By  on May 26, 2011

Men’s denim sales took a slight dip in the past year as consumers concentrated more apparel spending on sportswear categories. For the 12 months ended in February, men’s denim sales slipped 2.9 percent to $5.15 billion from $5.3 billion in the year-ago period, according to The NPD Group figures. Unit sales dropped 3.4 percent to 218.4 million, while the average price of each unit inched up 0.5 percent to $23.58.

The drop in denim came as men’s sportswear sales increased 2.4 percent in the 12 months ended in February to $34.53 billion.

Despite the small overall drop in men’s sales, many brands in the premium sector have experienced strong growth over the past year, as category leaders like True Religion, Seven For All Mankind and AG Adriano Goldschmied took market share from smaller, less established players — which observers attributed to retailers that are consolidating their buys.

At True Religion, the men’s business has outpaced women’s and now represents more than 50 percent of sales. “We find men are much less resistant to price, even in our current economic situation,” said Jeff Lubell, chairman and chief executive officer of the Vernon, Calif.-based firm. “This is particularly true in our own stores. The average price of men’s jeans in our stores is well over $250.”

In the first quarter of the year, True Religion posted a 37.6 percent increase in sales in its 97 domestic stores, including a 7.4 percent comps gain.

Handcrafted washes with innovative details like one-of-a-kind shank buttons and rivets made from reclaimed tin signs are driving sales at True Religion, said Lubell — but the company also is focusing on adding less embellished styles to its merchandise mix. This fall, True Religion is introducing a new “Phantom” group of styles, providing an alternative to its usual boldly branded product. “Although embellishments are still important in the market, and will be important for our brand, there is demand for cleaner pocket styling and less stitch detail,” said Lubell.

At crosstown rival Seven For All Mankind, which is owned by VF Corp., men’s sales are also outpacing women’s. “Men’s buyers did not reduce their inventory levels like women’s did during the recession. As a general rule, the men’s business is less trend-driven, and so the assortments were kept diverse, which put them in a better position for a rebound,” said Susan Kellogg, president of VF Corp.’s contemporary brands coalition.

In washes, Seven For All Mankind is turning toward more vintage washes and away from the cleaner looks it’s best known for. “Men’s denim is heading away from the clean, dark look that has characterized the past few seasons and moving more toward authentically distressed styles,” said Kellogg.

As at many denim makers, non-indigo colors are becoming more important at Seven For All Mankind, including blacks, grays, browns and even brick red. Corduroy and chino styles in jeans fits are also key components of the mix.

Year-to-date at AG Adriano Goldschmied, sales are up 30 percent over 2010, with men’s comprising about 35 percent of total sales. The company is forecasting total brand sales of $80 million to $90 million this year.

“We’re seeing big-time increases in our slim straight leg ‘Matchbox’ fit,” said Sam Ku, men’s designer at the brand, owned by Southgate, Calif.-based Koos Manufacturing Inc. Prices for cotton and other raw materials are up about 20 to 30 percent for the company and that’s been reflected in retail prices. “It hasn’t been a huge price increase. It’s been very fair and there hasn’t been much resistance at retail,” said Ku.

At Diesel, price increases on raw materials led the company to phase out some longtime carryover fabrics and washes. “We worked hard to develop a new range of fabrics and washes, with a clear added value,” said Stefano Rosso, head of strategic brand alliances at the Molvena, Italy-based denim giant. For fall, Diesel is taking comfort to a new level with its JoggJeans, which are fashioned from denim that combines the properties of a jean and a sweat pant.

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