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The Unisex Jean; is it Profitable and Sustainable?

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In today’s slightly different guest piece, Candace Barritt, a final year student studying Fashion Management at Nottingham Trent University, shares her thoughts on unisex jeans with us – a topic she researched heavily for her university dissertation.

My dissertation addresses the question of whether a unisex jean would be profitable and sustainable for the mass-market and middle-market today. There are people who believe there is a clear distinction between the female and male jean because of our different body shapes. I argue that the female and the male jean consumer are more similar than commonly thought when it comes to their purchases and attraction to advertisements. Interviewing denim experts gave me insight into the industry and I discovered there is a common sentiment that the younger generation is driving this unisex trend, due to constant interaction and connection through social media.

Within my dissertation I delved into different arguments regarding the consumers’ behaviour, trends, perception and marketing. One of my main objectives was to test people’s perception of jeans, and whether they could identify the difference between a female and a male jean. I also used consumer behaviour publications to increase my knowledge of perception. These experts helped me analyse my experiment results, which showed that people are unclear on what is a female and a male jean. I claim this to be a crucial reason in why a unisex jean would be successful.

Also, the unisex jean would be profitable and sustainable because in my questionnaire and focus group results – looking to determine whether a unisex jean would be profitable and sustainable for the mass market and middle market today – I discovered females and males are attracted to the same advertisements. Through my qualitative and quantitative data I was able to identify social and cultural changes that are making the consumers more open minded and this unisex trend more of a lifestyle trend.

The information and resources available were through my university’s databases, books, articles and retail reports. I was able to receive interviews with directors, product developers and managers within the denim industry. Specifically Mark Harrop of WhichPLM was able to give me expert knowledge into the UK fashion industry, technology’s effect on the consumer and technical fit information. This technical fit information improved my knowledge, and my research on how to approach the development of what style, fit, wash, and fabric the unisex jean should be. Mark was intrigued by my modern topic and keen to see what my primary research could find.

Industry potential

The jean industry has been around for years, and through history it has seen a significant change within society. The industry has potential to create a unisex jean fit for both genders, which can become available for the mass market. This topic was chosen due to the popularity of jeans and the growth in the unisex trend. “Against a backdrop of increasing gender fluidity, we are seeing a rise in a unisex or co-ed mode of dress,” said Judd Crane, Director of women’s wear and accessories at Selfridges, in an interview with Vogue (Weir, 2014).

Today more high street brands are presenting denim unisex pieces or collections, which showcase the versatility of the fabric. The topic of unisex jeans relates to a trend of how society today is changing their views on how we wear jeans in Generation Y and Z. Fashion labels such as H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., AG Jeans, Guess, Closed and Mother have implemented unisex denim and jeans into their lines.

Unisex products currently retailing “mainly focuses on the UK market, at this time this is where the majority of products fall”. The image below shows accessories, tops and footwear are the leaders (Edited, 2015). This is seen in figure (1.2) taken from the Edited Unisex clothing report, 2015. There is potential in clothing, specifically in bottoms, because fit is the main issue customers have, but it can be done – as Acne Studios proved when they produced a successful universal jean.

Figure (1.2)- (Edited, 2015) Unisex Clothing assortment breakdown

The male and female jean market is becoming more even in denim sales, as Passport indicated in a jean report in 2017, women’s jeans in retail volume only made up 55% share in 2016 (Passport, 2017). Previously, the female market dominated the industry, showing the male sector is having impressive jean growth.

Social and culture change

The questionnaires and focus groups I organised, as part of my research, were targeted at males and females aged 18-35.

The youth is driving this unisex trend as brands are becoming more responsive with their use of social media, engaging the millennial market. As millennials are ‘the future’, brands need to find ways to adapt to their changing views. Still, men as well as women are more open about wanting to flaunt stylish items and ‘look good’. I believe the individuals who would adopt unisex jeans would be innovators and fashion followers.

Celebrities have influence over more people’s acceptance of new trends and styles. As the younger consumer is more connected to celebrities now, through social media and messaging platforms, they get to see their personal day-to-day lives. This could benefit the unisex jean, as more people are opening up, shaking off traditional notions of sexuality. Brands need to target the correct consumer and find out which platforms they spend most of their time connecting with, as each gender may discover a retailer or product differently.

Social and cultural changes drove people to adapt the way they wear jeans, specifically women. I firstly wanted to identify consumer behaviour regarding jeans, since by understanding the similarities and differences between the male and female consumer marketers will be better able to build a correct plan on how to market a unisex jean to both genders. The questionnaire was conducted separately for both males and females, in order to compare the shopping habits of both categories.

With the help of the questionnaire, I found that customers do not tend to shop in each others’ ‘sections’ online or in store, as shown in figure (4.2) & (4.3). The 18-35 consumer is not browsing or purchasing in each others’ sections.

Figure (4.2) (Authors own, 2017: questionnaire) left- male results, right- female results (4.3)

Through observation and interviews with industry experts, we have seen more women shopping in the men’s section, arguing that it isn’t the product that is deterring the consumer, it is their mental state. This also shows how important it is to create a positive mental state of the potential consumer whilst they are buying a unisex jean; if they are feeling fear and shame for shopping in the opposite gender’s section they are less likely to purchase the product. In addition, the author found participants in the focus group could not identify whether a jean was designed for females or males. During a focus group with males and females, both agreed that it wouldn’t bother them if they saw a person of the opposite sex wearing the exact same jeans they were wearing. Participants said the following:

  • Female 1: “I would think they would have great style” [laughter from the group]. “I haven’t really noticed differences. All black jeans look the same to me.” (Female 1, 2017: focus group mixed).
  • Male 2: “And other jeans look different on other people” (Male 2, 2017: focus group mixed). These responses show that the consumers, in reality, have little to fear about being ‘caught’ wearing jeans intended for the opposite sex.

Figure (6.4) (Authors own, 2017: focus group), jean fit- answered incorrect, 2017

The pie chart results (6.4) show which jean fit participants in the experiments struggled the most to categorize as a male or female jean. The most incorrect answers were collated and I found the skinny fit received the highest number, 39%, closely followed by super skinny with 34%. This indicates participants’ perception and identification of what is a gendered jean is unclear. Furthermore, the skinny and super skinny jean would be the best fit for a unisex jean, as there was a higher uncertainty on what gender the jean is.

In regards to jeans, both males and females wear the garment similarly, as seen in the figures (4.4) & (4.5) taken from the author’s questionnaire. This shows that female and males wear the jean either daily or once or twice a week, making the jean truly the everyday casual bottom for young people today. The unisex jean could be successful because it’s an everyday casual item, that men and women wear on similar occasions.

Figure (4.4) (Authors own, 2017: questionnaire) left male results, right female results (4.5)

Yet, in the questionnaire both genders received a high negative reaction to the question, “would you buy a pair of jeans meant for the opposite sex? If so, which fit, rise and colour?” This was asked in an effort to find how open either gender is to buying a jean not from their sections. Understanding the gender differences is important in knowing how open-minded consumers would be to a unisex jean being offered. Results show in the female survey that 59 out of 121 (49%) answered positively. On the other hand, when analysing the male’s results, I learned that a significantly higher percentage of men said they would not buy a jean from the opposite sex, (53 out of 69, or 77%). People have strong attachment to their jeans, as they are a routine item. They may be less likely to change their shopping habits because they think they are buying into a more ‘feminine’ or more ‘masculine’ jean.

This argument is perhaps the strongest threat to the unisex jean: each gender still having the desire to exaggerate masculine and feminine qualities within their clothing. However, I argue this is less of the case in regards to everyday clothing such as jeans.

The questionnaire figures (5.5) & (5.6) show males and females wear similar washes. Black washes being the most popular, followed by medium dark wash or dark blue wash.

Figure (5.5) (Authors own, 2017: questionnaire) results on what washes they own male responses (left), (5.6) female responses (right)

Denim has a gender neutral and unisex vibe as participants in both the male and female questionnaire answered that skinny jeans are the most popular. These findings were discovered at festivals, where a high number of young people attended. Another popular fit for both sexes was the tapered jean fit in clean blue stone washes, seen in figure (5.10). This further supports that it would be easy to create a marketable unisex jean, as it would be difficult to deter a pair of jeans with a particular style as they like similar styles.

Figure (5.8) – (Authors own, 2017: questionnaire), results on different jean fits female responses (left), (5.9) male responses (right)

Going forward

PLM could offer a unique position for design and development departments to use avatars and fit different unisex jean types on various body shapes. This avatar system can speed up the process of development while keeping within budget.

The unisex trend is here to stay because customers have changed their lifestyles. As a result, luxury brands are taking more risk in changing the typical design concepts and how it is shown to the public. For example: showing both male and female collections at the same time, and using similar patterns and themes throughout. The drive of luxury still influences trends below them yet the streetwear scene is having an influence in customers’ changing views. Hence, why the author chose an infinity sign, as both segments only influence one another if the brand is willing to change and the consumer has changed their lifestyle, making it a continuous and long-term trend.

In order for luxury brands to maintain relevancy they will need to reflect this lifestyle change within their collection. The fact that luxury brands reflect this change will then validate this trend, resulting in mainstream retailers seeing the unisex jean as less of a risk.

Lydia Hanson Lydia Hanson has been part of the WhichPLM team for over four years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.

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