeans sold declined by 6% during the first three months of this year alone.
The decline of jeans has forced manufacturers to scramble for ways to protect their domain, often with other products, ranging from children's sweat gear to lingerie. They have met with varying degrees of success. Some have been wounded because they responded to changing tastes too late.
VF Corp., a Wyomissing, Pa., jeans maker that markets Lee and Wrangler brands and holds about 25% of the U.S. market, recently announced that it would close four jeans factories by September.
The costs of that cutback will be reflected in the company's second-quarter financial report and probably result in a 50% earnings decline from a year earlier, VF Chairman Lawrence R. Pugh said. He blamed a "continuing shortfall in jeans orders resulting from weak consumer demand."
Levi Strauss, on the other hand, is riding high. The company has dramatically improved sales and profitability since it went private five years ago in a debt-financed takeover. The improvement has come from much more than just sales of the 501, its classic five-pocketed blue jeans.
Levi Strauss created Dockers, a cotton-twill trouser for "maturing" baby boom men. As one of retailing's brightest success stories, sales of Dockers went from $35 million in 1986 to a projected $500 million-plus this year. The product line has been expanded to include men's shirts and sweats, as well as active wear for women and children.
"Dockers have helped offset the basic softness in men's jeans," Chew said.
Levi Strauss also has strengthened its jeans business by offering a range of styles and fits for baby boomers, who may have lost their physiques but not their desire for denim. Chew said that strategy has helped preserve the company's market for men over 25.
For VF Corp., however, diversification has been far rockier. The company bought a North Carolina maker of men's cotton twill pants in 1984 but closed the unit two years later to focus on its acquisition of Blue Bell Holding Co., parent of Wrangler jeans, Jantzen swimwear and Jansport sports clothes.
The move shoved VF ahead of Levi Strauss as the nation's biggest jeans maker. "When jeans are booming, every age group is wearing them," said VF's chief financial officer, Jerry Johnson.
But these days, he said, there is "a lack of fashionability attached to the product."
This year, VF has introduced a line of T-shirts and sweats under the Lee label to exploit its best brand name. So far, sales are going "very well," and the sweat shirts have sold out, Johnson said.
Still, the company hopes to reduce dependence on jeans, partly by strengthening its offerings of intimate apparel. VF, which sells Vanity Fair and Lollipop brands, bought Vassarette lingerie for $12 million earlier this year.
Johnson said VF foresees growth of 10% annually in intimate apparel and is seeking to acquire "additional brands or trademarks in that area."
Analyst Bronston predicted intimate apparel will account for 15% of VF's estimated 1991 sales of $2.73 billion, up from the current 13%, while jeans will bring in 53% of annual revenue, down from the current 55%.
Many experts said jeans makers hope to strengthen their dungaree business by exporting. While interest may be waning in the United States, jeans retain considerable allure in the Soviet Union, parts of Europe and the Far East.
Chew of Levi Strauss said international sales accounted for roughly a third of the company's $3.6 billion in revenue last year, up from about 20% five years ago.
But his company's strategists also say the U.S. market can't be ignored. The average U.S. teen-ager still buys four to six pairs of jeans a year. So Levi Strauss is spending heavily on a fresh ad campaign directed by and featuring Spike Lee, acclaimed director of "Do the Right Thing."