Total U.S. jean sales declined 8 percent on a dollar basis in 2014, to $15.4 billion, according to The NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service. The category's struggles were reflected in sales shortfalls at Gap, where the assortment is heavily skewed toward denim. In 2014, same-store sales for the Gap brand fell 5 percent compared to the prior year.
Analysts don't expect trends to pick up at the label until at least the holidays, when the influence of new product design head Wendi Goldman hits the selling floor. They were more optimistic, however, about momentum in denim.
"Upside in denim may be seen sooner than the overall assortment as denim has been recently well received," Cowen and Co. analyst Oliver Chen wrote in a note to investors.
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As for Gap's Old Navy brand, which has been posting robust sales growth, "There are so many options when it comes to wearing denim right now," said Jill Stanton, executive vice president of product development and design. "We are seeing consumers' appetites for all different kinds of silhouettes—boyfriend, straight, overalls, shorts, skinny, flares. This is great news for retailers."
There's also been a shift on the runways. According to trend forecasting firm WGSN, activewear isn't as prevalent on the catwalk as it had been the past few seasons; in its place, premium denim is starting to gain traction, WGSN's head of denim and youth Amy Leverton said.
While that will take some time to trickle down to the mass market, where denim has been particularly challenged, it does push innovation and excitement in the category, she said.
"The main shift in the market that I can see is that designers are using denim," Leverton said.