The emergence of designer-jeans -- Sixteen years ago, Americans first squeezed into really, really tight denim

By Laura C. Smith
Updated June 23, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

With a sharp intake of denim and breath, blue jeans in the ’70s tightened their hold on ’60s hippiedom to become the second skin of disco-dancing, high-living swingles of the Me Decade. Retooling the boxy Levi’s look into formfitting pants with fancy stitching and big labels, designer-jeans makers pocketed nearly half a billion dollars in 1979. And on June 25 that year, the once-humble trousers received the cultural counterpart of being knighted: The New York Times proclaimed them a full-fledged phenomenon with the feature ”Status Jeans: Lucrative Craze.”

Promising to make their wearers chic and sexy, designer jeans cost about $35, roughly twice the price of down-to-earth Levi’s. Racy TV commercials featuring flirting preteens and topless women helped them make headlines and profits. They also made history — the companies spent up to 10 percent of revenue on advertising. The hype fit the market like a glove. Women ignored sticker shock, lay down on the floor, inhaled deeply, and zipped themselves into the status givers en masse. But while many designer-jeans companies invented such sophisticated names as Sergio (”Ooo, Sergio!”) Valente, Jordache, and Sasson, more derrieres were decorated by two all-American monikers: Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein.

Socialite Vanderbilt led the signature pack in 1979 by selling 6 million pairs. Her approach bypassed sex for social standing, but she was soon outclassed. In 1980, in an advertising masterstroke, second-place Klein launched his first TV campaign, a series of sultry, enigmatic spots starring then-15-year-old model Brooke Shields. A size 7 poured into her size 5 Calvins, Shields knowingly waggled while Richard Avedon’s camera ogled her like an invisible Humbert Humbert; in the most memorable — and ubiquitous — TV ad, Shields purred, ”You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” A few stations banned the commercial, but Klein grabbed the jeans lead and kept it, selling 15 million pairs in 1981. ”We’re not selling a product — we’re selling a name; it will last forever,” crowed a Jordache exec in 1980. He was right about jeans, but not about names. Numbed by too many brands and counterfeiters, consumers in the early ’80s moved on to newer labels or back to timeworn Levi’s. Shields went on to Princeton, and except for Klein, the upstarts struggled just to stay afloat. But though their once-proud labels and clingy fit faded into history, the jeans makers left a unique legacy: They had forever elevated the lowly dungaree, a descendant of the even lowlier coverall, into a rarefied status symbol.

Time Capsule
June 25, 1979
Music fans deeply loved the Bee Gees’ ”Love You Inside Out,” and moviegoers took Manhattan. The White Shadow netted TV viewers, while readers ate up Dr. Herman Tarnower’s The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.