By  on July 7, 2005

DALLAS — The strength of the denim market — epitomized by the rise of the premium jeans market in the last five years — has led to questions about when and how the denim bubble may burst.

The premium jeans segment accounts for only an estimated 3 percent of what is believed to be a $6.84 billion women's jeans market.

Data suggests the segment will continue to strengthen. Jeans costing $60 or more had a market share of 5.8 percent for the year ended in February, according to The NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y.

The contemporary denim market continues to become more crowded, competitive and pricier, driven by expensive finishes such as metallic threads and rivets, beading and embellishment, designer name-brand cachet and exclusivity. Among the lengthy list of contemporary competitors are Frankie B., Hot Kiss, People of Peace, Request, True Religion, Allen B., Glo Jeans, Calvin Klein Jeans, DKNY Jeans, Guess, Joe's Jeans, Epoch, Hudson, Heatherette and Yanuk, along with European brands such as Rifle and Super Rifle, Denim Birds, Richmond Jeans and Superfine.

Among the most recent entries is Salt Works, a New York-based denim company that has just closed the books on its first year of business. But don't even think about looking for holes, rips, flashy finishes, extreme low rises or overblown labels at Salt Works. The company eschews them in favor of basic shapes, soft washes, premium denim construction and a comfortably snug but forgiving fit.

Salt Works' philosophy has been embraced by 500 specialty accounts across the U.S., including Henri Bendel, Scoop, Barneys New York, Intermix and Bloomingdale's, all in New York, and The Jean Connection in Dallas. The label was launched last fall by company owner and president Salomon Smeke.

First-year wholesale volume has exceeded plan at $7 million, said Steve Greenfield, sales director, who forecast strong growth next year as the company prepares for a European expansion set to begin July 22 in Berlin at the Bread & Butter trade show. Other venues this year will include trade fairs in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Spain. Along with its Manhattan headquarters, Salt Works has U.S. regional distribution at showrooms in Dallas, Los Angeles and Atlanta."Our European distributors discovered Salt Works while shopping in New York and approached us this spring about an international rollout," said Greenfield, a denim-industry veteran who has worked at Earl Jean, Todd Oldham Jeans, Replay and AG Adriano Goldschmied.

"We think European women are going to really appreciate the antiflash approach that we take with the jeans and instead concentrate on fit and style at a price that's understandable and approachable. European women, like American women, are asking for jeans that have a cleaner identity."

He said several major Swiss retail chains had already previewed Salt Works and written orders.

"We are definitely in a growth mode both in the U.S. and abroad," Greenfield said. "When we launched the line, we knew that the denim market was already very crowded and that we needed a way to differentiate Salt Works from the over-the-top processed styles. We looked at price points, fabrics with a forgiving nature and silhouettes that could be dressed up or down. Within our five basic styles, we offer several washes and various degrees of whiskering."

For fall, Salt Works offers five styles that retail from $125 to $150, all named after New York streets and marketed to women ages 20 to 50, depending on rise and leg width. There's also a small men's collection that is similarly priced, along with some graphic T-shirts. For fall, women's styles include Avenue A, a low-rise flare with an 8-inch rise and a 21-inch bottom opening; Orchard Street, a low-rise fashion flare with an 8-inch rise and 21-inch bottom opening with a snap pocket on the back, and Mulberry Street, a boot-cut jean with a 9-inch rise and 18-inch leg opening.

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