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Denim Dish: Denim Goes Underground … Gap Gets Body Specific

Denim sample sales go underground.

College coeds and others shop the Underground Denim sample sale.

College coeds and others shop the Underground Denim sample sale.

Donato Sardella

Denim Goes Underground
A church basement in Los Angeles’ upscale Westwood neighborhood isn’t typically considered swanky retail digs. But for two days, such a space was transformed into a premium denim hub, teaming with UCLA coeds and young mothers sifting through racks of jeans by True Religion, Antik, Joe’s Jeans and Chip & Pepper.

The real attraction, however, wasn’t the jeans, but the prices — $79 a pair, or about half the cost of jeans at typical boutiques and better department stores, and $60 for skirts.

The catch is that Underground Denim sample sales offer product that is typically a season or two old, but that’s still OK with the deal-hungry college crowd.

“This is a great shopping opportunity for college students,” said UCLA freshman Crystal Ung, 18, who was toting a pair of Joe’s and a True Religion miniskirt to the dressing room. “I usually shop at Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom and am a sucker for $150 jeans. But this helps the budget go a bit further.”

For the past four years, sample sales have turned into a shopping must for fashion fans, who sign up for e-mail alerts from sample sale companies such as Billion Dollar Babes and Top Button. But Underground Denim, targeting younger shoppers, is also gaining steam.

Based in Culver City, Calif., Underground Denim was started two years ago by friends Jordan Rosen and Jamie Mazur. The Los Angeles natives attended Beverly Hills High School, where they secured connections with relatives of Peter Koral, co-owner of Seven For All Mankind jeans, and Paul Guez, founder of Blue Concepts, maker of Yanuk and Antik denim. Their idea for a college denim outlet was born when Rosen moved in with his friend, who happened to be Koral’s niece, and bought 20 pairs of Seven jeans and sold them to friends.

“We figured this is a great way for brands to connect with the college market,” said Mazur, a former marketing director for a financial services firm. “And it’s a no-brainer when I tell them I can sell the lines to college girls rather than have them sell the goods to Loehmann’s.”

Their first test at UCLA two years ago with Yanuk jeans given to them on consignment was a success, he said. Through persistence and cold calls to other lines, they’ve established relationships to buy their wares from manufacturers as well as jobbers. In the process, they’ve grown to an 8,000-square-foot warehouse, stocking more than 20,000 units of denim, T-shirts, skirts and other contemporary wares representing about 20 brands, including Serfontaine, Primp, Tiffany Alana, J & Company and Juicy Couture. The tour hits 35 colleges in 35 states twice a year, including stops at the University of Mississippi, the University of Kansas, the University of Indiana, Louisiana State University, Vanderbilt University, Arizona State University and Loyola Marymount University. Ivy League schools are next on the target list. Sales at the company hit $3 million in 2004 and are projected to generate $5 million this year.

To prepare for the two-day sales, Mazur said the duo has to find a site either on campus or adjacent to it, such as a place of worship or hotel ballroom, but close enough so most shoppers can walk to it. The setup is a no-frills atmosphere where racks of denim jeans are arranged by size, along with denim skirts and sweats. T-shirts also are displayed on tables. Portable mirrors surround an open dressing area, blocked off from the sale.

Their marketing strategy is instrumental to the events’ popularity. They’ve connected to their customers through the schools’ Greek systems, visiting sororities during their Monday night dinner meetings that welcome visitors’ pitches. As a result, they’ve amassed a student base of 150,000 women. Along with e-mail blasts, they visit schools three days prior, handing out 5,000 flyers that promote the sale, but not the brands, Mazur said.

That’s the positive side of their enterprise. The challenge is a formula that isn’t fail-safe. They haven’t figured out why sales soar at the University of Texas while Texas A&M events fizzle. It’s tough decision-making since soft sales are hard to swallow with the fixed costs of shipping, travel and labor.

“There’s no real method to this,” Mazur said.

Underground Denim is also at the mercy of brands that may or may not have product when needed. For instance, the UCLA event didn’t offer Seven, but has in the past. It also has to stage events in towns in which the brands’ retailers won’t be alienated.

Serfontaine owner Mik Serfontaine said the idea is a helpful way to move dead stock.

“Everybody is stuck with something, from overcuts to bounced boxes, so we think it’s a fantastic idea,” he said. “It gets our jeans on girls who may not know the brand or it may drive her to the store to see more of the brand.”

Higher-end boutiques cast a cautious eye toward the events, but believe their customers looking for up-to-the-minute designs will stay loyal.

“I’m aware of it and I hear a buzz, but for now, it’s not affecting my business,” said Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition in West Los Angeles, which generates strong online sales from UCLA students.
— Nola Sarkisian-Miller

Gap Gets Body Specific
Gap is embracing its curves — or lack thereof.

For fall, Gap will add two denim fits: Curvy and Straight. The categories join the Original classification, home to the brand’s basic five-pocket model.

“The Original is Gap, tried and true,” said Julie Vaughan, senior director of women’s denim design. “It’s a very democratic fit. Now we’re getting more specific to body type. We’re taking our fit assortment a step further.”

The Curvy fit was designed for women “with a smaller waist, but a little more curve on her tush and hips,” Vaughan said. There is a deeper curve in the seam shape, eliminating excess fabric in the seat. The sides of the hips were opened slightly so that women with wider hips, but a smaller seat, are still flattered by the cut.

The Straight fit was designed for a woman, “with a bit more of a boyish figure,” Vaughan said. “Her hips and waist are probably similar measurements.” To create this look, the hook shape (the curve into the crotch at the back seam) was shortened, the hips straightened and the thigh made narrower to meet with the leaner hip.

“Women shop for jeans like they shop for swimwear,” Vaughan said. “Every girl has her issue with her body. We really wanted to create jeans based on body type. We were reacting to customer feedback. We found that women weren’t finding jeans they thought were flattering.”

Vaughan said pocket placement also has a lot to do with the new fits.

“Everyone wants their rear to look good,” she said. “The pockets on the Curvy styles are a little higher and closer to the center seam to drive your eye toward the center.”

Consumers have choices within the Curvy, Straight and Original classifications. The low-rise boot-cut, regular boot-cut and low-rise flare are available in Curvy. The boot-cut and a fashion style, the Carpenter, are available in Straight. The boot-cut, flare, long and lean, low-rise boot-cut, boy-cut and low-rise flare are available in Original. Jeans at the Gap retail for $49.50 to $58. Curvy and Straight styles will hit Gap stores in the beginning of August.
— Lauren DeCarlo