Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Forget the falling consumer-confidence index. If you want to discern the mood of the consumer, monitor the denim index.

Uh-oh Sergio. This season designers and merchandisers have decided that if women are going to spend their tax rebate on one article of clothing, it’s going to be denim. The fabric is being pitched both to teenyboppers and to matrons (but please, ladies, lay off the low-rise jeans). It clogs the aisles everywhere from the designer flagship in SoHo to the mall by the highway interchange.

The troubled Gap embraces its first love in its new denim-centric ad campaign, even as Dior offers denim handbags stamped with its logo. There’s frayed denim, fur-lined denim, plastic-coated denim, patch-worked, studded, embroidered and bejeweled denim. Denim trench coats, pantsuits, purses, shoes, underwear, cell-phone covers. And, oh yeah, denim jeans: creased, hip-hugging, flair-legged and tight, fit for a disco inferno. It’s like a ’70s revival-or it would be, if the ’70s hadn’t already been revived five years ago.

Today the merchandisers pushing denim gush over it as timeless, classic, versatile, crossing every barrier of age and lifestyle, always appropriate. In other words, it’s the perfect fashion gimmick for an uncertain time.

For Americans anxiously wondering when, oh when, it will be safe to venture back into tech stocks, denim is to fashion what comfort food is to cuisine. It is risk free, the default position for consumers who don’t know what to expect next.

Three years ago, another familiar material was ripped from its conventional fashion context to be reborn in dozens of must-have forms: fur. In those golden days, nothing said “in on the ground floor of an IPO” like a mink sweatshirt, bra or bedroom slipper. It was all very high-low: treating an expensive luxury as if it were, well, a denim jacket, something to throw on before heading out to the grocery store in the SUV.

Back then, luxury was everyday; today, everyday does double duty for luxury. It’s a sign of the times that this year one shows up wearing denim in situations that once called for fur. The strapless denim schmatte that Britney Spears donned for this year’s American Music Awards says high-low, too, but starting from the other end.

Denim is facing its toughest job since the ’49ers panned for gold wearing Levi Strauss’ pants. It has to entice money out of the wallet of the consumer, that Atlas on whose buckling shoulders the nation’s precarious economic health rests. Optimists and pessimists agree that the future of the GNP depends on consumers holding up their end until business catches its breath and starts spending once more.

With so much of the blue stuff now in the stores, we can say, As goes denim, so goes the nation. That denim is a low-anxiety purchase could be helpful. Everyone already feels comfortable wearing it, which is more than one can say for riding pants, another fashion being pushed this fall. It’s just the kind of thing a consumer might buy at a time when she’s hesitant about buying anything.

Unlike python or pashmina, those must-haves of bonanza times, denim is not “investment” clothing-a good thing now that the word “investment” is as often associated with losing money as with making it. And in contrast to the recessionary early ’90s, when chastened yuppies dressed like monks, there’s an appealing low-rent frivolity inherent in a studded denim bag or a pair of graffiti-splashed jeans, perfect for the feisty shopper who is down but not yet out.

Yet for all the designers’ efforts to make denim flash and shine, the truth is that it’s kind of boring. After all, the average American already owns seven pairs of jeans and a denim jacket. Who doesn’t have a few well-worn pairs in the closet? Can we be enticed into buying more of it in its new fashion-of-the-millisecond form, knowing that by next April it will end up in storage beside our circa-1978 Sassoons?

For those who believe fashion is economic destiny, all this denim is a little scary. The last time it was in fashion to shake your denim-encased booty, energy prices were cripplingly high, stock prices were in a years-long trough and stagflation was wreaking havoc on the American dream. On the bright side, miniskirts (in denim, natch) are in this year, too. Wall Street folklore has it that rising hemlines means economic good times. Which better foretells our economic future: bare legs or bell-bottoms? Keep your eye on denim.