Buckle Up

Particularly in tough times, shoppers love a freebie.

Jeans that come with belts, as well as self-belted styles in which a belt-like feature is built into the waistband, have been a key part of denim assortments for much of the past year. Retailers and consumers have been snapping them up, and vendors, while grousing about the logistical difficulties, said they see the trend carrying through spring and possibly into fall.

"We’re already starting to book some fall and belts are right in there again," said George Fontini, a partner in junior jeans resource Mudd Inc., based in New York. "From the initial orders, it’s about 30 percent, but at times it gets even higher than that."

At a time when denim for jeans is starting to fade after several strong years, Fontini said belts have proven to be a stimulant. After getting an early read on holiday sales, he said, "we started belting jeans that weren’t even supposed to be belted and sales picked up."

David Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of Maran Inc., the Manhattan company that produces Squeeze New York, said of the belt trend, "not only do we see it continuing into fall, but it is gaining momentum."

He said there was one reason that was happening: "When we started with this trend, we bought some cheaper belts. But now, the belt has to be unique and the belt prices have gone up considerably."

Last year, the company had been spending an average of 70 cents to $1.25 for the belts it puts on its jeans. For the upcoming fall season, Squeeze will be paying up to $2.50 for belts made of suede, with stone and bead details, as well as chain belts.

"Every garment…for fall, including skirts, all are belted," Greenberg added.

Many vendors said that hippie-inspired belts, such as tied scarves and styles with dangling, beaded fringe, have dropped off the fashion radar. But Squeeze’s Greenberg contended that, if the quality is right and the look is unique, tied and dangle belts will still sell.In their place, Eighties-driven styles, with military or punk-inspired hardware, have come on strong. Vendors expect leather belts with metal grommets, and leather and suede trim details on the waistbands of jeans, to remain strong for fall.

"We’re going for more of a semi-military looking kind of web belt with studs on it," said Lisa Engelman, president of sales at the Los Angeles junior resource Paris Blues. "One is a little punky. We’re working with the whole Eighties thing."

While the trend seems to be helping sales, Engelman and some of her competitors said they aren’t terribly happy with it.

"It’s basically a gift-with-purchase. We’ve been forced to sell jeans at basically the same price and added a $1 to $1.35 belt to them," she said. "We’ve added nothing to the retail price and belts were something that we could have gotten more money for."

Adding to her frustration about the belts, she said, is that, "I’m hearing from a lot of mothers that the younger customers, the 10-, 11- and 13-year-olds, wear it once and take it off and never put it on again. Once they’ve worn it, they’re over it."

Mudd’s Fontini said putting a belt on jeans increases "hanger appeal," making the product more likely to catch a consumer’s eye in the store.

"We’ve also hung underwear off our hip huggers," to accomplish the same end, he said. "We’ve given away thong underwear. It was a gimmick and the jeans did great."

Some vendors, however, believe the trend is coming to an end.

"Through spring it’s still strong, but we’re not planning it up for next back-to-school," said Carl Eckhaus, president of So Sweet LLC, the New York company that sells Angels Jeans. "How long can a trend last in junior?"

Eckhaus said he expects the junior market to shift toward more basic products for fall: "The heavy emphasis has been on fashion over the last two years in junior, but now some cleaned-up product is making its way back in and getting good selling."That, he said, is allowing for sharper price points. At a time when some retailers have been looking for higher-priced offerings from moderate junior jeans vendors — vendors have reported requests for $32.99 jeans, up from the old top retail price of $29.99 in the category — Eckhaus said his line is lowering its starting retail price point to $24 or about $11.50 wholesale.

Despite the trend’s success, vendors said they won’t shed any tears when it comes to an end.

"I’d rather they just go away," said Fontini of belts. "It’s so much easier shipping jeans without belts. This way, I have to carry a double inventory."

Still, as long as belts continue to sell jeans, vendors acknowledged they’d keep running with the trend. Fontini said Mudd would continue shipping jeans with belts "until they stop buying."

— Scott Malone

A Valley of Jeans

By the end of a bustling fashion week, people might be ready to put away their front-row looks and relax in a nice pair of jeans.

Alvin Valley has them in mind. Following the recent success of his designer sportswear line, Valley is launching a denim label — Valley Jeans.

"This collection is a direct response to the many requests from customers that have been obsessed over my collection, especially the cut of my trousers," he said. "I see this collection as an extension to what I already do with my core collection."

Valley said the Valley Jeans line was inspired by hip California styling mixed with New York sophistication. The line, which launched exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue late last month, includes denim jeans, jackets and skirts. Named after the signs of the horoscope, each style reflects characteristics of that sign. For example, Scorpios are often labeled as sensual, therefore the Scorpio jeans will fit tighter in order to accentuate a woman’s curves more than the other styles. Items wholesale from $66 to $79. Valley said that it was important for him to set the jeans line at a slightly lower price range than the pants available on the Alvin Valley sportswear line."The fact that price points are different, I am happy to know that a new and wider audience will discover what others have known for a few years," he said.

The Alvin Valley sportswear line is sold in such high-end specialty retailers as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Kirna Zabête as well as in Saks.

Valley said he expects $6 million in sales this year for the new line.

— Julee Greenberg

Arnot Exits Isaacs

Less than a year after François Girbaud, through investment vehicles, became the largest investor in his U.S. licensee I.C. Isaacs & Co. Inc., one of the designer’s financial advisers has assumed the chairmanship of the firm.

Steffan Ahrenberg was elected chairman of Isaacs on Saturday, following Bob Arnot’s resignation from that post, according to a statement issued by the company. Today, Arnot will give up his posts as president and chief executive officer, as well as his seat on the board. He will continue to serve the company as a consultant through May 2 and will receive severance through Dec. 15.

François Girbaud and Marithé Bachellerie, who design the François and Marithé Girbaud line, together through an investment vehicle called Wurzburg Holding SA own a 42.2 percent stake in Isaacs.

Arnot, 54, declined to comment on plans after leaving Isaacs, where he has worked since 1989, but said, "I think the potential for the Girbaud brand is still largely to be realized."

Arnot was elected to the company’s board in 1984, and his first staff position was as vice president of planning and corporate development. He was named chairman in 1991 and became ceo in 1996.

Ahrenberg was named to the Isaacs board in May, after the designer acquired more than 35 percent of the company. While he could not be reached for comment Monday, in an interview last summer Ahrenberg said his goal was "to really restructure the Girbaud business to be a real business."

For the nine months ended Sept. 30, Isaacs reported $1.4 million in net income on sales of $53.5 million.

Olivier Bachellerie, Marithé’s son, has also been given a seat on the Isaacs board since the designing duo acquired their larger stake in Isaacs.— S. M.

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