When it comes to fashion, the industry churns out a dizzying, unrelenting flurry of trends every season. Of course fashion thrives on change – its continual pursuit of the new and novel is what keeps the industry alive and keeps us, the consumers, interested. It’s fun to buy new things and change the way we look, but the reality is that most of us are wearing the same thing year in, year out. Sometimes it is easier to take Tom Ford’s advice to opt out altogether and live life in a nice pair of jeans.

And for the past 20 years ‘those jeans’ have been the skinny. For all its ubiquity, the skinny is an item that you either love or you hate – depending on when (or if) you invested in it during its ascent to world domination. Maybe you were a Shoreditch indie-boy mincing about in bone-crushing size 6 women’s spray-ons (like me), or a Sloane Ranger wearing them high-rise with Ugg boots. Or were you there back in the late 70s and shoehorning yourself into a pair of downsized rigid 505s for that Debbie Harry or Ramones look.

The truth is there are few other pieces of clothing that have chartered the fashion trend cycle quite like the skinny. What was once the subversive, gender-bending uniform of underground subcultures that was sneered at by the mainstream, has gone on to become the everyday wardrobe staple the world over. Power-stretch fabrics have given us the ‘jegging’ for her and ‘megging’ for him. So what is the secret of its success and what does the future hold for these denim-ish imposters?

Debbie Harry wearing Levi’s 505 rigid slims during a performance in NYC

If you want to go back to the item’s true origins then we need to thank the 70s punk rockers like The Ramones and pop fashion radicals like David Bowie who were the true heroines of this denim movement. Nobody owning a pair of today’s super-stretch denims could even fathom the lengths these rebel youths had to endure to squeeze into a pair of non-stretch skinnies – although Tim and Jess Rockins might disagree. It wasn’t that stretch denim wasn’t available at the time, as stretch technology has been in the market since the 60s and 70s, but it didn’t have the aesthetic and performance to make it commercial. Alberto Candiani, fourth generation owner of Italian mill Candiani explains “Stretch denim has been around for over 50 years, but what people don’t know is that during the early days the original stretch denim was stretching vertically (warp-stretch) and not horizontally (weft-stretch). It looked pretty ugly and wasn’t very successful.

Candiani, who’s family business was responsible for weaving stretch innovation into the LA premium denim market, explained that it wasn’t until the mid 90s that brands really began taking interest in their stretch fabrics. And even then it was only a few select brands. “Around 1995 Lee and Levi’s European divisions immediately jumped on it and also GAP and J Crew in the US.” But this was at a time when regular and bootcut fits were the market standard with no sign of narrow cuts in sight – at least amongst the ‘it’ crowd. Candiani points out that many big denim brands who were too “purist” initially refused the innovation so it wasn’t until the uprising of the LA premium market in the early 2000’s that stretch really took hold.

It was at this time that brands like 7 For All Mankind, AG, Hudson were beginning to develop the blueprint for what would be one of the most revolutionary jeans to enter the market. Candiani believe’s that the success behind his family business’ innovations was down to their fabrics that made it sexy without compromising the true denim look. “We were basically working with more sophisticated spinning technologies and developing stretch performance so the jeans wouldn’t get loose after wearing it for a few hours” Candiani explained.

Ahead of the curve – Superfine skinnies became the must-have jean for UK celebs

Over in London in 2003, a stylist was taking a meeting at Dazed Magazine for a brand she was starting but didn’t even have one sample for. The premise for the label? She couldn’t find jeans that met her sartorial needs. She had these amazing boots and couldn’t understand why all jean cuts at the time were bootcut. She wanted something she could tuck her boots into without having all this excess fabric.

The stylist was Lucy Pinter and the brand was Superfine. Within 2 weeks of the meeting with Dazed, Pinter and her team were on a plane to Tunisia where they developed an entire collection of skinny jeans within a month. Designer Amy Robertson who was working on the brands early production recalls that Lucy and her partner Flora Evans would fly out to check in on samples and kept saying “tighter, Amy! We need them tighter!”. Robertson details “they would pin and pin until we couldn’t take any more out.” But the hard work paid off and within 6 months of launching the skinny jean the London ‘It’ girls were all wearing them. “We moved production to Italy and we were making them by the 1,000’s” McCullagh reveals.

Georgia May Jagger poses for Hudson Jeans #LETYOURSELFGO campaign

Simultaneously in LA, big box names like 7 For All Mankind, AG and Hudson were achieving an equal amount of success from the skinnies rapid ascent as the mainstream appetite for the silhouette began to explode. LA’s alluring vision of high-end stretch denim with glossy campaigns, promises of body sculpting looks and clever celeb placement made them irresistible. The item was prime content for Hollywood gossip mags who would snap Hollywood’s famous faces like Olsen twins, Jessica Simpson and Tara Reid daily in their outfits detailing the jean brands and fits they were wearing. This mass-media frenzy of celeb style created a feverish appetite amongst women across the world that couldn’t even stave off the $300 price tag. And women bought them by the shedload.

Sienna Miller steps out in her signature grey/ blue skinnies that shot the item to fame in the UK

Back in Europe this elevated denim sensibility was emerging with its own continental twist through labels like Acne who were going even stretchier and pushing the limits of elasticity from comfort stretch (around 20%) to super-stretch fabrics (up to 100%). British celebs like Posh Spice, Kiera Knightly and Sienna Miller were making them the jean-du-jour and by 2005, high-street retailers began stocking countless variations of skin-tight denim for men and women. Superfine’s silhouette had broken free of its edgy sensibilities. It was now a visual symbol for being cool, famous and possibly wealthy enough to shop some of markets premium labels.

As the skinny shot to fame within the women’s market in the mid 2000s, indie boys in shoreditch and emo kids along Camden lock were kickstarting their own revolution on the slender style. Iggy, Bowie and the Ramone’s may have set the tone for the non-gender conformity to come, but guys in skinnies in the naughties were equally pegged as a subversive marker of “outsider”. At the time, tight black denim singled you out as someone embracing a sense of identity that was divergent to the norm, a theme that was tied into a paradigm shift of changing attitudes toward androgyny and masculinity.

The Ramones are pictured wearing Levi’s 505 rigid slims for their debut album cover RAMONES in 1976 (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

The alternative style, in all its moose-knuckle glory was lead by Indie pioneers like Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy and Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco. Tight band tees and studded belts and spray-on skinnies was the uniform for a highly sensitive youth. But it wasn’t long before skinny jeans were making inroads with the fashion crowd via Hedi Slimane.

Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent “Psych Rock” collection Summer 15

It was during his years as Creative Director for Dior Homme that Slimane cemented his signature androgynous style that borrowed from rock ’n’ roll iconography and its modern mythology. Slimane took indie’s vision of anti-fashion and suburban angst and spinned it into a highly coveted, ultra cool style that completely upended societies traditional ideology of masculine identity. It was ambiguous, elegant and radical. It was Kate Moss and Pete Doherty and These New Puritans and the Horrors. It was on this wave that the skinny jean really became cool.

Pete Doherty and Kate Moss at Glastonbury 2005

One backlash that came with the skinny was something that was embedded in the name itself. The tall, thin, androgynous-looking teenagers that Slimane sent down the runway and the blatant anorexia that was being promoted in the media and on the runway was having a toxic effect on mainstream body ideals for both men and women.

Much has changed in societies outlook on body image and size inclusivity since then and now skinny jeans are in fact one of the most democratic fits of the 21st century, stretching comfortably to include all shapes of bottom as well as all social groups. They clothe the entire cultural spectrum, up to and including the next queen of England; they were the first choice for first lady Michelle Obama; Danielle Brooks made them the focus of her body-inclusive movement #voiceofthecurves; and every pop star from Playboi Carti through Harry Styles and K-Pop phenomenon Girls Generation all keep them at the front of their closets. They are daytime and night-time, everyday primetime, from talkshow host Ellen sat in her armchair in slim indigos through to the ass sculpting fits of the Kardashian sisters on KIWTK.

Michelle Obama stunned the audience at Nickelodeon’s 25th Annual Kids’ Choice Awards in her metallic coated skinnies

But how did these clingy, wafer-thin jeans hold us in such close grip? “Fit and comfort for starters” asserts expert denim designer Benjamin Talley Smith who has designed for big labels like Jordache and Ernest Sewn. He believes that skinnies, or ‘jeggings’ owe their fame and money-grabbing allure to spandex, the stretchy synthetic fiber that promises the illusion of a streamlined silhouette. “The skinny makes you look put together and feel good” he said. Erika King, Denim Buyer at American Rag agrees with this sentiment and believes that these ultra-stretch jeans fed our weakest desires for comfort and somehow made it acceptable to wear in place of their rigid predecessor. “I think that the number one reason that stretch denim has become such a dominant force is COMFORT. Plain and simple” King stated.

And it’s true. The comfort and ease-of-movement that consumers got accustomed to during the athleisure boom has become the challenge for denim makers. Over the past 5 years, jeans have struggled to beat back more comfortable styles such as tracksuit bottoms, leggings and yoga wear. But recent figures point to a bounce back in denim as consumers return to the category after a few years firmly in athleisure’s court. According data from Edited, the long-loved skinny is the leading top jean trend alongside cropped lengths and rips which are representative of 58 percent of the assortment. Erika King believes much of this denim resurgence is due to the casualisation of dress codes — not just in the workplace, but also for smarter occasions. This has given denim a space to become an every-day go-to in a way that athleisure leggings may never be.

Uniqlo launch the 24 hour jean to take you round the clock – S/S 18

As consumers’ lifestyles become increasingly varied, they want their denim to work harder to suit their needs. Our 24/7 life demands multitasking jeans that can take you from day to night without compromise of comfort or style. This year Japanese retailer Uniqlo innovated everyday jeanswear with a new line of denim that promises 24-hour comfort with unmatched stretch and hand that both flatters the figure and lasts the distance. Likewise, San Fran start-up Everlane made headlines when they launched a line of $68 stretch denim that claims to never get baggy. The brand uses a special Japanese denim that looks rigid and substantial, but can stretch and mold throughout the day without becoming too lose. What’s more; its ethically produced.

Everlane pride themselves on quality, socially responsible jeans at affordable prices

This desire for comfort has given birth to a new breed of stretch innovation known as performance denim, which has become a growth driver for the denim sector. Providers like Turkish denim mill ISKO, who patented the ‘jegging’ trademark in 2008, are helping premium denim labels innovate the skinny for tomorrow.

In December, ISKO celebrated 10 years of the jegging with a celebration of the latest evolutions of their game-changing fabric. “Before we introduced the jegging fabric into the market, people thought it was amazing to see just 5% stretch, but then ISKO changed the game when they offered 30%. It was really the dawn of power stretch which changed the industry” said Rosey Cortazzi, head of marketing at ISKO. Over the past decade ISKO has evolved its Jeggings concept alongside consumer lifestyles changes. Shaping and sculpting the body with its superior elasticity, their catalogue has grown to include brand-new technical features and holding power capabilities.

J Brand elevate the skinny beyond a basic to high-fashion through novelty details and washes

Pure players like Joe’s Jeans, Lee and DL1961 have invested heavily into these performance fabric innovations to enhance and broaden their skinny jean collections. New fibers like CoolVisions offer inherent softness as well as efficient moisture management and quick dry properties, while more science-led design with body contouring and clever detailing work to enhance the figure.

Gym life, Instagram and the male cast of Love Island have all cemented the unceasing trend for neo-jeggings

In 2017 skinnies become somewhat of a phenomenon amongst buff British boys after they became the unofficial uniform of male contestants on Love Island. The gym-sculpted lads in the UK’s ITV2 summer show cut to the core of the skinnies appeal. This was all about stark white, super stretch denim to show off the size of your calfs.

Instagram and the #Legday (denoting the day that you focus on working your legs) has much to blame for this recent new denim devotion. A quick scan of the term will retrieve a whole host of hulking pins and of course ultra-skinny jeans have become the best way to literally flex their legs. But while stretchy jeans are particularly popular with those who never skip leg day, much of the hype is down to practicality rather than a desire to show off. Talley-Smith reasons with this “super-stretch fabrics has allowed brands to offer a more extensive size range, something we couldn’t do with rigid or comfort stretch.

Model and body positivity activist Paloma Elsesser poses for 7 For All Mankind

The ever-broadening average size of consumers alongside the rise of size-inclusivity movements support this theory. Labels like Khloe Kardashian’s Good American label, Universal Standard and Asos Plus are just a few of the growing number of brands investing in extended sizing.

Denim and the skinny jean are a large part of this business and these super-stretch fabrics make business sense according to Talley-Smith. “With the growing direct to consumer model, more stretch allows for an easier fit and less returns.” And he’s not wrong. It turns out this was the inspiration behind the first-ever size 15 option for Good American when they were crunching their sales numbers. The company found it received 50% more returns on clothing in sizes 14 and 16 than in any other size.

Kim Kardashian in her sister Khloe Kardashian’s Good American jeans

But while the skinny remains at top of the pile when it comes to jean sales, they’ve become less a fashion choice than a default setting. We have come to see them almost as a blank canvas, a piece of clothing that has ceased to signify anything. When asked if the skinny has hit its peak Talley-Smith believes “yes, or at least for in the premium market.”

This feeling has been resonating on platforms such as Vogue who ‘called time on the skinny’ in favour of more classic shapes in rigid constructions. King supports this movement saying “A few years ago, I was selling skinny, stretch denim to women, nonstop. And my men’s business was all about the rigid, heavy denim in straight silhouettes. And now, the switch has flipped. Women are buying rigid (or something with a heavy denim and less stretch that feels rigid) in slim/ straight/ wide fits and men are buying slimmer fits with more stretch.”

So will the skinny jean fade away anytime soon? For manufacturers, skinny jeans make perfect economic sense, requiring less fabric than more generously cut pants; for consumers, their ongoing domination keeps the rest of the wardrobe working too: no need for a costly revamp. Maybe its the tight squeeze of modern life summed up in a pair of pants – lean trousers for lean times. Talley-Smith thinks that the Jegging will still continue as a basic but most of the new innovation in silhouette and wash is coming from more traditional denim. King concurs “I think the skinny jean is here to stay. I think that the popularity will flip-flop between mens & womens every few seasons, as does everything”.