But neither company is sitting on its denim-clad duffs. Levi's didn't alter its strategy when the economy began its downward spiral but asked consumers what they wanted in jeans. Among the answers they got — and responded to — were snug skinny-fit jeans, slim-fit jeans that Graden says are "not as snug," as well as new back-pocket treatments. Levi's also is capitalizing on the trend toward "boyfriend jeans," which are snug on the rear and loose in the legs.
Even when you sell $20 jeans, Wrangler spokeswoman Jenni Broyles says, consumers "need a reason to buy."
This spring, Wrangler began offering jeans with a "Comfort Solution," which includes a waistband that expands as you move.
Gap, which says denim is its "birthright," is celebrating its 40th anniversary by launching a collection that builds on its expertise, as well as that of designers it has hired away from companies including Joe's and Earl.
"Our goal is to build jeans every bit as good as any premium player," says Gap spokeswoman Louise Callagy.
Gap, which lost many middle-age female customers when its pants went too low-cut several years ago, will offer seven different "fits" for men and seven for women, including "always skinny" and "curvy."
"I really believe they know what they're doing and that they'll take market share," says Black. "And they lost a lot of market share in denim."
Bloomingdale's, which sells 15 different jeans brands, has a department with contemporary jeans that "fit a lot of people but obviously are not going to fit everyone," says Vice Chairman Frank Doroff. "Then we have jeans for women who maybe just can't fit into those."
Among the latter selections, are the "Not Your Daughter's Jeans," which are popular with the 40-and-older set and aren't as low-rise.
With things "rather ho-hum in the industry, denim is definitely a highlight," agrees Liz Sweney, executive vice president of women's apparel at J.C. Penney.
Penney's now sells about 25% more brands of jeans than it did five years ago, including wide-leg dark-denim jeans with cuffs.
"A great-fitting pair of jeans ... gives you incredible self-confidence and self-esteem," says 7 for All Mankind's Gaylord.
DeFrank couldn't agree more. She passed several pairs of jeans along to her 24-year-old daughter recently and hasn't replaced them, more because of time than money.
She expects to return to jeans shopping soon and plans to buy some by Joe's and True Religion, "and then I think I better stop. (My husband) may want me to see a psychiatrist."