By  on November 9, 2011

It’s hard to keep a good fabric — never mind a classic American fashion item — down.

Perhaps that helps explain the solid performance of women’s jeans despite a variety of challenges in the U.S. denim market, from higher prices to shifting fashion assortments, and the overall macroeconomic climate, which continues to be buffeted by high unemployment and low consumer confidence.

But perform jeans have, and in a manner superior to the rest of the women’s sportswear business.

In the 12 months ended Sept. 30, sales of women’s jeans were up 3.2 percent, to $8.65 billion from $8.38 billion in the prior-year period, according to the most recent data from The NPD Group, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm. Units dipped 2.7 percent, to 360.1 million from 370.1 million, but that decline was more than offset by a 3.5 percent increase in the average price of a pair of jeans at retail, which rose 3.5 percent to $23.38 from $22.58 in the year ended in September 2010.

The upward shift in pricing, reversing a deflationary trend stretching out over years, came from a number of sources, none more important than the dramatic rise in the cost of cotton that elevated the price of cotton-based products at all levels of distribution, from discounters to luxury retailers. Suppliers and retailers of fashion denim, however, took the inflationary pattern as a reminder that their products would be salable based not on their price tags, but by the innovation they could bring to elements ranging from jeans’ construction and design to their marketing and in-store presentation.

The denim sold to female consumers in 2011 hasn’t been immune from the promotional pressures faced by stores throughout the retail landscape, but it’s had a story to tell to the consumer. Perhaps the most important of these has been the ever-widening palette that kept stores from falling into the “just another pair of blue jeans” trap.

Closets and drawers were well-stocked with various shades of indigo, but the presence of brights and pastels in stores resonated with women during the spring, summer and fall, not only keeping denim numbers healthy but also opening up opportunities for stores to sell new tops to go with jeans. Just as the skinny silhouette appeared to be growing tired, flared legs materialized as the next fashion silhouette. Treated fabrics, such as waxed denim, and alternative cloths such as corduroy found their way into lines. Even as producers of premium jeans like J Brand diversified to expand their franchises into wider ranges of sportswear, they worked to strengthen their denim assortments with fresh fashion, cognizant of the futility of trying to compete in the fashion arena with price as the means of differentiation.

As a result, jeans were among the stronger performers in the women’s sportswear arena and actually increased their share of the business. Overall, women’s sportswear dollars ticked up just 0.8 percent in the year ended in September, to $86.76 billion from $86.07 billion, even as units suffered a smaller decline than jeans, off 2.3 percent to 5 million. (NPD defines sportswear to include tops, bottoms, jackets and blazers, dresses, outerwear and fleecewear.) While jeans’ share of women’s sportswear units was essentially flat, at 7.2 percent, its share of sales moved up to 10 percent from 9.7 percent in the corresponding period ended in September 2010.

“Denim is a category that tends to do better than the overall market,” observed Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, “and you can look for denim to stay that way until something comes along to dethrone it as the ultimate purchase that consumers are willing to make. There’s always been the quest for the perfect pair. The customer is still looking for the perfect pair, but now they’re looking for not just durability and fit, but the right service, the right innovation, the right technology.”

Cohen believes those are among the reasons that specialty stores have taken such an inordinate amount of market share from other channels of distribution and don’t appear to be giving any of it back. In the most recent 12 months, specialty store sales of women’s jeans grew 11.1 percent, to $3.67 billion from $3.3 billion in the prior-year period, and lengthened their market share lead to a hefty 42.4 percent of overall sales from 39.4 percent in the prior year.

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