Pret-a-Reporter

How to Wear Denim Right Now

Rex USA
Jessica Alba in distressed denim.

Time to put the skinny jean on sporadic rotation: The season's hottest jeans have a new, relaxed attitude that's all about individuality — but maybe consider the super-ripped pairs NSFW.

The athleisure movement may threaten the jeans market — sales of the indigo stuff were down 8 percent on a dollar basis in 2014, to $15.4 billion, according to The NPD Group/Consumer Tracking Service — but premium denim shows plenty of signs of life, thanks to a rising crop of niche labels offering an alternative to the standard skinny jean and a renewed interest in vintage classics.

Distressed and ripped denim, a la the '90s, are top picks, no matter what style the buyer is after. "Our customers can’t get enough destroyed denim," says Lauren Yerskes, a buyer for Revolve. The online retailer seen 30% year-over-year growth among the L.A.-based denim brands it sells, including everything from established names like Mother Denim to up-and-coming labels like 3X1.

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Celebrity styling and design team Emily Current and Meritt Elliott (Jessica Alba has worked with the pair in the past), whose contemporary fashion line The Great debuts denim this fall, say they’re currently obsessing over "awkward lengths," whether that means a cropped hemline or an ultra-high waist. Current and Elliott, who founded their namesake label in 2008 — only to depart in 2012 — pull inspiration from their massive vintage archive. "We’ll keep a pair around just to reference a rivet or a hole," Current says.

Jake Sargent, who designs the L.A.-based label Simon Miller with Daniel Corrigan, also notes a "renewed interest in authenticity," citing the collection’s wide-leg, cropped "Lamere" jean for women as a current bestseller. "Customers want denim that’s not overly stretchy or printed."

But while much of what’s trending right now harks back to a pre-spandex 1970s era when flares were wide and waists high, Los Angeles shoppers in particular place more value in flattering fits than fashion. "It really always comes down to being more body conscious," says Jane Bishop, co-founder of the site Jean Stories. Adds her business partner, Florence Kane: "An L.A. girl might reject a trend that’s cool or new if it doesn’t make her body look good."

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The sex factor may be what makes three-year-old line Frame Denim a go-to for both men and women in Hollywood; Karlie Kloss and Reese Witherspoon are both fans of the brand."[Frame] really encapsulates the ease of L.A. dressing," says Net-a-Porter junior buyer Abigail Routley, who says the collection is one of the e-retailer’s best-selling denim lines within the L.A. area. (Others include Current/Elliott and MiH.) The form-fitting styles — from the ankle-length "Le Skinny De Jeanne" (from $185) to the high-waist "Le Flare Francois" (from $230) — aren’t overtly sexy, but exude effortless glamour. "We are conscious about sensuality," co-founder Jens Grede says. "Frame is sexy in a natural way."

Denim royalty Marta Goldschmied has decided to fight fire with fire, if athleisure could be considered the encroaching enemy, by incorporating the performance of activewear into her line Made Gold. For instance, the collection’s "Liz" leggings (from $152), look like well-worn skinny jeans but are made of a nylon-blend fabric that’s yoga ready. "I’ve been engulfed in this industry since birth," says Goldschmied, whose father is legendary denim purveyor Adriano Goldschmied. "Whatever you do, I think it’s all about pushing the envelope."

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One of the hottest jeans of the moment (if you follow The CW actresses) might be the oldest. Vintage pairs of Levi’s classic 501 are selling everywhere from the Rose Bowl flea market to What Goes Around Comes Around on S. La Brea Ave., where the perfect pair can set you back $300 or more.

"I think people in Los Angeles are attracted to distressed, grunge-inspired looks," says Janet Sung, founder of online retailer Denim Refinery, which spruces up old jeans for those who would rather not spend a Saturday afternoon hunting for the perfect pair. "The obviously vintage pieces — boyfriend jeans with knee holes, super-distressed cut-offs — are big here." Currently, the L.A. market makes up about 15 percent of Denim Refinery’s monthly sales. Michael Polish, the 44-year-old director whose latest film, 90 Minutes in Heaven was released in September (and who’s married to the actress and fashion star Kate Bosworth), turned years ago to Levi’s, whose 511 slim-fit selvedge style sparked a new obsession. Polish, who began researching denim styles, and fell for 1954’s 501 — "with a nice, narrow leg" — and 1966’s rivet-less 501, which the company is now reproducing. "They’re fun to break in," he says.

New L.A.-based line Amo takes the best of what wearers love about vintage denim — unique worn-in washes, a sturdy-but-soft feel — and updates it with more flattering cuts, like the "Twist" style (from $250) with a seam that bends inward for a slimming effect and just a hint of comfort stretch. "Our jeans have the old-school denim coolness, but they also make your butt look good," says Amo designer Kelly Urban, who met the line's co-founder Misty Zollars in 2004 when they were both working at True Religion. "The washes are beautiful and specific," says Amo fan Darby Stanchfield, 44, who lives in denim when she’s not clad in the power shifts that her Scandal character, Abby Whelan, prefers. "It’s not generic."

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DISTRESSED

Current/Elliott The Ankle Skinny distressed mid-rise jeans; $250, net-a-porter.com.

FLARE

Frame Denim Le High Flare high-rise jeans; $230, net-a-porter.com.

VINTAGE 

Levi’s Vintage Clothing 1954 501 Selvedge Denim Jeans; $310, mrporter.com.

VINTAGE-INSPIRED

AMO side slit twist jeans; $246, farfetch.com.

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