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The Denim Evolution

Once the workingman's uniform, fashion and flexibility now make jeans a wardrobe unifier for students and society alike.

Neatly folded piles of jeans blanket the floor of a small walk in closet. Meet Joe Cubiotti: a senior at Syracuse University who loves jeans. He currently owns about 70 pairs, he said.

“Freshman year, everybody used to make fun of me,” said Cubiotti, a 20-year-old policy studies and management major. His friends teased him about his extensive jean collection that filled his closet and extra storage containers under the bed.

Photo: Mallory Passuite

Video: Watch SU senior Joe Cubiotti make his jeans decision for a night out

They snuck into his dorm room and took 15 pairs of jeans, Cubiotti said. And with a closet still full, he had no idea anything was missing. For two months. He found his pants lying around his dorm, Boland Hall, and wondered how his friends kept taking them from his room. “I’d leave the room locked, and they’d still turn up.”

After two months, Cubiotti’s friends finally revealed their prank. “I guess they proved me wrong. Maybe I have too many,” he said.

But that has yet to stop him. Cubiotti shared that story in Lord & Taylor in the Carousel Mall, just before he bought a new pair of Calvin Klein jeans.

His style: dark, simple, and on sale. He wears jeans every day of every season. “They’re just comfortable and easy to wear,” he said.

Denim Nation

Apple pie and Levi’s: quintessential Americana. From the original sturdy Levi’s jeans in the late 1800s made for miners to the apple bottom jeans T-Pain sings about, denim has become the great American unifier and the common thread across diverse closets. Whether the Gap jeans Joe bought on clearance for $11.99 or a $1,850 pair of  Dolce & Gabbana Jeans,covered in holes, everybody wears jeans.

SU students don’t have to travel far to get their jeans fix. J. Michael Shoes, a retail fashion store on Marshall Street carries premium-denim brands like 7 for all Mankind, J. Brand, and True Religion, ranging in price from $150 to $250, said Kathryn Graves, a sales clerk at the store and senior stage management major at SU. The store attracts upper-middle class SU students who have the means to spend that much on jeans, Graves said.

Step out of J. Michael and the man asking for spare change on the corner wears jeans, too.“I got jeans up the yin yang,” said Gertis McDowell, 64. He sits back in his wheelchair in a medium-dark pair of blue jeans. Shocked to learn that people spend $200 on jeans, McDowell called it “ridiculous.” He prefers the more affordable Wrangler jeans and wears them every day. “Every day that god let me be here I wear jeans,” he said.

High-end or low-end, jeans sell. Even though overall consumer spending has decreased in the economic recession, jeans sales have increased. A market research company, NPD group Inc. recently named jeans one of the few “bright spots” in bad times, according to the company’s  April 2009 report. Even as Americans budget their spending, they are still buying jeans.

Out of all Americans, women buy the most jeans. Sales of women’s jeans make up more than half of the $13 billion jean industry, according to NPD group Inc.

Jeans have become a staple in everyone’s wardrobes, making them somewhat recession-proof, said Jessica Harris, senior account executive at 7 for all Mankind, a premium-denim brand launched in 2000. The brand offers denim for men, women, pregnant women, and boys and girls as young as four years old. “It’s a thing everyone feels comfortable with… if you find a pair of jeans that fits you well, it makes you feel good. And when things are so down, you want to feel good about yourself,” Harris said.

The company has remained successful during the recession because of the consumer’s brand identification and loyalty, said Harris. “We are known for our fit… We’ve been around a long time in the premium world so the consumer trusts us and trusts our fit," she said. 

Lookin’ good

The focus on fit emerged relatively recently. Women have become picky, said Cynthia Nellis,’s fashion expert for ten years.  In the past, denim brands paid little attention to fit, the 45-year-old said. As a kid, Nellis wore the classic button-up Levi’s 501 jeans. “They’re men’s jeans and they looked horrible on, but everybody wore them because we didn’t have a whole lot of choices,” she said.

We have a lot more selection today. “You can buy jeans that completely transform your body,” Nellis said, naming Not Your Daughter’s Jeans as an example. The brand claims its patented lift-tuck technology lifts butts and sucks in tummies.

Women's fit has grown into a science. “Every single style of jeans made by designers is made to specifically target a certain body type,” said Juli Scarupa, a fashion consultant at Tony Walker & Co, a retail store in Williamsville, New York that specializes in designer jeans for men and women. People are willing to pay for that carefully constructed fit.

Scarupa uses 7 for all Mankind as an example. “Seven uses the basic techniques for slenderizing and elongating,” she said. The brand uses whiskers, the faded lines that go across the top portion of the thigh, to make the thigh look less solid or big, she said. On the inner thigh, whiskers “help draw the eye downward so it doesn't focus on the thigh.” 7 also uses a thin, white, vertical crease down the legs to elongate them. It uses shadowing, which fades the color of the denim from light in the front to darker on the sides “to make the thigh appear as though it stops sooner than it does,” Scarupa said. It uses the same technique on the butt "to make it look perkier.”

Versatility: Good for closets, great for wallets

Fashion and fit aside, the classic blue jean remains at the other end of the denim spectrum. (I doubt my 85-year-old grandfather thinks about how his butt looks in his light-blue Dockers jeans.) Instead, jeans’ universal appeal stems more from two basic qualities that all denim shares: versatility and practicality.

Today, people consider jeans appropriate for more occasions than in the past. Twenty or 30 years ago, people were less likely to wear jeans on a date, Nellis,’s fashion guide said. “Its really accepted a lot more places.”

As jeans' acceptance grew,  the look of denim transformed to casual, business casual (hello, casual Fridays), and even dressy. “You can interpret a pair of jeans in many different ways,” Harris, 7’s senior account executive said. “I think that’s probably why it is such a staple."

Fashion consultant Scarupa agrees: “With the same pair of jeans I can throw on a sweatshirt to go to class… change into a sexy top and heels to wear out at night, and in the morning throw them back on with a blouse for a business meeting,” she said. “They are the simplest way of expressing how I am feeling that day without ever speaking a word.”


The versatility and wide acceptance allows people to wear jeans often, making them a smarter buy for tight budgets. “I don’t think there’s anything else you can buy, at any price point, that you can wear as often as you do jeans,” Nellis said. She called jeans “the most versatile thing you can possibly own.” Consumers appreciate that versatility. “They want their wardrobes to really go far,” she said.

Some consider designer jeans an investment. “You need to consider cost per wear,” Scarupa said.  Many justify splurging on a pair of premium-brand jeans because they plan to wear it often. And the quality of the denim will outlast normal jeans, Scarupa said. Instead of buying three pairs at a lower price, they resolve to buy one premium pair (or more).

High-profile, low-maintenance

Before widely accepted and versatile, jeans were made inherently practical by their laborer roots. In 1873, Levi Strauss secured a patent for copper rivets on the pockets of men’s work pants. The rivets reinforced the pockets, making jeans a sturdier pant for manual laborers. The fabric remains durable and low-maintenance today.

Zachary Heintz, a senior film major at SU, appreciates the ease of wearing and caring for jeans. Unlike dress pants or sweat pants, a little spill can go unnoticed on denim, Heintz said. “It’s not nice to admit, but I do wear a pair of jeans for three or four days before I wash them.” He may throw his jeans in a ball on the bedroom floor, but they are good as new the next morning, he said. “You can pick them up the next day and they’re exactly the same as when you dropped them.” Try that with a dress pant. “They’re just practical,” he said.

President Obama dresses for comfort. Fashion bloggers picked on the 'frumpy dad jeans' he wore to the All-Star baseball game, but he wears them for comfort, he later told The Today Show. “For those of you who want the president to look great in his tight jeans, I’m not the guy,” he told NBC’s Meredith Vieira. 

From dad jeans to high fashion, promising to lift ladies’ behinds, the original workingman’s uniform has become America’s unifier.

A merchant's touch.

Over the years I have have had the pleasure of working with Mallory. After reading her recent article on jeans, I am more proud of her than ever. Her merchant's insight is nothing new. Mallory has had a second sense for fashion and business since high school. She not only has a remarkable acuity for business, she also has the more rare ability to effectively articulate it. Mallory has obviously benefited from her 4 years at SU, and I am certain that SU has benefited in kind.

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