By  on March 26, 2009

The boutiques and specialty stores that helped build some of the premium denim industry’s biggest names are being given renewed attention this fall.

While still representing the biggest volume opportunity for premium jeans brands, months of heavy discounting at department stores have taken some of the shine off the channel. In a depressed retail environment, the need to get quicker reads on what products are working has swung the pendulum back in favor of specialty stores.

Seven For All Mankind and J Brand have been the most notable labels to come out with specialty store-only brands for fall. J Brand Boutique emphasizes exclusive washes and wholesale prices that run at least 11 percent more than the starting price for the flagship line.

Jeff Rudes, who co-founded J Brand with Susie Crippen five years ago, told WWD in February that there was a desire to bring customers back to boutiques.

“We want the line to be sold and romanced the old-fashioned way, with service and trying it on in the boutique,” he said.

Seven For All Mankind will introduce Premiere 7 exclusively to independent retailers, offering product priced between $174 and $198 and featuring special fits, washes and labeling.

“This is commercially priced product that specialty stores can build volume on,” said Topher Gaylord, president of Vernon, Calif.-based Seven, a unit of VF Corp., during the Project Las Vegas trade show. “They don’t want to give all the volume to department stores.”

That said, volume is likely to be difficult to come by in the specialty channel, particularly in the near term. Boutiques have been hammered by the reeling economy and extreme discounting at major department stores in their areas. They have seen their credit capacity evaporate and many have closed their doors. The best glimpse of exactly just how dire the situation had become was presented in True Religion’s financial results for 2008.

“Sales to [U.S.] boutiques in the fourth quarter declined 36.3 percent compared to the prior-year period,” said Michael Buckley, president, during a conference call with analysts. “As economic conditions worsened throughout the year, we saw a corresponding negative trend in sales to this channel. We suspect that some of the consumers that previously purchased True Religion merchandise through this channel shifted their buying to majors and our own retail stores, as boutiques were not always able to offer the newest styles.”

True Religion’s U.S. boutique sales were down 11 percent for 2008 and management anticipates its American wholesale business will fall between 17 and 19 percent in 2009, again driven largely by declines in the specialty store channel.

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