Earl Eyes Expansion

Earl Jean wants to be known for more than denim.

The next two seasons are going to be a key transition period for the seven-year-old denim label, according to Bonnie Takhar, who took over as president of Earl in October. She’s preparing a major push into advertising, product extensions and licensing.

"I want to turn the label into a brand…taking it from a five-pocket denim business into more of a collection-based business," she said in a recent interview.

The first step of her effort to transform the Earl business, which was acquired by Nautica Enterprises in 2001, is an ad push for fall.

Earl ran its first campaign last fall, while it was still under the direction of former president Joe Krafka. Those ads appeared in three regional East and West Coast fashion magazines. The new ads will break in the September issues of Vogue, GQ and other major international fashion titles, as well as on billboards in Manhattan, Takhar said.

Earl officials said they had not yet finalized the budget for the campaign.

Earl has hired the New York ad agency Lipman, which in the past handled fashion brands including Burberry and David Yurman, to create the campaign.

In a Tuesday morning interview at his office in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, David Lipman, creative director of the agency, described the new ads as conveying an aesthetic of "rock ’n’ roll meets artistry."

The black-and-white ads, shot by Patrick Demarchelier, feature male and female models. The female is intended to be an artist and the male, a rock musician. Lipman said he chose him because of his strong resemblance to late grunge icon Kurt Cobain.

Lipman said he regarded the assignment as developing "the whole visual DNA" for the Earl brand. Takhar said the eventual goal is not just to reach core Earl customers, but also to create a group of "aspirational" customers.

"The aspirational consumer is one of our largest target audiences going forward," said Takhar. "They know the name, they understand who we are and they are just looking for us to lead them to the brand."Lipman said turning the Earl brand into a well-recognized one will take about two years.

"Accessibility is the most important thing," in a brand’s image he said. But, he added, "you can’t start with the premise of accessibility. You have to start with the premise of being cool and then build on it."

Lipman said he plans to stick with the two characters introduced in the initial print ads through subsequent campaigns to give consumers a sense of familiarity.

Last month, Earl moved from its hometown of Los Angeles to offices on West 19th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea section. That resulted in a near total turnover in the brand’s staff of 25, though a handful of employees, including designer and creative director Suzanne Costas-Freiwald and Takhar, are making the move.

Takhar said that late this month, Mona Tilley, brand manager at Burberry, will join Earl as vice president of marketing. In January, Kristi Bruwer, formerly of Donna Karan, was named vice president of sales. Each reports to Takhar.

Another step Takhar plans for the brand include licensing out footwear, accessories and swimwear over the next 12 to 18 months.

The biggest internal change she’s planning is to launch an Earl line of nondenim sportswear, at a higher price point than the brand currently occupies — its jeans currently wholesale for around $70.

"Moving forward with the launch of a more contemporary line, Earl Jean’s price points will be lowered," she said, though she declined to say by how much or when.

She also has slimmed down Earl’s current jeans offering. For fall, the brand is selling six fits of jeans, including its original 55 low-rise fit, which had been dropped from the line about 2 1/2 years ago.

Takhar said it makes sense to keep the number of styles limited because it allows the company to offer each style in a wider array of washes and colors, which caters to repeat customers.

"When the consumer finds the perfect jeans, she wants to stick with them," she said, adding that a shopper who is pleased with the fit of a style of jeans may buy several pairs in different washes.Earl rose to prominence during the jeans boom of the late Nineties, when American shoppers sought ever-lower rises for jeans with ever-higher price tags. But over the past year, demand has eased and companies have started to beef up their offering of nondenim fabrics. Takhar said Earl is handling the cooling demand for denim by offering more pants in nondenim fabrics, but using the same kinds of washing and finishing treatments to maintain a jeanswear feel.

Next month, Earl plans to open its fifth company-owned store, in London, with a new decor that it will eventually apply to its existing stores.

Takhar declined to provide Earl’s current revenues. In the fiscal year ended March 2, 2002, Nautica Enterprises’ wholesale volume — primarily generated by the flagship brand but also including Earl Jean and John Varvatos — came to $516.5 million.

Takhar said Earl Jean products are sold in 600 doors throughout the U.S. and 28 other countries. Earl’s key foreign markets are Japan, the U.K., Germany and France.

Her goal is not to broaden distribution, but to do greater volume through its current accounts. But, she acknowledged, that will largely depend on the success of the ads, adding: "It all comes down to consumer awareness."

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