Dungaree Cool: How a Trend Can Flip a Fashion Retailer on its Head

Published: Apr 8, 2023  |  

Store and cafe owner and advocate for independent retail 


In the early 2010s, fashion trendsetter Alexa Chung wore some dungarees. They instantly became cool again. And as of 2023, they still are. The end. Thanks for reading.

Except that’s not the complete story. It took a whole lot more than a glamorous fashion nymph throwing on some stonewash vintage dungs to switch the narrative on this particular garment. There was some real stigma to break apart first.

This is certainly no indictment of the fabulous Ms Chung—a trend rarely represents a groupthink epiphany on a societal level and one person is not a wave. No, a wave grows steadily as more water and energy joins it… and then it suddenly crests and ceases to be. And what follows is a look at the swell of the wave, not the crest. For reasons that will become very clear later, the thought of the crest is all too depressing.

Forgive me for returning to Alexa for a moment. In 2014, Hadley Freeman wrote a Guardian article called Thinking of buying dungarees? Just don’t expect them to transform you into Alexa Chung. Of dungarees she wrote, “don’t be surprised to find you wear them precisely once before dumping them at the local charity shop.” Nine years later, dungarees find themselves the subject of gushing Vogue pieces, have rails dedicated to them at Selfridges and have become a comfort-wearing mainstay of many an a-list celebrity. 

So, what put the rocket boosters under dungarees to make them cool again (as Dexys did in the eighties)? It’s arguable that no one thing pushed them over the edge but a number of factors coalesced to make them incredibly hot. To find out what these could be, I asked our customers what they loved about dungarees and three themes recurred again and again: comfort, prints and practicality.

[Full disclosure: my high street retail business Yella Brick Road sells mountains of dungarees and asking our shoppers for their opinions was akin to asking a congregation why they love the bible.]

And we adore dungarees too, but that wasn’t always the case. Indeed, like many fashion retailers, we were reluctant to pull the trigger on them and it wasn’t until 2019 that we finally took a gamble on a dungaree brand—and what a bloomin’ good decision that was. It turned our business’s pace of growth from a light amble to a full-on sprint.

This is no great revelation, is it? Fashion retailer sells something fashionable and does well off the back of it. No, but it does exemplify just how one decision that initially seems relatively innocuous can have large ramifications for a business. Hooking into the early dungaree trend has:

  •   Enabled us to reach a new audience and a wonderfully communicative sub-group of dungaree fans. Their feedback and loyalty over the past four years has been immeasurable.
  •   Allowed us to reinvest and explore new areas. Some of these have been hugely successful, some admittedly less so.
  •   Afforded Yella Brick Road kudos by virtue of selling a hot name, which meant that we could persuade other desirable brands to make us official retailers, too.

The fabulous UK company whose dungarees we sell is Run & Fly and we really should send them a box of chocolates and some flowers for giving us the extra little nudge forward that we needed. Their products (they don’t just sell dungarees) have played a not insignificant part in us expanding rapidly in 2023.

Returning to our customer feedback, it is in the intersection of those three factors that we find the reason for the desirability of dungarees. Attractive trend-led fun prints, the flattering oversized style meaning bags of comfort, ease of access for different physical requirements… oh, and pockets. It’s a measure of how much women’s fashion has an unwritten vendetta against pockets that our customers raved consistently about having actual practical pockets for a change. 

It’ll come as little surprise that the dungaree boom started during covid lockdowns when people were stuck in their homes and needed something to relax in. While both lounge and activewear experienced sale spikes in 2020, they weren’t for everyone. Dungarees, with their practicality and quirky patterns, brightened those dreary days for many others.

There was a particularly great bit of feedback that I wanted to pick out before I wrap up. “They aren’t conventionally ‘feminine,’ which makes me feel powerful,” the customer said. Given many of the preconceptions and stereotypes around dungarees, I absolutely adored this comment. Once a niche product and laden with unfair connotations, they now are becoming mainstream symbols of powerful femininity. Just wonderful. 

As ever, mainstream retailers are catching up and they’re going to jump on their massive surfboards and ride this wave until they bring it crashing down under their immense weight. Fair enough. Plus ça change. There’s no point in shouting at the sea and moaning that the tide is lapping at our feet. There will be another wave (maybe with Alexa Chung paddling over) and hopefully we’ll catch that one at just the right time, too.

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