Feel These Jeans

First-mover advantage is usually a term associated with breakout businesses, especially in the dot-com heyday. But it’s becoming a familiar refrain in the crowded denim industry, with players such as Mik Serfontaine seeking out the cutting edge.

The latest inspiration for the Los Angeles-based Serfontaine line comes in the form of denim cashmere from a Japanese mill. The cashmere represents only a fraction of the blend at 10 percent, but it’s enough to give the fabric a supple texture. Serfontaine’s prototype is a pair of five-pocket jeans with the trademark overlay pocket stitch — with a low rise, straight leg and honey-colored stitching for contrast. The matching denim jacket has two button-through chest pockets, a fitted body and western-style back stitching.

"It’s nice and basic — we want to focus on the fabric and fit, and the fit is what every woman cares about," Serfontaine said.

That fit comes at a price. The sample yardage he picked up at $23 per yard, above and beyond the typical $7 he pays, helps boost the wholesale price to $89 for the jeans and $99 for the jacket.

"I want to keep the jeans under $200 [retail]; that’s the psychological barrier," Serfontaine said.

For now, he envisions the denim cashmere styles, which will bow at the Intermezzo Collections fashion fair May 6-8 in New York, as a limited edition that may generate about $250,000 in first-year sales, with deliveries in August and September.

Another innovation for Serfontaine is the launch of his "organic wash" jeans, a name he has trademarked, first shown at Fashion Coterie in February. He said he has ditched the traditional fading technique of spraying jeans with potassium permanganate, a harsh and often harmful oxidizing agent, in favor of enzymes, hot and cold water rinses and various levels of hand-grinding for vintage effects.

Serfontaine said the actual formula is a secret, but he does divulge that the process takes about a day compared with about 45 minutes for a traditional wash. As a result, wholesale price points start at $69, higher than his basic line at $59, especially since he can churn out only some 50 pairs daily, compared with the 1,000 for his other styles. Slightly higher price points are not a worry, he said, since they typically appeal to more sophisticated consumers."We think there is a more evolved customer who is environmentally aware and would appreciate this line," Serfontaine said.

The look, offered in five styles ranging from black to rope-stitched dark denim, struck a chord with buyers from about 50 stores, including Tracey Ross in West Hollywood, Calif., and Traffic in Los Angeles, who placed orders for June 30 delivery.

"I liked the different color intensities of the denim and liked the idea of a nonchemical approach," said Carl Dias, women’s buyer for Traffic, which has locations at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., at Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood and at the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles.

Serfontaine thinks the organic wash line can generate $500,000 in its first year and eventually grow into a separate division, possibly with corduroy and canvas lines.

— Nola Sarkisian-Miller

Rush to Blue

RushCollection.com, an online subsidiary of French mail order giant La Redoute, is diving into designer denim.

The three-year-old site, which offers a more selective, upscale array of jeans than its big sister, boasts brands such as Paul & Joe, Dice Kayek, Calvin Klein and Zadig & Voltaire, as well as the jeans specialists Levi’s, Louis and Diesel.

Shoppers on the site can also purchase exclusive pieces from the Levi’s Type 1 and Red collections. Web shoppers have a choice of the latest styles or items from previous collections at a 40 percent discount.

RushCollection.com offers delivery in France and Belgium, and plans for further expansion are in the works. RushCollection.com and La Redoute are both subsidiaries of the retail and luxury group Pinault-Printemps-Redoute.

— Emilie Marsh

Additions for Blass Jeans

Resource Club Ltd., the licensee for Bill Blass Jeans, has restructured the brand to include jeans, knits and sweaters.

"All of the knits and sweaters have been specifically designed to coordinate with the Bill Blass Jeans line, allowing us to offer head-to-toe dressing and providing a lifestyle appeal for our customers," said Bonnie Stein, president of Resource Club.

Stein has appointed three new executives to design and develop the new knitwear collection. Helen Schroeder has been named vice president of design at Bill Blass Jeanswear and will be responsible for the overall design direction and overseeing the design team. She brings experience in product development and design as the former vice president of design at Donnkenny’s Pierre Cardin division, where she was for 12 years.Michele Guenther has been named vice president of merchandising. Prior to this, Guenther was the vice president of merchandising at Donnkenny’s Pierre Cardin unit, where she spent 19 years. In her new position, Guenther will plan, develop and position the division.

Katherine Phillips, previously a designer at Countrepoint, also has been added to the design team. She will be responsible for special embellishments and novel treatments, a dominant source of growth for the division. Phillips has worked for various private label companies creating her own line of knits and wovens. Guenther and Schroeder report to Stein. Phillips reports to Schroeder.

Bill Blass knits and sweaters will be introduced in June to department stores nationwide from the Bill Blass Jeanswear showroom at 1400 Broadway in New York.

— Julee Greenberg

Culture Club

Having accomplished its first mission — creating contemporary jeans with vintage-inspired fashion and fit for a 30- to 55-year-old customer — Culturalpersona is now after a younger audience, with Xvala, a new denim line.

Culturalpersona, based in Oklahoma City, Okla., debuted in October 2001. It targets "hip moms," who want fashion-forward denims, said owner-designer Jeff Hamilton. With two jeans silhouettes, the fit is constant, tweaked only by variation in hem or knee width. By combining fabric weights and washes, Culturalpersona offers some 12 styles a season, priced around $46 wholesale.

Without traditional advertising and promotion vehicles, the line also relies on TV product placement. Beth Beasley, an Atlantan transplanted from Los Angeles, where she worked in costuming for a decade, has landed the line on numerous TV shows, from "Will & Grace" to "Sex in the City."

The same alternative marketing applies to the new line, Xvala, (a made-up word), which Beasley got on a "Dawson’s Creek" episode in April. Xvala has a sexier, tighter fit and more varied styling, with multicultural design elements to appeal to the target 12- to 40-year-old customer.

"This [younger] customer especially rejects the highly commercial image of a big jeans line," said Hamilton. "We want to become embedded in the culture and not lose the edge."Unlike Culturalpersona, Xvala includes men’s and women’s product. The women’s jeans has one fit called Yrsa — a low-rise, slim, boot cut. Fabrics are 11-ounce or 12-ounce denim produced by Swift Denim. One patent-pending denim has a permanent brown casting underneath the indigo, with the color designed to emerge through washes and processing.

Six washes all take names from various world cultures. The darkest, a brown-black wash, is called "Wenge," an African word for a coffee-colored wood. The lightest, an almost white-blue color, is "Momu," or "to crumple or wrinkle," in Japanese. Diverse design elements are adapted largely from pop culture and vintage sources, said Hamilton, who also works in architectural design.

"Xvala’s X-shaped pocket stitching is inspired by Thirties’ steel-and-leather chairs designed by Mies Van der Rohe," he said.

Wholesale prices for Xvala are $50 to $56, more expensive than Culturalpersona’s $46 because of more elaborate washes and treatments. Xvala’s first-year sales are projected between $2 million and $3 million. Culturalpersona’s 2003 sales are projected at $750,000.

Produced domestically, in factories in Oklahoma and Georgia, both lines target specialty stores, with an existing account base of 250 stores nationwide, including selected Nordstrom units.

— Georgia Lee

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