By  on October 4, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Fashion denim is giving specialty stores a boost this fall.

Bored with basic blue jeans and on the hunt for quality, specialty store customers are snapping up denim dipped in jewel tones, coated with wax, printed with leopard spots and fashioned with other novel treatments and fabrics. Despite mood-dampening reports about the stock market, weak consumer confidence and higher fabric prices and manufacturing costs, premium denim shoppers are willing to spend at least $160 a pair and sometimes more than $200.

“The girl is willing to pay for newness in her closet,” said Marc Crossman, president and chief executive officer of Joe’s Jeans in City of Commerce, Calif. Joe’s new styles that are retailing well include leopard-print skinny jeans and fitted, superstretchy jeans that are touted to be as comfortable as sweatpants.

“They are absolutely willing to pay for the trend and fashion,” he said. “There’s so much going on in terms of new fashion and novelty. It’s really driving the business.”

At J Brand, fall sales are up 40 percent from a year ago, according to ceo Jeff Rudes, supporting his theory that jeans are recession-proof. From jodhpur-style jeans and corduroys to stretch leather that retails for about $900 a pair, shoppers are looking for fashion.

“Women are always looking for that new pair of jeans,” Rudes said. “If you deliver the right product, she’ll respond.”

While Rudes acknowledged that the specialty store business is “a difficult marketplace,” J Brand’s growth suggests that “it’s about merchandising the right product that customers want,” he said.

For instance, Los Angeles-based retailer Ron Herman sold out of the pricy stretch leather jeans in two days, and another major retail account sold over 12,000 J Brand jeans in the last three weeks.

The denim business is mirroring the broader trend in retail, with premium growing just as luxury has. Consumers are willing to pay for quality and newness but pull back on spending when confronted with familiar items they already have in their closets.

Shelley Barham, vice president of women’s sales at Citizens of Humanity, said one of the Huntington Park, Calif.-based company’s top-selling items is a superflare style with a 27-inch leg opening and a $228 price tag. Customers are also scooping up selvage jeans that retail for between $220 and $250.

“Consumers are being more focused on their buying,” she said. “There’s definitely a shift in their purchasing. That’s why we’re seeing great sales on things that are expensive.”

In the denim industry, quality can be manifested in the fabric, design details and feel of the jeans.

“They’re willing to pay for something a little more luxurious and special,” Barham said. “They might not be buying the quantity and number of items that they do in a season, but they are really looking at the quality of the product and are willing to pay for that. The consumer is really responsive to great value and great product and great design and not just necessarily looking for fast fashion.”

To differentiate themselves from fast fashion, specialty stores are emphasizing customer service and a personal shopping experience. Blues Jean Bar, a specialty store chain that operates 10 stores across the country, posted what owner Lady Fuller described as “very strong sales” in September. Same-store sales increased 30 percent from a year ago, she said. Some best-selling styles at Blues Jean Bar include MiH Jeans’ $200 Marrakesh flare jeans in a deep indigo wash, DL1961’s $168 Emma leggings in a brown waxed coat and James Jeans’ $120 Twiggy red skinny jeans.

“We had some of the best days in September that we haven’t seen since pre-2008 [before the recession],” Fuller said, adding that the customer searching for fashion denim is “less price-sensitive of a customer.”

Customers haven’t thrown price entirely out the window. Fuller said the majority of styles she stocks are priced between $100 and $200. Still, in addition to fashion, the customer is willing to pay top dollar for fit.

“If they’re choosing between a $120 jean that fits OK and a $180 jean that looks slim and awesome on them, they’re going to pick the $180 jean,” she said.

Blues Jean Bar isn’t the only specialty retailer benefiting from a sales boom. Joe’s Jeans’ Marc Crossman said the specialty store business started picking up six months ago. As Joe’s promotes its 55 Colors program that lets retailers buy whatever colored denim they want rather than being limited to a specific palette, stores have been able to merchandise their wares differently from competitors, he said. He noted that online sales are also growing across all of Joe’s accounts, thanks to e-tailers that offer free shipping and returns.

“People are comfortable buying jeans online more than they were a year ago or two years ago,” he said.

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