Co-founders Jeff Rudes and Susie Crippen are out to prove that J Brand is more than a one-hit wonder.
The pair scored last year when Los Angeles-based J Brand introduced what many experts considered to be the perfect-fitting pair of skinny jeans. It helped that Angelina Jolie was wearing her J Brands in many photographs. But Rudes and Crippen contend the style can be worn by almost anyone since it is 98 percent cotton and 2 percent Lycra spandex.
The fabric is weaved to conform to a woman's body, without stretching out or being uncomfortable, the partners said. In addition, the waistband is cut on the stretch of the denim, so it will not cut across the hip and will reduce the squeeze across the back.
The J Brand line generally wholesales for $72 to $110. The company reached $25 million in sales last year and is on target to reach $36 million in volume this year, said Rudes, the firm's president.
"A woman is never going to want to wear a pair of jeans that are not comfortable," Crippen, a former celebrity stylist who is creative director, said in an interview at J Brand's Manhattan showroom at 275 West 39th Street. "When someone first puts these jeans on, they may be a little rough, but I always say to give them 20 minutes and they will become your favorite pair."
And that's been the case for many women. J Brand launched at Ron Herman in Los Angeles in 2005. Since then, the brand has become quite the craze in the denim industry, with about 1,000 specialty retailers worldwide selling out of J Brand on a regular basis. The demand has been so great that retailers such as Henri Bendel in Manhattan are creating more space for the product.
"From the moment the denim came into the store, it has done very well for us," said Ed Bucciarelli, president and chief executive officer of Henri Bendel. "Their product is very focused. They don't have 14 different styles, but rather only a couple of styles that have each attribute that a great pair of jeans needs to have. It's a very easy concept for the customer to understand."At first, the brand took up only a small rack at Bendel's. Now it has about 150 square feet in the store's denim area, which also houses jeans from lines such as True Religion, Anlo, Rich & Skinny and Gold Sign.
"J Brand came in at a really great time," Bucciarelli said. "They came with this really great, clean- and sophisticated-looking denim at a time when jeans were overly embellished. They were, and continue to be, so refreshing."
While J Brand's skinny jeans were popular last season, Rudes said that he doesn't want to become known for one type of jeans.
"Becoming known for one item is dangerous," said Rudes. "So when the skinny was hot and selling out, we chose to add in a wide leg. As it turns out, that wide-leg style is selling faster than the skinny did. Now we can't keep them in stock."
Immediately supplying stores with the next big style helped the label to avoid being known as "the skinny jeans brand," and instead as a sophisticated premium denim company, Rudes said.
And a denim brand it will stay. Rudes said he isn't concentrating on getting his jeans into new stores. Instead, he is focusing on offering new product to his existing accounts. He has even developed exclusive pieces for some of his best stores, with jeans that carry labels such as J Brand for Ron Herman and J Brand for Barney's New York.
Rudes' experience in the industry ranges from his time at A. Gold E., a brand he started with Ron Herman and Adriano Goldschmied, to working at Abercrombie & Fitch, where he helped strengthen the denim assortment. With J Brand, Rudes is committed to showing his vision of a brand that is respected by retailers and customers as a premium denim leader.
"Retailers have said, 'If your T-shirts aren't better than Splendid or C&C, then we don't want them,'" he said. "We don't know how to fit a T-shirt the way we know how to fit a pair of jeans, so that's what we do."
However, Rudes said he realizes that the brand has to grow and that globally there is plenty of room for growth. So for fall 2009, he will launch a sportswear line carrying the J Brand label, but it will be treated as a new division with a separate team of designers. Crippen said she has begun preparing for the sportswear by holding onto a collection of vintage pieces she gathered throughout the years that will serve as inspiration."It seems that a lot of jeans companies that do well go into a new category too fast," Rudes said. "When we launch our sportswear, it will have to be treated like a whole new business for us. We aren't looking to have our sportswear compete with our denim."
Even before the sportswear line goes into development, Rudes said he is on track to launch a higher-end jeans brand called R.a.C by J Brand (the R and C stand for Rudes and Crippen). Bowing in Barney's New York this fall, the collection consists of tailored jeans that highlight new fabrics Rudes and Crippen worked to develop with their Italian factories, and intricate characteristics such as finished inseams and taping details along the waistband. The R.a.C line will be priced about 25 percent higher than the existing J Brand line.
In addition to these new efforts, Rudes and Crippen said they seek to reward their 42 employees as well as those who sell their jeans in the stores.
Each sales representative in the stores receives a free pair of J Brands as well as a booklet of "designer's notes" that detail each style, fabric content, what customer they would look best on and advice on what to wear them with.
"We really want the people who are selling our jeans to be wearing them," Rudes said. "And it's also very important that they are knowledgeable about our products."
Rudes and Crippen said they are working with consultants to help them provide a better work environment. Each year, the partners allow their employees to choose a charity to which the company donates money. They soon will begin office lunches in which everyone has to stop what they are doing and join in at a large table. Post-lunch, there will be 15 minutes of required quiet time. Crippen said she also is exploring in-office yoga classes.
"It's just so important to have a happy working environment," Crippen said. "Without that, you have nothing."
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