By  on July 10, 2008

BARCELONA — Denim companies exhibiting at last week’s Bread & Butter Barcelona fair were taking their fashion cues from the Seventies, embracing lighter colors and washes, and moving back to slightly distressed treatments for spring.

Trends included clean, stripped-down silhouettes and a lighter, laundered denim. Distressed and vintage washes with tears and patches were prevalent, while leg openings ran the gamut from skinny drainpipes, boot-cut and wide-leg styles.

Wrangler’s summer collection, called Flag, features traditional American flag motifs, stripes and Western detailing.

“We have expanded our lines with additional casualwear items and accessories in order to compete in the higher end of the market,” said Simon Dowling, commercial director.

Milan-based Sweet Years featured a Seventies “California Dreamin” theme with ruffled denim sundresses, skirts, playsuits and a new line of puckered Western-style shirts in stretch cotton. The label introduced a nondenim line of gym separates in high-tech fabrics and snappy colors dubbed Move Up. The line wholesales for 35 to 60 euros, or $55 to $95 at current exchange.

In some cases, exhibitors said they were redefining their merchandise to include additional denim items.

“Denim is more and more important to our product mix,” said Colin Clarke, U.K. sales director of Firetrap. “Currently, it’s about 28 percent. We’d like to see it grow to at least 35 percent. Denim is a 12-month business and it’s easy to replenish stock.”

Firetrap sells to 300 doors in the U.K., its principal market. Spring styles feature workwear fabrics like ticking stripes, lighter washes, chambray and twill.

While still attracting a sizable crowd, evidence of a slowing global economy showed during the fair that ended its three-day run on July 4. Exhibitor participation slimmed by 60 from the January edition to 893 brands. The number of visitors attending on the first day dipped to 30,500, about 500 less than a year ago. For the first time since the Berlin-organized sportswear and contemporary apparel show took root in Barcelona three years ago, overall attendance decreased to 89,168, a decline of 2.5 percent over last July.

Karl-Heinz Müller, founder and managing director, said 72 percent of attendees were foreigners representing more than 100 countries.

“We want to grow, but not at the expense of quality,” said Müller, adding that he didn’t feel the declines in exhibitors and attendance were indicative of a crisis.

But some attendees felt the show was “flat” and had regressed to becoming primarily a jeans and streetwear fair. Laura Schumacher, American owner of the Spain-based Web site, which sells hand-stitched espadrille styles and coordinated handbags, said she had difficulty finding new and innovative products.

“I really want to jump on something new and I haven’t found it,” Schumacher said. “The first year, you could discover lots of niche labels. Now, the show is for big brands only.”

Rick Spielberg, vice president of Los Angeles-based Hudson Jeans, acknowledged a change in the atmosphere.

“The show is quieter than last year,” he said. “There are not that many premium stores here, which tells me more retailers are shopping locally in their respective countries.”

Despite the woes, several premium denim labels are achieving significant growth.

“In Europe, we’re 100 percent ahead of last year and it’s the same in Canada, Australia and the U.S.,” Spielberg said. “If you have the right product, you’re outside the bubble of economic conditions.”

Deepak Gayadin, executive vice president of North American sales at G-Star, said, “We’ve had an amazing season and our reorders for 2008 have doubled.”

For spring, G-Star is moving away from vintage looks and focusing on natural worn-in styles and lighter washes.

“We’re moving away from stiffness,” said Gayadin, adding that fits are more comfort-conscious and the hot new silhouette is a dressier chino.

G-Star used the show to showcase its first nondenim line, called Raw Correct, a tailored 40-piece collection featuring outerwear, suits, dresses, skirts, hoodies and knits in luxury fabrics such as cashmere, silk and leather. Set to launch in January, the line’s price points will start at $50 for T-shirts and reach as high as $200 for jackets.

The line will be important for the U.S., where the brand operates 120 franchised stores, with an additional 50 planned by yearend. Units will open in New York’s SoHo neighborhood by September and in Miami by Thanksgiving. Plans are under way for stores in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Calif., Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan.

Denim companies placed emphasis on growing their global market share by opening their own branded stores.

“Their role is to drive revenue and profit, and they represent a window to the world for us,” said You Nguyen, senior vice president and creative director of Levi’s. “We will continue to roll out new stores and renovate existing locations well into next year.”

Levi’s aims to have between 550 and 600 retail units by yearend.

Custodio Dalmau, co-owner of Custo Barcelona, also has significant retail expansion on tap. The company plans to open stores in Honolulu, San Diego, Miami’s South Beach and a third store in New York by October, giving it 18 U.S. locations. Additional openings include 22 franchised shops in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the end of next year. Seven locations in Brazil are pending, he said.

Nguyen said the impact of rising food and energy costs that have affected the U.S. market are beginning to be felt in Europe.

“From a European perspective, it hasn’t hit us like the rest of the world, but we do sense a definite slowdown, particularly in the south of Europe,” he said.

Levi’s spring styles focus on sun-drenched colors. Key silhouettes include short shorts under a sleeveless duster coat, pants with exaggerated flare and baby-doll dresses over cropped jeans for what Nguyen called “a more street-driven contemporary denim look.”  

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