Youth-oriented retailers are banking on an old-school look this year: high-rise jeans, also known as "Mom jeans," that last had their fashion moment when Reagan was president. After years of low-rise waistbands that sometimes fail to cover consumers adequately, the return to big-girl pants has been described by Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research as a "macrotrend" that could play out over several years.
The original '80s look combined a waist at the belly button (or higher), pleats in the front, and a relaxed or baggy fit, plus a light or "acid" wash and occasional giant holes at the knee. These jeans were typically paired with a cropped tee shirt bearing a Frankie Goes to Hollywood slogan or a button-down camp shirt from pre-upscale Banana Republic.
The high-waisted style fell far enough out of fashion over the intervening decades that it inspired derision and parodies like Saturday Night Live's beloved "Mom Jeans" ad. ("I'm not a woman anymore. I'm a mom!') So why are brands and merchants promoting a style that, at best, covers a lot more skin than young women are used to swathing in denim and, at worst, could make them look like their grandmothers?
Retailers hope to revive 'whatever' teen sales
Express (NYSE:EXPR) officials said last fall they're hoping high-rise jeans will have a novelty factor that gets young women shopping more. And savvy marketers note that the current trend of long tops and tunics doesn't play well with Mom jeans, meaning shoppers who buy into the new trend will need to pick up cropped tops and jackets to show off their new jeans. And while brands are raising the waistline on pants, why not offer skirts with the same silhouette?
This is a reasonable approach considering that teens didn't spend as much last year as retailers had hoped. Jeans are just about the most popular American wardrobe item, with some 450 million pairs bought in the U.S. each year. Getting young shoppers excited about new jeans styles -- and new shirts to go with -- could kick start a "new wave" of '80s-inspired clothes shopping. The risk is that they will, as Nancy Reagan urged young people back in the day, "just say no."
Mom jeans: Totally awesome or totally bogus?
Besides a different look, high-rise jeans offer some advantages over the low-rise options stores have stocked for years. Mom jeans eliminate issues like muffin top, exposed underpants, and waistband-gap-induced "plumber's crack."
But the higher waistbands can pinch and bind (one Jezebel commenter described the typical '80s jeans waistband as "a non-surgical lap-band device") and the higher rise creates the appearance—or confirms the reality—of a larger backside. Women with short torsos and long legs stand to benefit the most from the new style, but as we'll see below, it can work on other body types, too.
A quick visit to popular retail sites shows who's embracing the trend and who's refining it for present-day sensibilities.
Which stores are doing Mom jeans to the max?
Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN), the chain that pushed skinny jeans into the fashion idiom, has staked out this trend early, too. UO offerings take the trend right back to the mid-'80s with offbeat seam detailing, rolled cuffs, waistbands that cover the navel, and jeans paired with crop tops. And in case you missed it, Urban Outfitters comes right out and calls them Mom jeans. It's a big gamble, but UO is obviously hoping it will pay off the way its first-mover advantage on skinny jeans did.
Torrid, the young women's plus-size chain owned by privately held Hot Topic, has also embraced the high-rise look with styles that show Mom jeans can work on fuller figures, too. This is important because the average American woman is larger now than 30 years ago, and if the style doesn't work on modern bodies, its days are numbered. Torrid's popular high-waisted button-tab front skinny jeans combine an '80s waistband and detailing with the current skinny trend. As of this writing, they're almost sold out.
Express has added eight high-rise jeans styles to its site, including an acid-washed ankle jean that's totally '80s, and several high-waisted skirt styles. But the majority of Express' jeans (46) are low-rise styles.
Privately held Forever 21, surprisingly, has only a few high-rise options right now, but you'll see plenty of other '80s style motifs in its current offerings, including paisley prints, ragged distressing, and "acid-wash" denim finishes.
Which retailers are updating Mom jeans?
Not all denim retailers and brands are all in—yet. Retailers who market to older and higher-end shoppers are taking a more cautious approach.
Gap (NYSE:GPS), like Torrid, is blending the high-rise with skinny lines for a few of its current offerings. Its high-waisted Always Skinny women's styles are a way to transition to the Mom jeans look without investing too much in the trend right now. Levi's references the mid-century pinup look with its high-rise stretch skinny jeans and offers high-waisted shorts as well. Premium brand Joe's (NASDAQ:DFBG) is offering skinny high-rise flares for a look that avoids true '80s-style bulk through the thigh.
VF (NYSE:VFC) brands 7 For All Mankind and Lee each have their own interpretation of the look.
7 for All Mankind's new "fashion high waist" women's options all sit just below the waist—a good choice for women who don't enjoy having a jeans button digging into the belly button. Lee, meanwhile, offers an at-the-waist style with side elastic, a lack of back pockets, and relaxed fit -- less high-fashion, more function.
Will shoppers be stoked for the new look?
More than anything, that will depend on how well the new designs fit and feel.
Fit and comfort are the most important considerations women cite when purchasing jeans. And it's here that the new version of Mom jeans has a real advantage over the originals. Anyone who remembers old-school denim knows there was no stretch at all. But almost all modern denim has stretch fibers blended in, which is what makes skinny jeans and jeggings possible. Stretch will also almost certainly make today's high-rise jeans more comfortable than their predecessors.
Besides fit, there's that Mom jeans image problem. First lady/fashion icon Michelle Obama has stated her aversion to Mom jeans, and singer/designer Jessica Simpson is still living down her 2009 appearance in a pair of high-rise jeans. (Among her nine jeans styles on Nordstrom's site, only one is high-rise.) The worst-case scenario is that younger buyers don't spend, leaving retailers with unsold stock. Or shoppers might buy a pair or two but end up not wearing them, meaning they're not going to invest in complementary tops and shoes.
The best-case scenario is that young shoppers like the extra coverage and buy the tops and accessories they need to make the look work, like flat ankle-boots, lace-up jazz shoes, and crop tops and jackets. If things go that far, you might want to invest in companies that make home perms, neon earrings, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirts.
Casey Kelly Barton has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Goldman Sachs and Urban Outfitters. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.