Fall into diversity of denim

American Eagle Outfitters Inc. shows their Skinny Jean.

NEW YORK -- In the '70s you had bellbottoms and in the '80s tight designer jeans. In the '90s, you went from distressed grungy to dressy denim, and then came skinny-jeans of the 2000s.

But, say insiders, there isn't a defining denim trend heading into the important fall shopping season this year, and that's expected to be good for the women's apparel market.

It takes multiple pairs to round out your wardrobe. Skinnies and their close cousin the jegging are still going strong. There also is a more wearable interpretation out there of the high-waisted, flared-leg pant that was popular on the runway for fall, and boot-cut and boyfriend jeans have earned "classic" status.

"The consumer is passionate about denim, and it seems like you can't have too much," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with market research firm The NPD Group.

He adds, "You're going to find a denim free-for-all where anything goes. Purchases will be spread out and people will buy by brand, but not a single trend."

Jeans already are the rare apparel item that people don't give up on when they are feeling economically squeezed, Cohen says. He puts them in the "replenishment" category along with socks and underwear, because people feel they are a necessary thing.

Even when they're not worn out, consumers are willing to "trade up" their denim, in the way they will few other things except perhaps a new smartphone or laptop, if they find a pair they think are more flattering, Cohen adds. "They're always back on the quest for the perfect pair."

Sales for women's jeans had a period of brief decline in the middle of 2010, NPD reports, but ended with a 2.6 percent gain and grew another 20 percent in the first three months of 2011. Jeggings were a juggernaut, finishing last year with an increase of 200 percent, but Cohen suspects those were more of a fad.

Fashion denim as a category is still poised for further growth, though, because people aren't married to a single look: They still have their casual and dressy pairs, black and white jeans, and those with light and dark washes. And all those silhouettes.

"What 'denim' is today has changed from just 'jeans.' ... It's crossed the boundary of just being one thing," says Rosella Giuliani, director of Gap's denim collection.

Designers and celebrity stylists Emily Current and Meritt Elliot say they have noticed huge shifts in trends when it came to jeans every five years. If that's still true, we're in the middle of the "anything goes" trend.

Elliot adds, "Women can dress more appropriately for body type and lifestyle. ... Jeggings are not for everyone, the boyfriend is not for everyone, but one of them might be for you."

In 20 years in the business, Tana Ward of American Eagle says she has never seen this much democracy in the denim market. Consumer interest is spread almost equally among silhouettes and leg shapes, and a particular style isn't seen as something for the very young, or not so young, or very casual versus dressy.

Ward says denim retailers and manufacturers have learned not to dictate to customers that there is one right way to wear their jeans. "Today's shoppers ... are most interested in looking good."

Trial and error is the best way to find flattering jeans, say the experts, but there are some style assumptions:

1.) High-rise, extreme flares are can complement a long, lean shape, says Ward, while curvier shapes bring a femininity to skinny jeans, especially with a long, loose top, or fitted tank and open cardigan.

2.) Wide legs look best with a shorter top, not one that shows the belly but hits at the top of the jeans, Ward says.

3.) Giuliani likes to see denim trousers with a blazer and heel, although she wears a lot of a "slouchy skinny" shape.

4.) Don't limit yourself to pants, says Current. A denim skirt, shirt or jacket can give off the same hip vibe that jeans have.

5.) Technology has allowed for manufacturers to make the fabric softer, more supple and stretchier, while maintaining its strength, Giuliani adds. It's also allowed for lighter weights of denim, making jeans truly a year-round look, she says.