Can science create your perfect jeans?

Denim is evolving to suit the consumer's preferences
Denim is evolving to suit the consumer's preferences

When vision scientists and fabric technologists get their hands on humble blue jeans, the result is denim with some 21st-century upgrades, says Emily Cronin

Steve Zades wants you to demand more from your denim.

“If you could just dream for a moment,” asks Zades, the vice president of global innovation at VF Corporation, which owns brands including Lee, North Face and Vans, “What would you want your jeans to do for you?”

Before you heckle “babysit!”, think more along the lines of real-life Snapchat filters – maybe you’d like to look taller and slimmer, perhaps curvier, more athletic.

Technological advances have emboldened brands to claim jeans can do just that.

Or, as Zades puts it: “What your clothing can deliver is really changing.”

Jeans may have been around since the 1870s, when Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis first punched rivets into men’s denim work trousers.

But researchers are infusing denim with some hi-tech updates.

At Wrangler, designers are using digital avatars and proprietary Body Bespoke technology to reconceive every jean style size by size, all in an attempt to achieve the ideal fit.

“We checked things like how much bigger the pocket needs to be when the jeans are growing by this or that much,” Wrangler creative director Sean Gormley says.

“The jeans are more balanced on different sizes than they ever would have been before.”

At London-based M.i.h Jeans, they’re excited about textile innovations – namely moving the stretchy fibres from the weft (horizontal) to the warp (vertical) of the fabric to create “straight stretch” styles that boast the fit assets of rigid jeans, plus a touch of stretch where you need it most.

“It gives you jeans that look like rigid denim when you’re standing up, but stretch when you sit down – the best of both worlds,” brand and design head Jessica Lawrence says.

At Lee, Zades and colleagues at the VF Cognitive and Design Science Lab have channelled five years of vision-science research into creating more flattering jeans.

They’ve done so by applying our understanding of optical illusions to denim, using “anatomy shading” to highlight areas you’d like to flatter and shadow the parts you’d rather downplay.

Think of it as contouring for your bum: in smaller sizes, they’re creating the illusion of more curves; in larger sizes, toning it down.

They’re also fooling the eye with linear perspective (a double-sided seam narrows down to the ankle, for a lengthening effect), laser-cut crosshatching, a curved yoke and curve-cut, angled back pockets (creating a lifted, apple-bottom look).

Despite a cringey name (Body Optix), it’s pioneering stuff.

During consumer testing, “people would put the jeans on and say, ’wow, I’m meeting the super me’,” Zades says.

Creating the super you requires super algorithms – Zades says his team ran through 27 000 possible pocket positions before settling on the ideal placement, all using virtual simulations.

It also takes a robust challenger.

The greatest threat to denim over recent years hasn’t come from a denim upstart, but from leggings.

Once athleisure went mainstream, shoppers lost patience with jeans that didn’t stretch when they stretched, flex when they flexed or adapt when their waistlines expanded.

Activewear has been one of the few areas of growth in the clothing industry in recent years, with womenswear sales increasing by four percent to £15.6-billion (R262-billion) in the US last year alone, according to the NPD Group market research firm.

Denim brands have responded either by doubling down on what Chloe Lonsdale, the founder of M.i.h Jeans, calls “the authentic spirit of denim” (ie, rigid, non-stretch jeans) or by absorbing athleisure’s lessons and looking leggings-ward with high-stretch jeggings.

Denim is now back on the upswing.

Sales have rebounded and showed four percent growth in 2016, the category’s best performance in years.

However, the sustained popularity of leggings outside of the gym is why you’ll still find so many skinny jeans on the market, years after fashion journalists heralded their demise.

All of the Body Optix jeans are skinnies.

(I know, I know: We’ve been trying to cajole you to shimmy into intimidating-sounding cuts for years – and here, in an article purporting to cover everything new under the sun in denim, we’re giving you skinnies.)

But denim retailers are unanimous on the fact that skinny jeans still make up the bulk of their sales.

It’s a trend that crosses borders – the bestselling denim style at Topshop in the UK and France is the Joni, a black skinny – so for now, at least, the skinny is staying.

Of course, just because the algorithms promise newfangled jeans that will work wonders on your bum doesn’t mean the same design will suit everyone.

Especially since denim is such a subjective category.

“I haven’t found the gold mine of studies that show what’s perfect for everybody,” M.i.h’s Lawrence concedes.

She has found that a 10-inch rise, as in M.i.h’s Marty and Cult jeans, seems to be the sweet spot, delivering the look of higher-rise jeans (pros: long legs) for women of most proportions.

“The really painful tip is to treat jeans shopping like swimsuit shopping,” she says.

“If you run into a shop and grab the first thing that you see and then leave, you’re never going to find a pair of jeans you’re happy with.

“So know what kind of denim you enjoy wearing, go into a shop and try a load off different pairs on.

“Take advice from people in the shop too.” – The Daily Telegraph