While total apparel sales were down 4.3% last holiday, denim sales rose 1.4%, according to NPD Group.
But despite the fact that jeans aren't a popular choice among gift-givers, denim sales will likely continue their upward trend this holiday season, as consumers slowly revive their self-spending levels and redeem gift cards on the latest trends, analysts said.
Denim withstood the crash in consumer confidence that accompanied the recession, with the industry growing by about $440,000 on the year, according to data from the NPD Group research firm.
While total apparel sales were down 4.3 percent last holiday, denim rose 1.4 percent, according to the group.
"Value isn't just a dollar value," said Christine Chen, an analyst at Needham & Co. "Premium denim does represent value to the consumer in the sense that denim has become so socially acceptable to wear to every occasion."
Denim has also outperformed the rest of the apparel sector because of the dramatic changes in trends that have emerged over the years, said Richard Jaffee, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. Improved comfort and fit have also helped sales — particularly in the premium market, which continued to thrive despite consumers trading down, analysts said.
Though price slashing reached into premium denim sales last season, it hasn't had a lasting effect on the category, Chen said.
Instead, brands have adjusted to wary consumers by designing lines with lower opening price points, similar to Coach's [COH 35.80 0.38 (+1.07%) ] creation of the Poppy line, Chen said.
Rock & Republic, for example, created its own Recession Collection, where the average price falls at around $130 a pair — a big reduction from its other styles can that top $300. Gap [GPS 21.73 -0.25 (-1.14%) ] also launched a premium denim line, with prices at around $70.
There's also been a lot of consolidation in the sector, Chen said. When she attended trade shows five years back, half the floor was taken up by start-up denim brands — but those companies are no longer able to survive, she said.
Despite the challenging environment, Marc Flashberg, a veteran of the textile industry, designed a new line of women's premium stretch denim to debut in seven Theory stores around Thanksgiving.
Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition
Flashberg's goal for Marc Allison jeans was to make comfort a priority, by first creating a movable fabric. From there, he worked on style. Though he isn't sure at what price Theory will mark the jeans, he expects them to run in the $175 to $195 price range.
"If the product is right, it doesn't matter when it is — it will sell," Flashberg said.
Rising denim sales haven't been restricted to the premium market, Chen said. Although Levi's has struggled domestically, denim sales at teen apparel stores such as American Eagle [AEO 15.25 -0.02 (-0.13%) ] and Aeropostale [ARO 32.70 0.47 (+1.46%) ] have held up, despite the retailers recently showing signs that they've been hit by a decrease in discretionary spending.
That's partly a result of the spending behavior of the younger generation, which has subbed out the khakis in its closet for jeans as the new staple for business casual, she said.
Even though the National Retail Federation predicts gift card spending will decline by nearly 5 percent this holiday, denim and electronics are the top two uses for the cards, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group.
"Denim will likely continue to grow just shy of 5 percent for the year and gain even more momentum into 2010," Cohen said.
As far as self-indulgence, in a typical year, consumers hit the mall with a "one for them, two for me" attitude, Chen said. So although the National Retail Federation predicts holiday spending to drop 1 percent this year, it's still a significant improvement over last year's 3.4 percent decline.
"Maybe now it's one for me and one for them, whereas last year it was none for anybody," Chen said.
And that could mean more green for blue jeans.