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The Coronavirus Pandemic May End The Reign Of Blue Jeans

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A global pandemic has ushered in a new day, the era of the elastic waistband, and the reign of bluejeans may be over. Abha Bhattarai is a reporter covering the retail industry for The Washington Post. She spoke with people around the country who say they're tossing their denim to the curb, and she joins us now. Abha, thank you for being with us.

ABHA BHATTARAI: Thanks so much for having me.

FADEL: So what got you started looking into this loss of interest in jeans? Did you notice a trend in retail sales or did you swap your own denim for elastic waistbands?

BHATTARAI: You know, my editor and I have been talking, and we both haven't worn our jeans since the beginning of the pandemic. And we were talking about how we're...

FADEL: Right.

BHATTARAI: ...Wearing pajama pants and cotton shorts instead. And then we started to see all of these retail bankruptcies pile up.

FADEL: Yeah.

BHATTARAI: We saw True Religion file for bankruptcy, Lucky Brand, G-Star RAW and the parent company of Joe's Jeans and Hudson's (ph) Jeans. So that's when we realized there was something larger going on here.

FADEL: So you spoke with people around the country who said they're finished with denim. One person even called them cardiovascular prisons. Why are they so done?

BHATTARAI: You know, a lot of the people that I talked to had this long, simmering hatred of jeans. They just weren't - you know, they hadn't realized it yet. And now that they're at home, working from home in many cases, they're wearing more comfortable clothing. They're wearing elastic waistbands, and they're realizing that there's really no reason to go back to putting on their denim.

FADEL: So it's very specific to denim. People aren't buying less clothes; they're buying less jeans.

BHATTARAI: Well, people are also buying less clothes. So this fits into a larger trend. We're seeing consumers pull back across the board in just about every category, and apparel has been very hard-hit. But even among retailers, we're hearing on, you know, earnings calls, on conference calls, we're hearing them say that leggings, joggers, sports bras are all selling quite well right now. So it's, you know, the more structured wear that people are really pulling back on.

FADEL: So it's a trend toward comfort.

BHATTARAI: Absolutely.

FADEL: And is this specific to the work-from-home culture that's emerging in the pandemic, or was this going on before?

BHATTARAI: This was absolutely going on before, but we're seeing a speed-up of the process now. Jean sales have declined 5% in the last five years, and that's been particularly pronounced for designer jeans. We've seen a 40% drop-off there.

FADEL: And so who exactly were the jeans skeptics that you spoke with? Were they young, old, rural, urban? Did they run the gamut?

BHATTARAI: You know, they ran the gamut, but most of them were white-collar workers who worked in a business-casual workplace.

FADEL: OK.

BHATTARAI: So they weren't just wearing jeans on the weekend, but they were typically wearing them to work a few times a week at least. But they're saying that they realized that there are ways around that. They can wear long, flowy skirts to work instead, or the men can wear maybe baggier cargo pants or whatever the case may be.

FADEL: Yeah. You know, I'm actually - I've noticed I do that. Now that - when I do actually have to get dressed, which is rare, I wear the long skirts and jumpers with no really tight band, so I'm part of the trend. Do you think this change will outlast the pandemic? Is the elastic waistband here to stay?

BHATTARAI: You know, there are two schools of thought here. One is that, yes, people are getting comfortable and they are never going to go back to high heels or jeans or anything else that's not comfortable. The other school of thought is that people are just going to be so excited to, you know, get out into the world and put on...

FADEL: Right.

BHATTARAI: ...Real clothes again that we might see a turn in the opposite direction.

FADEL: So maybe people excited to dress up again and put something constrictive on.

BHATTARAI: Exactly.

FADEL: That was Abha Bhattarai, who covers the retail industry for The Washington Post. Abha, thank you for joining us.

BHATTARAI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE JEAN")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Blue Jean - I just met a girl named Blue Jean. Blue Jean - she's got a camouflaged face and no money. Remember; they always let you down when you need them. Oh, Blue Jean - is heaven any sweeter than Blue Jean? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.