Sun-kissed images of jeans-clad lovers cavorting in the sand. Snapshots capturing Hollywood’s glitterati decked out in dungarees and diamonds. Rockers at concerts sponsored by big denim brands.
These are just a few examples of California’s infinite presence in the denim trade and how its native myths have helped boost this endlessly morphing category.
The state landscape and culture have served as a treasure trove of inspiration for denim companies here — including the original Levi Strauss dating back to 1851 — to mine and appropriate into their brand images and designs. A century and a half later, the Golden State keeps churning out white-hot denim brands that show no ennui in referencing their birthplace.
“California got lucky because of the Gold Rush. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about denim today,” said Kevin Jones, museum curator at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. “As a result, denim has been part of the culture from Hollywood and James Dean to our world of music. It’s a natural for these apparel firms to borrow from these cultural resources. It lends an aura of authenticity.”
A couple of modern-day denim icons come to mind in illustrating the point. Since its launch in 1981, Guess Inc. continues tapping Hollywood glamour and allure, borrowing styling cues from the Fifties. Those provocative yet sophisticated portraits of ripe and upcoming models, from Claudia Schiffer to Anna Nicole Smith, have continued for 20 years, with the latest party girl, Paris Hilton, tweaking the formula.
In the Nineties, Lucky Brand Jeans opened up shop, borrowing its look from the hippie-chic streets of Haight-Ashbury with vintage-inspired jeans and bohemian blouses. The theme shines through at the company’s recently opened store at the Hollywood & Highland retail complex in Hollywood. It features a storefront painted in oversized paisleys, hardwood floors also stenciled with paisleys and walls lined in vintage designs. The motif continues in a Sunset Boulevard billboard designed with paisleys and younger images of founders Gene Montesano and Barry Perlman. “California is a big part of the brand,” said Scott Formby, senior vice president of creative direction at Lucky Brand Jeans.
Of course, why California resonates as the go-to, marketing-idea resource for a lot of these companies is the endless sex appeal oozing from the Hollywood, music and beach scenes.Such a state of mind are these reference points that, in some cases, the actual players in the myth don’t even have to live here. That they’re associated with this thing called Hollywood is enough.
“The nontraditional culture of California — the weather, the rebellious spirit, the expressive nature of the people — provides those sexy emotions that can transfer to clothing,” said Marc Gobé, chief executive of brand consultancy Desgrippes Gobé and author of the book “Emotional Branding.”
Gobé said Gap’s multimillion-dollar ad campaign last fall featuring a playful Sarah Jessica Parker was a smart move for the denim purveyor in connecting to a high-wattage celebrity. (It’s a tactic the company unabashedly embraces. Madonna and Missy Elliott were the stars in an ad blitz last summer and Gap highlighted 50 celebrities, including Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson and Sissy Spacek, in 2002.)
“[Parker] brought a lot of sensuality, energy to the brand and brought a very strong fashion statement to it,” he said.
Certainly, celebrities are a slam-dunk generator of sales for denim brands, providing instant validation to buyers as well as consumers. Just ask the makers of Blue Cult, who landed on the fashion map when Gwyneth Paltrow wore the jeans in 2000.
“The power of the celebrity attachment to a brand is so apparent — the minute a celebrity wears it, we see a direct link to sales,” said Tara Narayan, marketing director of Blue Pen Inc., which houses the Blue Cult, Sacred Blue and Blue2 brands.
Like other denim brands based here, Joie and Hudson Jeans among them, the Blue Pen brands also have witnessed the as-seen-on-TV domino effect impact sales after outfitting the stars of ABC’s hit, “Desperate Housewives,” as well as Angelina Jolie’s guest spot on NBC’s “Ellen Degeneres Show,” when the star showed off her back tattoo — and provided viewers a cameo of the line’s rear pockets and fit.
Even denim brands beyond the California state border come knocking to steal the spotlight for their own advertising spreads.
Sam Shahid, whose agency, Shahid & Co., manages the advertising for Abercrombie & Fitch and its division, Hollister, said he turned to the beachside city of Santa Monica, Calif., and its Shangri-La Hotel rooftop for his Calvin Klein ads in the Eighties. He still turns to the region occasionally for shoots for A&F and the Tse cashmere line.“It’s natural for denim companies to use the area because most people in the world don’t live like those on the West Coast,” he said. “You can create fantasies and people can pretend to live like those images in the ads.”
And those images “drive the entire denim business,” according to Thomas George, owner of the E Street Denim emporium in Highland Park, Ill.
Those impressions also stem from the backgrounds of the company founders themselves.
Rock & Republic co-owner Michael Ball grew up in the rock industry, thanks to his mother, who dated musicians and producers of albums by the Monkees, Jethro Tull and Iron Butterfly. He attended his first concert at age 3, and by the time he turned 14, he was stealing his mom’s car to get to concerts at Sunset Boulevard legendary nightspots the Rainbow and the Roxy.
“Rock is always my influence and the way we market and promote the denim line is not unlike the way you market a new album,” Ball said.
Last year, the company threw promotional parties in Madrid, London, Paris, Tokyo and Toronto, showcasing its fashion shows on the plasma screens of international stores. Bringing music acts to the fashion shows, from Crystal Method to Billy Morrison, has helped infuse legitimacy to the product. The line also pays homage to rock stars by naming designs after them, including the Joan Jett, a ripped style.
Can’t-miss C&C California, which launched just two years ago as a T-shirt firm and has grown to $21 million in sales (and found a new parent in Liz Claiborne Inc.), is keeping its sunshine logo and Seventies surfer vibe in its new denim line. That means its garment-dyed denim will be colored mango, lime green and neon cherry and will feature a rear U-shaped back seam and small, front thigh pockets embroidered in blue and yellow. The look stems from the founders’ love of the SoCal region where they grew up.
“Basically, we look at everything and say, ‘Would Ali MacGraw wear this?’” said Claire Stansfield, who started the line with Cheyann Benedict. “We like to remember stuff from childhood — from ‘Three’s Company’ to ‘The Brady Bunch,’ which were filmed here and represented a happy time when things were a little campy and not so serious.”But treading the fine line of staying authentic and modern is a delicate dance. Just ask Levi’s, which has weathered a seven-year sales swoon, and has struggled to find its new identity in today’s directional denim market. Last spring, it retapped the California mystique with its California Confidential collection, merging surf and music influences.
“We have what no one else has: an archive that dates back to the turn of the century,” said Janine Chilton-Faust, design director at Levi’s. “The inspiration is always there, to take those great original products and feminize them for today’s trends.”
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