By  on March 23, 2011

LOS ANGELES — The hot new trend in premium denim isn’t aesthetic, but practical: a strong partnership with retailers.

Jeans makers are increasing efforts to work more closely with merchants and boost their marketing and branding presence on the sales floor. While vendors have always tried to cultivate good relationships with buyers, the tenor of their new initiatives has heightened amid weak sales in the challenging economy. Taking a more proactive approach, denim companies want to keep their spots on the competitive sales floor, where stores are kicking out brands that fail to sell.

“This is a bull’s-eye economy,” said Gina Bloomingdale, vice president of sales at Los Angeles-based Habitual. “People are dropping lines and closing their doors. Before, if you had a 50 percent sell-through, you were OK. Now, if you’re not getting a 60 percent sell-through, they’re not coming back to see you.”

To smooth the courting process with buyers, Bloomingdale and her staff started writing thank you cards to new wholesale accounts in the last six months.

Other denim brands are also being creative with the ways they work with retailers.

If buyers pay on time, New York’s Vintage Revolution will earmark 5 percent of the order to local marketing, whether it’s an ad in a high school newspaper or a sign for a store. William Rast, the Los Angeles-based label co-founded by Justin Timberlake, began producing online videos this spring to teach retail sales clerks about trends and inspiration for the collection. Los Angeles’ Level 99 created a special subbrand called Green Label solely for Saks Fifth Avenue, whereas its sister brand, Denim of Virtue, has been selling exclusively at Forever 21 for the past six months. London-based MiH Jeans not only designed a slim rolled-cuff trouser specially for J. Crew, but it also whipped up an image of a woman dancing in its signature flare jeans for, which sold out of the style half an hour after it posted the banner.

“It’s a small investment of time and finance to support a store that wants to grow with you,” said Chloe Lonsdale, founder of MiH Jeans.

Even busy celebrity designers are willing to clear their schedules to support stores. Kellan Lutz, the up-and-coming actor who’s starring in movies such as the “Twilight” series and “Immortals,” told some retailers he met last month at Project in Las Vegas that he’d trek to the Midwest to do a personal appearance if they would buy the new clothing line, called Abbot + Main, that he’s creating with Dylan George.

“Stores are talking about picking up the line and they’re saying, ‘If you promise to do an in-store appearance,’” said Lutz, who quickly told the retailers: “Yes, I’ll do it.”

Susan Kellogg, president of VF Corp.’s contemporary brands coalition, which includes Seven For All Mankind and Ella Moss, has been making her own in-store appearances on the sly. Spending her weekends as a secret shopper, she’s been checking on Seven’s 39 stores in the U.S., wholesale accounts such as Barneys Co-op and competitors’ shops. As a result, she’s spurred her sales staff to leave their desks and cruise the sales floors.

“Everything happens at point of sale,” she said. “Wherever point of sale happens, we want our people to be there.”

After doubling Los Angeles-based Seven’s marketing budget last year, Kellogg said the company will increase marketing programs again this year to help support its new customer intimacy initiative, which launched last fall to coordinate festivities for its 10th anniversary. Covering everything from iPhone apps to e-commerce, the initiative allows Seven to “go to where [customers] shop,” Kellogg said. To encourage consumers to shop more, Seven has been hosting more events in its stores, such as a “Ladies Day Out”-themed shopping party in Dallas during Super Bowl weekend that featured a gift card raffle for the fan of the winning football team.

“Our contemporary customer likes to party,” Kellogg said.

It takes a lot of work to plan parties. That’s one reason why Hudson Jeans hired Jennifer Alexander from BCBG for the newly created position of retail marketing manager in February. Prior to Alexander’s joining the City of Commerce, Calif.-based company, Hudson hosted a 50th anniversary party for Mario’s in Seattle and sponsored styling events at Nordstrom’s locations in San Diego and Canoga Park, Calif. Still, Tony Chu, a vice president at Hudson, said the company needs someone to be totally immersed in fine-tuning partnerships with retailers.

“It’s not easy,” Chu said. “You can’t just turn on the partnership switch. You have to physically, financially, emotionally [and] spiritually invest in the process.”

For G-Star Raw, the process entails aiding a retailer in customizing a portion of their space — if not their entire shop — with furniture, shelves and fitting rooms that copy the decor of G-Star’s branded stores. The worldwide program lets specialty stores choose from three options. They can become a G-Star-only branded store, a “Q store” that stocks 65 percent of its merchandise from G-Star, or a “Q system” that devotes a minimum of 200 square feet to G-Star products. The Amsterdam-based company introduced the program three years ago, but it began ramping up efforts in the past six months. With six Q systems currently in operation, G-Star plans to unveil five Q stores within the next six months. Those stores include Rolo in San Francisco and four others in Cleveland, Atlanta, Utah and Seattle.

“The customers are more receptive to it now because there are fewer brands in stores,” said Stuart Millar, executive vice president of G-Star’s North American business. Declining to list costs and specify whether the stores or G-Star pays for the customization, he said the benefit is that “it helps to present the branding in the line.”

In the end, anything that helps jeans makers is worth the burden.

“You can’t put the onus on the store,” said Rick Spielberg, president of wholesale at William Rast. “The onus is on the manufacturer.”


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