By  on November 29, 2007

LOS ANGELES — With newcomers entering the market and dressmakers reclaiming space on the sales floor, premium denim designers are pumping up their products with stylistic touches that go beyond a new wash or eye-catching embroidery on a back pocket.

Pushing fashion in the premium denim market might cost more time and money, but it has become a requirement for success.

Amy Stephenson faced skepticism when she decided to jump on the crowded denim bandwagon to launch a premium label this fall. However, nine months after starting The Stephenson Denim Finery in Los Angeles, she surpassed her initial sales projections by 30 percent, landed her wares in top-tier stores like Bergdorf Goodman and American Rag Cie, and teamed with national retailer Anthropologie to create a diffusion line, dubbed Enson. One of the keys to her early success was a $250 pair of denim sailor pants accentuated with an octet of oversize buttons and a buckle on the small of the back to perfect the fit.

"I knew that I couldn't come out with another five-pocket jeans line," said Stephenson, 37, whose previous experience included freelancing for denim companies and designing sportswear for Garfield & Marks. "In order to even get the time of day from any of the stores — the high-end stores I was targeting — I would have to do something special."

Jason Ferro, founder of Los Angeles' Bread Denim, knows the tough nature of the denim industry makes it difficult to stand out in a sea of brands, making it important to add designer touches.

"So many brands knock each other off fit-wise and change it with embroidery and hardware," Ferro said. "It's nice to see a little creative construction and detailing with a jean."

For Bread's signature style, Ferro scalloped the hemline so the front hovered a couple of inches higher than the back and twisted the outside seam to curve toward the inner leg. Other brands, such as Pegah Anvarian, have roughed up the edges on jumpsuits, skinny jeans and shrunken racer-back vests with tiny zipper teeth. Aristocrat in Beverly Hills added trapunto stitching to the waistband of its wide-leg jeans for a quilted look. At Le Jean de Marithé + François Girbaud, denim veteran François Girbaud wrapped star-studded strips around the waist of a jean three times."We need real design," said Girbaud while promoting Le Jean at the Las Vegas edition of Project Global Tradeshows in August.

"There aren't that many real designers in the denim market," said Girbaud, 62, who got his start in the jeans business in 1964.

Robert S. Stec, chairman and chief executive officer of I.C. Isaacs & Co. Inc., which holds the U.S. license for Girbaud, said a shift was occurring in the market.

"We think [denim is] headed back toward a fashion cycle," he said. "Other than making the wash lighter or darker, there's nothing new out there."

Retailers are demanding something new and fresh, as well.

"We're so sick of seeing jeans," said Hillary Rush, owner of a namesake contemporary shop in Los Angeles that mixes denim brands like Anlo, J Brand and 18th Amendment with contemporary looks from Sunner, James Perse and Nili Lotan.

With the new focus on fashion, denim brands are "giving you a lot of details, this and that, between colors and new kinds of fabrics, four-way stretch, memory stretch," she said.

The differentiation may be necessary, but even Rush admitted that, for instance, she couldn't explain the difference between four-way and memory stretch. She is certain of one thing, though: "People have to give you more than a basic jean."

The demand for fashion denim began building a year ago, said Kaci Wilson, denim buyer at Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif., which stocks 35 brands. While denim retails for an average of $170, fashion denim sells between $190 and $240, she said. Even with increased competition from dresses and other sportswear, Fred Segal Fun has been able to maintain steady denim sales thanks to the novelty pieces, Wilson said.

"Because [shoppers] can wear it every day, they want a variety," she said. "That's why fashion denim is doing so well right now."

Wilson cautioned that designers must strike a balance between being fashionable and over the top.

"I tend to go for things that are fashion-forward but are still wearable, which can be difficult," she said.Brands that can successfully bridge the comfort of denim with stylistic details stand to improve their sales. Tadd Zarubica, founder of Los Angeles' Denim of Virtue, said his lilac, turquoise and cotton candy pink dyed jeans can be stocked on the denim floor and in the fashion bottoms department.

"It gives me more places to play in," Zarubica said.

Pegah Anvarian, who will introduce seven denim styles wholesaling from $150 to $300 for the spring season as part of her signature designer label, strove to make jeans that clung to the skin like her signature Modal jersey but were made of a finely woven denim created by a Japanese mill exclusively for her. Drawing inspiration from a recent trip to Antwerp, Belgium, as well as photographer Guy Bourdin's eccentric photos from the Eighties, she limited her palette to black and stone. To jazz up the styling, she shrouded faceted jewels in silver and black leather.

"It makes it sophisticated," she said.

While offering five times as many styles in her main line as she does in her denim grouping, Anvarian forecast that the new category will generate $1 million at wholesale in the first year.

"I do a lot of jersey and you can back it into the denim," Anvarian said.

Some labels are backing out of a concentration on basic denim. Stephenson Denim Finery offered one five-pocket, boot-cut for next spring, compared with 18 basic styles for fall. In Aristocrat's first season, it offered three basic cuts — boot, skinny and straight — in 30 washes, while fashion denim made up 15 percent of the lineup. Next spring, fashion denim will comprise half the collection, including a wide-leg trouser that draws the eye to the high waist with rows of trapunto stitching set a quarter inch apart. Retailing for $224, that style is the priciest in the collection.

"What really makes it more expensive is the labor," said Aristocrat owner Bob Bak. "Those multistitches are done manually. No machine is going to do that for you."

Bak believes the extra effort and attention to detail will translate into strong sales.

"The winners are the consumers and the retailers because they have something that has a distinguished, better quality," he said.

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