Denim Dish: Peek-a-boo with François

François Girbaud plays peek-a-boo.

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Marithé & François Girbaud is launching the Peek-a-boo style of jeans as its core offering, for fall.

As part of his continuing effort to revamp his U.S. business since acquiring a dominant stake in licensee I.C. Isaacs & Co., François Girbaud is taking a step few observers might expect from the designer known for his quirky ideas: He’s launching a line of basic jeans.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Company officials aren’t entirely comfortable with the label.

“‘Basic’ isn’t a word I’d connect with us, but core and key items are important to every business,” said Sandra Finkelstein, senior vice president of design and merchandising at I.C. Isaacs & Co., which produces the Marithé & François Girbaud jeans label in the U.S.

Girbaud himself was willing to use the word in an interview at the company’s Manhattan offices last week, but even he had to offer a qualifier. He described the look as “basic with our vision. We don’t want to compete with Rustler or some kind of Wal-Mart stuff.”

For fall, the company is launching a style of five-pocket women’s jeans intended to go head-to-head with other brands in the contemporary market. The slim-fitting, straight-legged style, called Peek-a-boo, wholesales for about $58 and has a few unusual features, including cuffs that are about an inch lower in the rear than in the front and vertical rear pockets sitting over seams where offset pockets would have been.

“The market is being driven by five-pocket jeans and we recognize the need to have that,” said Finkelstein, who joined the company in March after a stint at Warnaco Inc.’s Calvin Klein Jeans unit.

Earlier in her career, she worked with Girbaud when his name was licensed to VF Corp. and the designer said he’d followed her career since then. After naming his longtime business adviser, Steffan Ahrenberg, chairman in February, Girbaud noted Finkelstein’s was the first name that came to mind when the company looked for a head of merchandise.

“She knew about this market; that is something people were missing here,” he said. “If we are going to be trendsetters, I need someone to translate.”

Since taking a 42.2 percent stake in the company last year through investment vehicles, Girbaud has complained loudly about the low sales of his brand in the U.S. Those complaints led to the exit of former Isaacs chairman Robert Arnot, who resigned to make room for Ahrenberg.

I.C. Isaacs reported a net loss last year of $5 million on sales of $65.8 million, and sales slid another 18.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. Sales of baggy men’s styles in recent years have typically outpaced the women’s business, a trend that Girbaud blamed on a limited range of styles.

“I hear we don’t have any core business? This is the most ridiculous stuff I’ve ever heard,” he said.

The company’s aim is for the new core styles to grow to represent about half the company’s women’s business, said Finkelstein. She noted that adding the core line is valuable “so we don’t burn through great fashion styles.”

Girbaud said the move toward more saleable clothes is part of his effort to turn his U.S. operation into a more lucrative business.

“I feel like the stupide of the village,” he said. “People tell me, ‘You have such good ideas and I make a lot of money off your ideas.’”

Finkelstein said she believes Girbaud’s designs should be well received by American consumers, given the right pitch.

“It’s positioning and marketing,” she said.

Girbaud also lamented that the company’s new store on Wooster Street in Manhattan’s SoHo district, which features a 20-foot-high wall of plants, hasn’t lived up to his initial sales hopes since opening last month. He said early summer markdowns by other retailers were to blame.

“Now, everybody’s on sale,” he said. “It’s too early.”

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