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Specialty stores saw no evidence of a consumer slowdown when it came to premium denim this holiday season.

Despite widespread discounting at department stores, specialty retailers found that consumers were more than willing to pay premium prices for a range of denim styles. Brands such as True Religion, Seven For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity and Paige Premium Denim proved top performers at retail and further solidified their positions as market leaders in the category. However, as those brands become more widely distributed, some shoppers are looking to smaller, lesser-known labels.

“I’ve noticed a lot more educated consumers coming in and looking for more obscure brands,” said Lawrence Scott, owner of Pittsburgh Jeans Co. Among Scott’s top performers were True Religion and Paige, but he also saw brands such as PRPS, Aristocrat and Dittos perform well.

“Lately, with a lot of the bigger guys, they’re starting to overdistribute,” said Scott. “I’m seeing a lot of people come in who say, ‘I can get these at this place or that place.’ The obscure brands are really starting to pick up now because of distribution issues.”

Thomas George, owner of E Street Denim in Chicago, experienced a similar trend. Seven For All Mankind, Citizens, Paige, True Religion and Joe’s Jeans were top sellers, but several smaller brands carved out their own niches. J Brand continued to have success with its skinny styles and George had high praise for the consistency of Hudson Jeans.

“In the ability to have a good jean on a timely basis in a nice direction, Hudson is always enjoyable to have,” said George. “I think they’re one of the ones that puts a consistent smile on your face.”

While premium denim is performing well, George noted the lack of a clear trend being offered to consumers poses difficulties to retailers and consumers alike. Skinny, boot-cut and flared-leg styles are all selling well and customers seem to be rotating through each depending on the season.

“The market is all over the board because the woman is all over the board,” said George.

As a result, brands are trying a little of everything. “It’s like we’re trying to overanalyze what this woman wants to do,” said George. “She’s waiting for us to tell her and we’re waiting for her to tell us. That’s why people are throwing so much against the wall.”

This story first appeared in the January 3, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Helen Kim, director of operations for National Jean Co., said holiday sales results showed women were buying across the range of denim styles.

“Skinnies, because of the high boots, have done well, which makes sense,” said Kim. “Wide legs have also been good because they tend to be a little bit dressier. They can be good for little dinner parties around the holiday season.”

National Jean Co. saw momentum build heading into the holiday season, driven by the opening of its first store in Manhattan and a relaunch of its Web site earlier in the year. As a result, Kim said holiday sales were “really strong.”

As with other retailers, Kim saw smaller brands flex their muscles. J Brand was one of the strongest sellers, but Anlo and Raven emerged, as well.

“Anlo is a great something that they can work in and wear out everyday — it’s a good crossover jean,” said Kim.

With brands offering ever-wider selections of styles and washes, Kim said editing assortments at retail is becoming an even bigger challenge. Customers are easily overwhelmed by too many options, she said.

“You need to be able to offer the very best washes and best fits, so you need to be very clean in what you’re offering,” she said.

Retailers uniformly attributed the extra services they offer in helping to get people in the best-fitting brands for their bodies as a key factor helping them maintain sales.

“The denim market is not like it was before, but we really haven’t seen a negative effect when it comes to our store,” said Patria Peguero, store manager at Charlie’s Jeans in Philadelphia. “We specialize in jean fitting, so people know that and come to us.”

Anlo and Union were two of the smaller brands that performed well this holiday season, along with Citizens, Seven For All Mankind, J Brand and Chip & Pepper. Wide-leg and high-rise styles were still selling, but Peguero noted that skinny styles have established themselves as more than a fad.

“It’s going to be a necessity for the fall and winter because people like to show off their boots,” she said.

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