Fashion: Dress sense

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SALES OF jeans are slumping. Denim companies are frantically diversifying into whole new clothing ranges. These days, Levi, Wrangler and Lee are no longer just the jeans that built America, but the brand names that dress America - and the rest of the world too. And while denims are not always appropriate for the office, Levi's work-wear brand, Dockers, are the preferred chinos of most working men in the States. But jeans, we are told, are staying on the shop shelves.

All sorts of reasons have been put forward to explain the lack of interest. The main one is that army fatigues - on sale in the smallest towns in England at the local army surplus shop for half the price of a pair of Levi's - have taken over. Sure enough, the majority of under 25s wear them. They have become so mainstream, they are on sale at the Gap, and Marks & Spencer even make a children's version.

When I was about six, I remember wearing my first pair of jeans. In the mid-Seventies anything khaki and unisex would have been at the top of my hate list. My first jeans were flared (naturally) and had brightly coloured flowers embroidered from the side of the knee to the ankle. I loved them. They were from a market stall and didn't have a brand name stitched on the pocket, but I thought they were really grown-up - just like my mum's. A little later in life, any jeans I wore had to be rolled on like a wetsuit, and would always be dark denim and stretch (so that I could breathe). The whole family would go on a pilgrimage to Dickie Dirt's denim warehouse, where we were each allowed to choose a pair at knock-down prices.

The thing about jeans is their universal appeal. They defy fashion (only occasionally becoming a victim of it); a classic pair of 501s will never date. Society women wear their jeans with beaded couture jumpers; factory workers wear theirs with fake designer T-shirts. Whole generations of families wear them, from six-month-old babies in Osh Kosh B'Gosh, to grannies and grandpas in M&S. And that, essentially, has been their downfall. Jeans are simply a victim of their own success and popularity. They are so functional and practical that people get attached to a particular pair. They love them so much they will never throw them away, even when they are faded and threadbare. No wonder jeans companies like Levi's and the Japanese company Evisu are desperately pushing deep indigo denim that has to be dry-cleaned to keep it looking new. It's a way of encouraging people to change their jeans more often. For the average consumer (give or take the odd denim enthusiast) the sensible old adage applies: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. !